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INDULGENT ADVENTURES - Travel, adventure and windswept dreams.

A Californian Coffee Odyssey


When in Rome, right? A friend of ours, who lived in the States for a decade, maintains that one should think of American coffee as a warm breakfast beverage, not the aromatic, pure, velvety hit that we imbibe in Australia. Yet, we can’t quite let go of our quest to find quality – or merely acceptable – coffee in the land of the free.

Flags flying at Pier 39 on Fourth of July in San Francisco, California, USA

Flags flying at Pier 39 on Fourth of July in San Francisco, California, USA.

In California, we discovered that we had been lulled into the delusion that coffee all over America had improved. As previously filed, Seattle and Portland have given us the good stuff.

Our first morning in California, at the Blue Daisy in Santa Monica, let us down gently. The size was right, the milk resembled acceptable foam, and the espresso tasted strong, but strange – somehow both over-extracted and watery. (The fig, goats cheese and honey, and the croissant French toast(!) were however excellent.) A couple of those imperfect beasts kept us going, for our walk along the pier and beach at Santa Monica, in the sun and the breeze, amongst the buskers, and the umbrella sellers, and the purveyors of fresh mango.

The view of Santa Monica from Le Méridian Delfina in Los Angeles, California, USA.

The view of Santa Monica from Le Méridian Delfina in Los Angeles, California, USA.

We drove north out of LA, optimistic and as sunny as the sky itself, stopping at Malibu to look out across the ocean. David Duchovny would not have been out of place here, slipping away from one of his Californication assignations.

California is so crackingly dry that when we first hit the fog on the highway, we thought it was smoke from a bushfire. It enveloped the hills, and the roads and the car, and then as suddenly as it came, it went. This pattern repeated for the next two days along the pacific coast. Apparently this is a thing that happens in summer: the sun shines on the cold water, which evaporates then condenses and drifts across the land in patches.

View of the foggy coast near Lucia on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA.

View of the foggy coast near Lucia on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA.

We arrived blind in Cambria, our partial ocean view at our inn eclipsed by the fog. Our host seemed a little foggy himself. It was late, and who knows, perhaps he was sampling something local. Cannabis is legal in Washington, and only slightly less so in California. In the morning, we decided to hit the road, and get coffee on the way, rather than wait for the Moonstone Inn to fire up its espresso machine. This was, in hindsight, a rather disastrous decision.

Ragged Point pulled us in with its ‘Espresso Bar’ sign, but we left just as ragged as we arrived. Undrinkable. There was worse to come. Coast Gallery & Café at Big Sur, built from two recycled redwood water tanks, also teased us with its ‘European Espresso’ sign. Terrible: huge cups of milky revolting dredge. Clearly the European experience that author Henry Miller brought with him to Big Sur stopped well short of coffee.

The misleading sign at Ragged Point on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA.

The misleading sign at Ragged Point on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA.

With its prolific cheerful pots of geraniums, Monterey also had a touch of Europe about it, and an authorial guardian angel. Our hotel, the Monterey Inn, straddled Cannery Row, a street named after John Steinbeck’s novel, whose characters live along the row, amid the stink of the sardine canning factories, which the region was noted for, until the ocean was fished dry in the forties. Remnants of the old cannery signage are visible on the footbridges that cross the row, and facades of the factories wait to be transformed into more accommodation.  Café La Strada sells the novel Cannery Row and other works by John Steinbeck. We procured acceptable lattes from here, which we drank on the plaza in the sun, looking out onto Monterey Bay.

Kayaks for hire at the Monterey Inn in Monterey, California, USA.

Kayaks for hire at the Monterey Inn in Monterey, California, USA.

We ordered ‘short’ lattes at breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and these were sufficient to get us on the road again, bound for San Francisco. We made a spontaneous detour into Santa Cruz, where July 4th celebrations were well underway along Main Beach. After google maps nearly led us into a retirement village cafeteria, we stopped in at The Picnic Basket, for excellent sandwiches and gelati, then wandered along the beach to soak up the festivities.

View from the car of Big Creek Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway, California, USA.

View from the car of Big Creek Bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway, California, USA.

The names of the places we drove through on the way in to San Francisco were mythical to me; names I had heard since I began working in the tech industry 20 years ago, when the work really was with silicon: Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Stanford.

Fourth of July in San Francisco was a little rainy and a little foggy. We holed up in a tiny bar along The Embacadero and watched people stream past in the direction of Fishermans Wharf. Coqueta felt even tinier as more and more people escaped the rain. Opposite us (and very close to us) two guys, who could have lifted straight out of the Silicon Valley TV series postured with each other about who could better predict the technological future. We smiled, and drank more cocktails.

Detail from signage at The Devil's Acre wine bar on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, California, USA.

Detail from signage at The Devil’s Acre wine bar on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, California, USA.

Eventually it stopped raining, and we joined the stream heading towards firework central at Pier 39. Along the way we stopped for a breakdancing show, which was notable for the performers’ almost-wrong hilarious banter, and their ability to extract cash from the audience.

In the morning we struck gold at Café Reveille on Columbus Street. It was a glorious morning and everything felt right about this place: a La Marzocca machine with a couple of Mazzer grinders next to it, the aroma of the beans, the size of the cups (nice and small), the aloof barista concentrated on her task, the small menu. Ahhh, those cappuccinos were so good, that we immediately ordered seconds.

Evidence of the lovely produce from Cafe Réveille on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, California, USA.

Evidence of the lovely produce from Cafe Réveille on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco, California, USA.

The Fine Print

We flew into Los Angeles on Alaska Airlines, and drove to San Francisco in an AVIS rental car over 4 days, which was a comfortable drive. We stayed one night at each of:  Le Méridien Delfina in Santa Monica, the Blue Dolphin in Cambria, the Monterey Inn in Monterey, and Omni in San Francisco. For more spectacular coastal views I would recommend travelling in a season other than summer, although walking in the sun along the piers at Santa Monica, Santa Cruz and Monterey was blissful. The Monterey Inn is a huge old machine of a hotel that has wonderful service and an old-world feel. (We were also upgraded to an ocean-fronting room there). Climbing to the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco to see Coit Tower was rewarding (post-caffeination) in both views of the city and harbour, and the artwork inside the tower, commissioned during the depression by the Public Works of Art Project.

Mural inside Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California, USA.

Mural inside Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California, USA.

 


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