I keep hearing it over and over as I go to coffeehouses -- "the light is incredible in here," "I love this place because it's so bright." Is everybody in San Francisco living in a dungeon? I decide to check out some local coffeehouses and see what's up with the light.
Caffe Malvina, 1600 Stockton Street, North Beach
We're talking the new, improved Malvina's here. Same old coffee, just a new location at the corner of Stockton and Union since 1987. This place is big, and it feels spacious. Like you could waltz around the tables. Reminds me of a cafe in Paris or Vienna. The large plate glass windows face south and west. The sun pours in. Above these windows are a row of Moorish-inspired windows which let in even more light. There are fifteen tables scattered about, most of which seat four.
The afternoon light is particularly good at Malvina. Must be the western exposure. The whole place is bright, especially the tables near the window. The service counter is in the back so it doesn't take up space in the brightest part of the room. Good call. Nice high ceilings in here, and some delicate brass candelabra are suspended way above my head. A photo of the founder, Malvina, hard at work, hangs on one wall. The picture looks old. I wonder if she ever got to see the new place. I have to think she would have liked it.
The Steps of Rome, 348 Columbus Avenue, North Beach
This place always has a lot of tables outside. The front of the cafe faces west and gets great afternoon sunlight. Even on a cool San Francisco afternoon, this place feels warm. Sunlight will do that. Lots of tables are scattered about inside. There are large black and white photos along one wall of some very sexy women. I'm in my running clothes. I feel pretty inferior next to these vixens. The waitstaff tells me this is not a rotating exhibit, these photos are there all the time. I might sit on the other side of the room next time.
The large windows which run along the front of the cafe are really sliding glass doors. The tables along the window get the best light. The music is eurocool and loud. The waitstaff is dancing behind the counter. A guy at one table wears his wraparound sunglasses on his forehead. I had heard this place was the spot for the eurohip crowd, and it looks like it to me.
I order a cup of house coffee and get an Americano -- a shot of espresso with hot water. Kind of a quick brew. The young guys behind the counter look very Italian and, yes, cool. I ask how much I owe. "A dollar thirty," one of them replies in heavily-accented English. I give him two bucks and extend my palm for the change. He turns my hand over and kisses it, then turns it back around and places seventy cents in my palm. Who needs sunlight with service like this?
Cafe de la Presse, 352 Grant Avenue, Union Square
I've moved from Italy to France. Everyone here speaks French or in some cases another foreign language. There are five outdoor tables with the now-familiar plastic garden chairs. Yep, they had them at Steps of Rome, too. Except here they're blue, not white. Nice touch. There are large windows facing west and, once again, they're sliding glass doors. Is this a trend? Some of them are open. There is excellent light in the front of the cafe, and I guess the windows on the north side of the cafe also help to brighten up the place. Cafe de la Presse is a cafe/newsstand, as the name suggests. Newspapers and magazines from around the world. Monegasque royalty is smiling at me from many covers. They're so tan. Hey, they live in Monaco! We're in San Francisco. You can't have everything, you know, even in this town.
I'm lucky enough to snag a table next to the open window. A light breeze comes in, messing up my hair. I notice the tables outside turn over quickly. A succession of men who smell really, really good. French, I'd say. The sun warms my face. I start to daydream...I'm in Monaco. The Riviera. Heaven.
Le Petit Cafe, 2164 Larkin Street, Russian Hill
It's not that there's that much light in this cafe, it's the quality of the light. How it works in this particular space. There is a medium-sized window facing west, along the front of the cafe. Above it is a row of windows which nearly touch the high ceiling. A large, leafy tree stands outside the cafe. The afternoon sunlight pours through the front window and lands on my wooden table. I feel like I'm in an Impressionist painting. Van Gogh in Aix-en-Provence painting me.
There is a lot of wood in this place. The tables, chairs, counter, along the bottom half of the walls. A wooden floor. There are wooden bookcases along the walls. Classical music is playing. The front door is open, letting in a nice breeze. Quite a few tables in a smallish space, yet it doesn't feel crowded. There's a nice city view out the front window, out toward Pacific Heights and the Presidio. I get the impression that nothing really exciting or unusual is going to happen here. But that's okay. You can think here. And notice things. Like the light.
