What better way to familiarize yourself with a new neighborhood than to explore its coffee shops? I actually grew up in the Highland Park/South Pasadena/Eagle Rock area, but things have changed in the past decade. Now that I’m back, I’ve come to realize that what was once a network of churches, rinky-dink shops and little else, is now turning into yet another L.A. hipster mecca. So I set out with my laptop to rediscover the neighborhoods of my yesteryear; to find a corner in it where I could sit quietly and do what I do.
Cafe de Leche–Highland Park
You know what? I was ready to write this place off as a 2 out of 5. The original first sentence of my Cafe de Leche review was, “Meh.” This is why it’s important to give a bad experience a second chance, because Cafe de Leche isn’t meh. Let me explain.
I first arrived at the shop high on three cups of Highland Cafe’s Handsome Coffee. I wasn’t feeling too hot. Stomach acid may have been leaking into my system and my laptop battery was in the red. I ordered a fourth coffee because I didn’t want to sit down without buying something like a chump, but I wasn’t hungry. A regular stood in line in front of me. He happily chatted away with the baristo. But when I was up, I got the customer service cold front. I got text wrap around my irises–the man was repelled by my very gaze. Was this real or a product of my coffee bean high? I’m pretty sure it was real. The place was packed and the outlets here are sparse–that is one real drawback to writing in the shop. If you’re a presser of keys who needs a charge, you’ll have to hope for a seat at the high table near the front door where you’ll find an outlet.
I cursed under my breath. I could only stay for 25 minutes, after which time my laptop would flip me off. I slapped my MacBook open to log on to the Wifi and saw this:
It was like the universe was telling me to GTFO. So I did.
I typed out my angry rant wherein I would have told you all to stay away, but I ruminated on it… I’ve had bad days, haven’t I? Maybe coffee shops have bad days too.
So I showed up on another Saturday around the same time, but only after half a cup at Highland Cafe. Both baristas greeted me sweetly and cheerfully. A cute design was rendered in my cappuccino foam (they serve Stumptown Coffee Roasters here if that means anything to you). It wasn’t as crowded that day, so I got a better look at the place and found myself charmed by its quaintness: the cruiser bike mounted high on the wall, the grass-green patio chairs, the exposed ceiling beams and general airiness of the cafe. I took a deep breath and sat at that high table (though I showed up fully charged like a pro).
I re-read my review as the barista/os laughed and joked around behind me. A warm flood of shame washed across my face. What a jerk.
Cafe de Leche isn’t my Highland Cafe–the seating is a bit claustrophobic for the paranoid writer who thinks everyone is checking for typos over her shoulder–but it’s not the place I’d been ready to paint it as. Moral of the story.
I’m glad I gave Leche a second chance. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Viscosity: 3.5 out of 5
Buster’s Coffee–South Pasadena
I’m going to admit straightaway that I’m biased about Buster’s. I used to go to the double-decker coffee shop for shakes and Italian sodas with my dad all the time as a kid, so this retro establishment resides in the warm, fuzzy area of my memories. I wore a Gaussian blur veil stepping into the place which, by the way, hasn’t changed since I first started going.
Okay, a couple of things have changed. The shopkeepers maintain a few funny, somewhat boggling, rules about technology. No cell phones while placing your order: 100% understandable and it’s sad they need a sign for that. Only use laptops at non-yellow tables upstairs? Oooookay. They’re also strict about how long you use their Wifi. I guess they don’t want you occupying their tables for an inordinate length of time. I get it. I’ve seen people walk in and then immediately out of shops with unrestricted Wifi because every seat was occupied, including large tables taken up by a single occupant chained to his or her laptop. That’s business lost. Which is why I always either order food with my coffee or buy two drinks when I stay at any cafe for a long stretch, and I try to take up the least amount of space possible since I’m usually alone or with one other person. If I’m at a cafe that long, it usually means I like the place, which means I want it to stay in business.
Buster’s epitomizes kitsch. If your story is set in the 50s or 60s, you have to try writing here. I promise you’ll be inspired. And if you’re not completely satisfied, get yourself a chocolate malt and all regrets will slip away. Magic. The cafe is full of teal, brick red, orange. The tables and chairs are rustic, painted things; everything has a haphazard, grandma’s attic appeal.
Oh and there’s a door to nowhere. If you opened it and stepped out, you’d fall through space and land on the Metro Rail tracks. I’m pretty sure the staff push technology rule-breakers out of this door.
The coffee here is always good. It’s mellow and unobtrusive. It might be Chock Full o’Nuts–nobody here is swishing coffee around their mouths to identify the notes in their beans. The “technology area” upstairs is nice and quiet. It’s an enclave with a nice view of the similarly old-timey strip of Mission Street it sits on.
One thing to note is that Buster’s gets intense on hot days. The sun brings in ice cream addicts because their shakes and malts are menu highlights. It crowds fast. Ice cream also draws kids, so you might be swarmed by half-pints. But on a weekday during work hours or on an off weekend, the place is a slice of vintage heaven.
Viscosity: 3.75 out of 5
Highland Cafe–Highland Park
I had to hold off on telling you about this place for a while because I had to pee on it first. Okay, I didn’t really pee on it, but I did have to establish my presence here before putting it on blast.
You know when you find a place that you want so badly to be your Cheers? That’s how I feel about Highland Cafe. It’s right down the street from me, it has just the right ambience, super writer-friendly layout, Wifi, nice staff, great food and, importantly, strong coffee. Although, they serve Handsome Coffee, which leans toward acidic in its plain, hot state. I’d recommend the cappuccino, which is my favorite form of coffee anyway. But they don’t stop at coffee. Highland offers a delicious and (mostly) nutritious breakfast and lunch menu. I recommend the huevos rancheros.
This is the coffee shop I’ve been looking for and the reason I can never move.
I even considered not talking about this place at all. My Gollum-desire to keep the precious battled it out with my moral duty to report on amazing writing spaces for the good of the collective. Guess who won? One day I’m going to crush you under my boot, Jiminy Cricket.
Highland Cafe is one of a few new shops that opened up on Figueroa, a Highland Park street that has been crawling toward gentrification for about six years. It’s starting to look a lot like Silverlake. I don’t mean that in a wholly bad way. Sure, the Wifi networks around these parts are now riddled with outraged contempt, but I kinda like what the old neighborhood is becoming. I’m not restricted to hanging out at Jack in the Box on Eagle Rock Blvd anymore.
I certainly can’t find anything despicable about Highland Cafe. This is the kind of place where the waiters dance with each other behind the counter and croon along with Morrisey, albeit tunelessly. This is the kind of place where they enthusiastically shout their goodbyes as you scurry out the door. This is where I want to be when I write.
Viscosity: 5 out of 5 (!!)