Checking Out the Rockridge Coffee House Culture

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I don't drink coffee. Hardly any tea. So I am only an observer of the vibrant coffee shop scene that is so much a part of Rockridge.

But it's hard not to appreciate that each has its own following, seemingly based on its location, coffee roast and vibe - not necessarily in that order.

I counted up eight independent coffee houses along the mile-plus span of College Avenue within the Rockridge boundaries: Bica Coffeehouse; Bittersweet; A Chocolate Café; Cole Coffee & Café; College Point Café; Highwire Coffee Roasters; Hudson Bay Café; Old Brooklyn Bagels and Deli (where I take home bagels on Sunday); and Spasso Coffeehouse.

Elizabeth Falkner, who describes herself as "a neighborhood girl," has imbibed in many of them.

She casts no judgments, but, according to her analysis, "Hudson Bay is the dark-roast old school coffee house. Highwire is kind of more like a new wave - a medium roast. Bica buys a lot of local roasters and is really into teas. Spasso has space in the back for Wi-Fi, and Bittersweet may be more of a chocolate place but their mocha espresso is so creamy and rich."

Darrell Katz, a Rockridge resident who I graduated from high school with back in Detroit, can be found at a corner outdoor table at Cole Coffee several afternoons a week. A retired mathematics professor, he reads and does crossword puzzles, coffee and confection in hand. Sometimes, he talks with other regulars with whom he's on a first name basis: Chris, Steve, David and Peter.

Katz introduced me to Chris, last name Diebenkorn, who I would describe as more of a mainstay than a regular. "I've been coming here for at least 20 years," he tells me. "I come a couple of times a day to read and write about my dreams."

A retired computer programmer, he drives from his home in the Berkeley Hills because, in his opinion, "the coffee's the best. They brew each cup individually. The atmosphere is working class."

He doesn't think the chatter "is much different from what people talk about when they get together anywhere," Diebenkorn says. "It's sometimes politics, sometimes gripes."

Ben Kreith also bypasses other coffee shops on his way from his home in the Elmwood area of Berkeley to sip at Cole's "three or four times a week." He likes the view of the Oakland Hills, the friendly servers and clientele, and it's close to all those very useful shops.

John Provencher, a Rockridge resident, was presiding over the coffee bar at Spasso when I visited. He describes their clientele as "a lot of tech guys, people just relaxing and working, folks who come in with their laptops."

At Hudson Bay, a man in a wheelchair was pulled up to an outside table. Also, choosing to sit in the sun, were two young women, one bottle-feeding her baby.

Sitting nearby was Steve Guinn, a former paramedic, and his dog Sophie. Guinn, who goes by the name "Hawk," is a regular and says he bypasses a number of cafés to the south to hang out "at least three times a week. I've tried them all and this is by far the friendliest and has the best coffee." An added bonus, he says, is their grilled cheese sandwich (five cheeses, jalapeño peppers, lettuce and tomato on rye), "the best in the East Bay."

"There's an eclectic crowd here," says Steve, who once ran a homeless shelter. He likes the way the staff handles the occasional panhandler. "They are gentle, compassionate and firm."

Brett Remy, pointed out by the staff as another regular, was sipping an iced coffee and reading. He stops in after his day ends as a high school English teacher until it's time to pick up his kindergartener at North Oakland Community Charter School. "Normally I'm here grading papers."

"I like this area," says the East Oakland resident. "I like the bookstores, the library and the light filtering into the coffee shop through the windows. The coffee is good and the people are nice."

Remy laughs when I admit I don't drink coffee. "It's like sending a non-drinker to review the bars," he says.

Jon Larson was waiting for his sandwich order at College Point Café, a 30-plus-years old coffee house at the south-most end of College. "This is one of a kind," he says. "It reminds me of Europe."

Larson, who works at Jarvis architects next door, says coming to the café is "a good way to get to know the neighborhood. Dave here," he says, pointing out another patron, "has the exercise place behind me."

Local business people mix with California College of the Arts students and "we all get along," says current owner Fred Barzin.

Ethan Connolly-Caflisch is ordering a sandwich, salad and Peet's coffee to take back to the CCA campus where he's a junior. He tells me that I haven't quite covered the independent coffee house scene along College; well, almost on College.

There's also A2, the campus coffee house. It's open to the adult public, according to a college spokeswoman. But you, like me, will have to wait until CCA re-convenes for the fall semester to try it out.

Judy Berne welcomes your comments and column ideas. You can reach her at judyberne@att.net.