The Orbit Room Cafe, 1900 Market Street, Upper Market
Now this place has great light. It's where the Old Uncle Gaylord's ice cream parlor used to be. I never once went into Gaylord's because it always seemed...hokey, just not right. Maybe it was the name. Now the decor is art deco meets postmodern. Except the tables look like they came out of the Flintstones. Big, hulking stone things, albeit nicely cone-shaped. The tables called to me somehow, so I decided to sit at one. Tried to, at least. I set my sandwich and tall glass of coffee down at my table, and when I went to sit down my knees bumped the table and spilled the coffee. I had a couple of napkins with me so I quickly wiped up the mess. When I went to sit down again, I did the same thing. Out of napkins, I tiptoed over to the counter and grabbed some more. I then wiped up my even bigger new mess. Okay. Then...guess what? I did it again. No joke. At this point, I studied the table to see what the heck was going on. I'm usually not this klutzy. Is this a trick table? Am I on Candid Camera? Sure felt like it. Well, since Allen Funt didn't appear, I concluded it was in fact the table. This lovely conical table is a large round disc on top and gradually narrows to a point at the bottom. If you sit too close, your legs bump the table. If you try to avoid that, you're too far from the table and can't resist the temptation to get closer. So you do, and you spill your coffee. These tables might have worked better at Uncle Gaylord's, because you don't need to be close to the table to eat an ice cream cone. So...you either sit at these tables with your legs spread apart , which I now notice is what everyone else is doing, or you could always stand. Some of the cones are chest-high and have stools cluttered around them. Play it safe. Stand.
The staff tells me a lot of remodeling was done on the building once Gaylord's left. They made the windows bigger and now they're huge, floor to ceiling, facing south and east. Which makes for excellent morning light. The walls are painted gold. Not yellow, but gold. Rich. The hammered metal ceiling, which seems like it's a mile up, is very deco, as are the hanging light fixtures and wall sconces. A semicircular bar is in the middle of the room. Something which looks like Sputnik is hanging over the front counter. You can't miss it. What is is, though? I guess it's just supposed to fit, and it does. It's the Orbit Room, after all.
Blue Danube Coffee House, 306 Clement Street, Richmond District
Is this what an oxymoron is? I'm doing a piece on light in coffeehouses and I go to the Avenues. In San Francisco there is an imaginary line, a curtain of sorts, that runs down Arguello Blvd. This is the fog line. To the west it's foggy, howling winds, cold. To the east...hey, you might get some sun, certainly between noon and four, and on a good day maybe all day. So if you're in the Avenues -- Richmond, Sunset -- you'd better be ready for fog. I found the Blue Danube a long time ago and quickly learned to come prepared. Leather jacket at a minimum, scarf and gloves if I planned to sit outside. Then it was an okay place. I felt like I was really in San Francisco. Now I know why Mark Twain thought the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
Not the best light in here, but it's still a warm place. Brightly painted walls, small, colorful tables, interesting wall art. The neon clock looks like it's wedged into a go-kart. Good coffee, a tad strong but still flavorful. There's a jar of Oreo cookies on the counter. And the sweets...brownies from I Love Chocolate. Pies from Mary's. I try the cherry nectarine pie one afternoon. It's worth sitting in a fog bank for. The orange chunks of nectarine brighten up my day.
There is a large accordion window in the front of the cafe which faces south. If this was Potrero Hill, the Mission, North Beach...nirvana. But we're in the Avenues. I'm sitting right next to the window. It's shut. My leather jacket is next to me. The outside tables are empty. It's three in the afternoon. I was here once when it was sunny. The accordion window was open, I ate a brownie, sipped an iced latte and loved life. A special moment at the Blue Danube.
© 1995 Elaine Sosa
Note: Le Petit Cafe is no longer open.