It's always intrigued me how coffeehouses seem to have their own unique personalities. They can be friendly, contemplative, gregarious, sophisticated. And as comfortable as an old shoe. My favorite kind. Wanting to explore the subject further, I call a couple of friends, Nancy and Marty, and suggest a bike ride to a handful of coffeehouses in order to soak up the atmosphere. Or do I really want to soak up the sun? It is an awfully nice and sunny Sunday afternoon. No matter, they're game, so we load up on the SPF 15 and head out on our bikes.

Cafe La Boheme, 3318 24th Street, Mission

I've been to this cafe many times over the years and feel like I know every table, chair and couch in the place. There are a number of large wooden tables scattered about the spacious room. Sturdy chairs of every size and description surround the tables. Marty spots the overstuffed couch along one wall and stakes a claim to it. We place our orders and wait patiently, as the waitstaff is taking its time. I order a bagel with cream cheese along with my latte. There is enough cream cheese to feed four. Nancy orders, and gets, a very large piece of chocolate cake.

As we take a seat on our couch, I notice that most of the tables are occupied by men. It's also quieter than usual here. Even the Rolling Stones are sounding low-key. "I think this is day-old cake," Nancy comments. She continues to sample it cautiously. The artwork on the walls is intense. Screaming colors, bulging eyes. Picasso on LSD. "So what do we think this means?" Nancy wonders out loud. Me, I'm almost afraid to look. I'm also in love with my bagel. Marty digs into his lasagna without a word.

Nancy walks across the room and studies another piece of artwork tacked onto the wall. Scrawled in large letters across the center of the piece is "White boy goes to art school, Part One." She comes back and tells us it's titled "Diary of a Stuck-up Rich Kid" and it's on sale for a hundred bucks. I tell her she should own it. She seems to consider this as she continues to nibble on her cake. A fellow is making a speech to anyone who will listen at the BART station across the street, but we can't hear him. La Boheme is an oasis of calm in the heart of the Mission district. "The tourists aren't going to come in here, that's for sure" Marty notes. Nancy agrees and adds "I'd come back here." As long as we can sit on the couch.

Farley's, 1315 18th Street, Potrero Hill

"The artwork is much better here," Nancy remarks. My sentiments exactly. Soothing watercolors. I have a cup of the house coffee. Nancy goes for the o.j. Marty and I tease her about eating the entire piece of "stale" chocolate cake at Boheme. "Well...I knew we weren't going to be eating anything at the Horseshoe. I mean, if it's anything like the Coffee Zone, I wouldn't even put a fork in my mouth there." I guess our Coffee Zone experience has not been forgotten. Farley's, however, looks safe. I go back for a blackbottom cupcake and split it three ways. It's fresh. It disappears in the blink of an eye. "There are a lot of men here by themselves as well," Nancy comments.

As Marty and Nancy ease into a conversation about their respective hi-tech jobs, I study our surroundings. The front door at Farley's has an outline of a man. It reminds me of those outlines that the police make at crime scenes to mark the body of the victim. In this case, I figure it's probably Farley himself. The cafe is a bright and comfortable place. Small gray rectangular tables fill the room. They look metallic but feel like plastic. Determined to solve this mystery, I ask the fellow next to me, who is wearing painters' overalls. "It looks like...formica?" he guesses. "Sort of a faux formica," I reply. "Faux-mica!" he exclaims. We both laugh. There are a stack of games on a shelf behind us. Chess and checkers. Yahtzee. Barbie Dream Date. I guess that one is for the junior java set. A well-stocked newsstand is at the far corner of the cafe, a nice touch.

It's very quiet in Farley's as well. Is this a trend? A steady stream of people come and go, and they seem to be minding their own business. Purposeful. Low-key. Nancy approves. "I mean, I could play games here, the light's great, big windows. Yep." Marty agrees. "I like the blues music. And, hey, you can even sit outside."

As we get ready to leave, I notice a small stuffed animal on a table behind us. It looks like Mary's little lamb. Sort of. I prod Nancy to investigate. No go. I pop into the restroom before we leave and, as luck would have it, I bump into the occupant of the "animal" table on my way in. I ask him about his furry friend. "Is it yours?" I inquire. "No!" he says defensively. "It was there when I got there. And I think it's battery-operated. I'm not touching it!"

