There are several local coffee roasters in town. Handlebar is the most recent to join the scene and have become a top pick for locally roasted and lovingly prepared artisan coffee. You know, the new age of cafes with hyper-perfected beverages and latte art.
The roaster and cafe also has a serious cycling vibe. With the name like Handlebar, would you expect anything else? Moustaches, perhaps? There can be both.
I love that the spot shares an outdoor seating area with the sandwich deli next door. Once you start looking, you will see a boundary between the two shops defined by the different tables and chairs, but nobody has ever given me fuss for sitting on the deli side with a cappuccino, or sitting on the cafe side with a sandwich. And what a cappuccino it is!
Is this not a beautiful beverage, worthy of some adoring gazes and happy sighs before sprinkling on a little sugar? My confession is that it’s a decaf cappuccino and the folks at Handlebar didn’t even laugh at me or refuse service because of my request. Yes, I KNOW decaf gets some unapproving looks at many cafes. But whatevs, I’m sensitive to caffeine. My point is that they make beautiful drinks. I was here with some good food friends, we sat outside for an after-lunch coffee, had a proper catch-up, and made plans for the next adventure.
This location has long been a prime spot for the assorted state street café loungers, I certainly was one of them back in my surly goth high school days which was a helluva long time ago. Regardless of the name of the café, or the management, there was always, *always*, an assortment of beatnik folks idly sitting out front, all day, every day. A writer, or independently wealthy, or disenchanted youth? Probably all the above and then there’s the guy sitting next to him.
Again, my long-held bias about all the cafes that resided here in the past held me back from even peering into the pastry case. I’m so glad I finally looked. Exquisite looking lemon tarts ($4 ea), brown butter almond shortbread, perfect little palmiers ($1 ea), stuff I used to buy as small treats in Europe. Most recently I had an apricot puff pastry thingie, and to my delight there was a layer of almond cream filling hidden in there.
Santa Barbara’s coffeehouse scene is definitely improving. There are several other places I happily give business to, and each has its unique perks. Hipster artisanal vibe is at one, locally roasted is at another. Open Cup has a worldly international feel to it to its product while still retaining its rough edges that come with its proximity to de la Guerra plaza and the peanut gallery of gutter punks outside. Turns out, they’re mostly harmless and more concerned about their crossword puzzles than giving me any hassle. You want European coffee and a little pastry that’s so perfect it hurts, and without leaving Santa Barbara? This is the place. And if the owner is around and you want to talk food, he might be down to join the conversation. This is how a good hour of mine disappeared over summer solstice weekend.
We conclude a pleasant afternoon of brunch with friends, a walk through the Museum of Art, running into more friends at the French Press. Amazing what you can do even when it’s pouring rain out, just grab a brolly and a good jacket and you’re good to go. Just warm afterwards.
Our warm up potions were a cafe latte, and a cafe au lait.
The French Press
Coffee Cat is one of those iconic places that locals remain fierce loyalty to, partly because it’s not a corporate fourbucks that’s becoming more and more prevalent downtown, partly because people can sit and work in there for hours upon hours without getting hassled by the staff, and partly because of the semi-dependable free wifi. The cafe is large, with an open floor plan, making it easy for individuals to work, or to clump together spontaneously for group meetups.
Oh yeah, and coffee! Nobody complains about the coffee, it comes from a local fair trade purveyor, Green Star. The coffee’s not for bay area or portland style purists that can whip up some latte art blindfolded, but it’s solidly dependable, and the Cat gang make crepes, too.
Juicy tidbit: they sell plain boiled eggs. A very cheap, fast, and nutritious snack, although I recommend a breath mint afterwards.
Some Fishbon planners and I met up here this morning to discuss an upcoming project, divide up some tasks, and write up some action plans. It was John who ordered the food.
This is a pesto and goat cheese crepe with a side salad. Nicely done, good tasting, John offered a bite as a polite person does, but he did a good job of packing it away.
I once read an MFK Fisher story in the Art of Eating about a young girl who slipped away for a day, later revealing to the author that she’d gone into town and sat at a cafe the entire time, spending her week’s allowance on a four hour meal of Viennese coffee, salami, pickles and pastries while she watched the world go by. Fisher called it dining with yourself, and rather than it being a sorrowful state for lack of company, it’s a moment of unapologetic indulgence. The girl also brought back a nice pastry for her mother. I got a similar vibe when I visited the cafe in Nordstrom, which is located on the top floor of the department store. It had an elegant indoor seating area, and a tiled patio area with a view of the downtown skyline. The atmosphere is casual; nobody dining there seemed to be in a rush. It seemed an ideal meeting spot for friends to catch up over lunch, or for a mother-daughter shopping break. It wasn’t very crowded, and I grabbed a great spot out on the patio.
Not one, not two, but three co-workers went out of their way to tell me in the past couple months how much they like the Cafe Nordstrom. The soup was given high marks. This indicates several possibilities. One, this Cafe is very girlie girl to go to. Two, maybe they have a business women’s lunch special, for business women, Romi and Michelle style. Three, they have good food and good soup!
Ordering is done at the front counter, where you pay and then find a seat. Dishes are staged up at the front counter, but a waiter will bring it out for you. My friend and I shared a French Dip sandwich and a cup of the soup du jour.
The sandwich was great, amply portioned and the jus to dip it in was flavorful without being salty. Sandwiches come with an option of kettle chips or a small salad, and I got the salad with creamy champagne vinaigrette. It cost $10, and we split it and shared. Everything tasted fresh, and was nicely plated. In fact, all the dishes coming out of the kitchen looked good.
The daily soup varies, with no predictable schedule. There’s a tomato and basil soup that’s always on the menu, but the artichoke and parmesan soup one co-worker raved about was nowhere in sight the day I was there, so I had a southwestern style chicken and vegetable soup, topped with one of the nicest crostini I’d ever eaten. Crisp on the outside, soft and chewy inside, I didn’t even think that was possible for crostini. A cup of soup cost $3.50.
To confirm that impulse shopping does work, the Cafe displays its desserts right by the cashier where you order your food, and I got suckered in by a large snickerdoodle. All the cakes and pies are brought in from an LA bakery, but the cookies and bars are baked on site, costing in the $2-3 range. My snickerdoodle was $2, large and delicious – a balance of crisp, sweet and chewy. I’d go back there just to have a cookie and a coffee and indulge in a little time with myself. Maybe I’d bring back a sweet for my mother, too!
Cafe Nordstrom, 3rd floor
The work meetup gang is always looking for new places to have our bi-weekly afternoon work sessions. Er, bi-weekly is in name only, we’re so busy that we end up meeting *maybe* once a month.
It started out with three of us, then became two for nearly a year. Recently it’s expanded, with groups ranging from three to five or six people. While it’s great to have more people involved in the discussions, it does present a problem with finding a spot that a group this size can sit together for several hours, with free wifi.
Lara, who works remotely full time, found Cafe Luna for us. It was the perfect spot. It fit all our criteria above, plus had good parking, wasn’t overly crowded, and had yummy sandwiches.
The wifi worked great. A password is required, and the staff there will type that in for you, and once it’s there, you’re set for future visits. The only downside to working here is that there are only a few electrical points. Not a problem if your lappy has a good battery, but there were a couple of us who needed the extra charge. It all worked out, though.
On this day, it was drizzly and overcast, putting us in the mood for fireside lounging, tea and coffee, hot sandwiches and lots of chattering.
I had the mushroom and roast pepper panino on foccacia, costing about $9, with a choice of bread. It sounded just right for the weather, and it wasn’t only later that I realized I’d ordered a vegetarian dish (and I’m not a vegetarian). It tasted great, I’d get it again, fo sho.
Offsite with the business ladies today. Our first rendezvous was at the French Press. I arrived first and had a lovely cappuccino.
Best espresso in town.
The French Press
This is reputed to be on the site of the oldest coffee shop in England, around 1650 (according to Pepys’ diary), although the Grand Cafe itself isn’t of that era. But that’s close enough for us, and since it’s there, and we’re nearby with time to spare, why not stop in for a coffee.
For its history, the cafe is unassuming enough on the high street. It’s not in a busy foot traffic area. Well, it kind of is, but there aren’t many shops on either side, so most pedestrians seemed more to be passing by, especially the tourists. Perhaps that’s because they. don’t. know. But we had the Dodo Guide to Oxford, which is cool, quirky, and lays out the facts quickly. Thanks for the loaner, Rog!
We had a caffetiere of coffee – that would be a French press to you Yanks – with hot milk and sugar lumps. Sat at the bar, catching up on the news via the Guardian and Independent.
One of the details I really liked about the Grand Cafe was by the door. To make the door gently close, it was counter-weighted with a metal teapot on a chain. When the door open, the tea pot would lift up, then slowly come back down, gently pulling the door closed. Hey, I want something like that.
For spending nearly four years at Kew, I rarely ate at the Orangery, not with the student wages.
Coming back for a holiday is different, because now I’m a tourist. We met up with some old friends who’re still working at the Gardens and Greg treated us to coffees. I got a cappuccino.
Somewhere along the line the interior of the Orangey got an Ikea makeover, but in the process the espresso drinks got a lot prettier. Tasted fine as well, which is the main thing.
Fortified with caffeine and a catch-up with friends, we spent the rest of the day wandering the Gardens.
Ah, Powell’s. At least four hours were spent here on our first full day in Portland. I stocked up on more Oishinbo books.
In the cafe, a cappuccino revitalized me in time for a round of drinks and snacks for happy hour down the street.