I get back to our table and collect my things. On the way out, I notice the stuffed animal has been moved. I give my new friend a knowing glance and he confesses. "Okay, I checked it out." He flips it over and turns a switch to the "on" position. He gently places the animal back on its feet and we watch the little pig take a few steps and then wiggle its snout. Another cha-cha-cha and oink-oink-oink. Cute. At Farley's, it works.

Horseshoe, 566 Haight Street, Lower Haight

"I think the appropriate theme for today is body piercing," Marty remarks. I guess he has spotted a trend of his own. We're at the Horseshoe, a grunge coffeehouse if there ever was one. We've been talking about this place since our ill-fated visit to the Coffee Zone, a sister cafe further up Haight Street. Time to stop talking and check it out for ourselves.

The two gals behind the counter are definitely into body piercing. Lots of it. I find that I don't know where to look because I don't want them to think I'm staring at them. It's an impossible task, so I give up and order a depth charge, a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso in it. I think I'm going to need it here. Marty orders the house coffee and Nancy has iced tea. The Horseshoe looks safe enough. Small wooden tables have been placed along the walls of this rectangular space. It looks like there were originally two rooms, and a large opening was made between the two for access. A long service counter is in the center of the rectangle. What could be the world's largest bulletin board runs the entire length of one wall. It's nearly full. The menu board is painted in psychedelic colors. There are plants in both rooms, and they look good, even though there's not much light. A gumball machine is near the front door. It is chained to the wall. The cafe is energetic, in a surprisingly pleasant way.

We take our drinks to a spot near the front of the cafe. It's an outdoor space that was cut out from what used to be the inside of the cafe. Hard to explain, but I know I'm outside because everyone is smoking. We wedge our bodies into a small space in one corner. I look up and realize we are sitting in Wonderland. There is a large mural of Alice in Wonderland across from us. Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the whole gang. In technicolor. They're having a tea party, although I bet they're drinking coffee. I notice their cups have little horseshoes on them. I tell no one in particular that I can't remember the rabbit's name. A fellow in electric-blue hair reminds me that his name was simply the white rabbit. He seems amused that I didn't know. I mention to Nancy that we seem to be in a smoking alcove of sorts. "It's a smoking aquarium" the fellow seated across from us pipes up. We look puzzled. "You see, you can be inside the cafe and look through the glass at the smokers," he explains. Fair enough. Our new aquatic friend is making jewelry out of tiny steel rings. He models some pieces for Nancy. Bracelets, earrings. Alas, Nancy doesn't have pierced ears. "You're the only adult woman I've met who doesn't have pierced ears," he notes. I ask him his name. "Gremlin," he replies. "As in the car?" I ask. "No...the movie." Oh. Since we're on to movies, I tell him my name is Elaine, like the character in "The Graduate". It doesn't register. I change the subject.

A tall guy walks through the aquarium. He has a black buzz cut. There are two small patches dyed yellow on the top of his head. "Did you notice the horns?" Nancy whispers to me. He's a devil. A benign devil. Everyone in the aquarium is nice as can be. Even the smoke seems tolerable. The coffee is lousy, but it doesn't matter. The ambience is...natch.

Tart to Tart, 641 Irving Street, Sunset

This place looks...sterile. I remind myself that my frame of reference is probably the Horseshoe, and that isn't fair to Tart to Tart. The cafe is a long rectangle. It's all white inside, except for a green panel which runs the length of one wall. There are picture hooks along the panel, so I assume it's where they hang rotating artwork. When they hang it. None there on this particular day. The counter is in the front of the cafe and Marty objects. "It's like sitting in a hallway." We decide to grab one of the two tables outside.

I order a piece of apple tart. Marty opts for the cheesecake, and Nancy decides to watch. My tart is dry. Not what I was looking for. "Tarts are supposed to be dry," Nancy says. "Unless they're fruit tarts with a cream filling. It's not apple pie, you know." I let Nancy finish my tart.

We compare notes on the various coffeehouses. Horseshoe wins, hands down. We all look surprised. Pleasantly surprised.

© 1995 Elaine Sosa

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