I've always been curious about the potential for meeting someone at a coffeehouse. You know, someone special. Is this what's going on at coffeehouses at night? I don't know, I'm usually there while there's daylight. I mention this to a handful of friends at a party, and they don't know either. So I ask if anyone would be up for doing a coffeehouse crawl with me some night. "YESSSSS!" they all say. Boy, I wasn't ready for that. So I enlist my good friend Nancy and our sports buddies George (billiards) and Marty (softball). We'll check out the coffee thing after dark. I make a list of a nice cross-section of coffeehouses and tell them the ground rules. Number one: Nancy and I do not sit with George and Marty at these cafes. Hey, we already know these guys. The idea is to see if we can meet someone new. George seems a bit nervous at the prospect. Nancy looks excited. She knows my chatty personality will equal fun for us. Number two: We have to make an effort to meet someone. Take the initiative, start a conversation, be friendly. Everyone looks nervous except me. What am I to conclude from this? That I've been in a lot of coffeehouses. Actually, my three friends spend very little time in coffeehouses. I tell them they are very friendly places. Eyebrows start to arch. These folks need some java. We're off.
The Grove, 2250 Chestnut Street, Marina
I try to start easy, the Marina district. Lots of singles here. Chestnut Street from Fillmore to Divisadero is filled with hot spots. The Grove is a relatively new coffeehouse and already very popular. We split up according to plan. Nancy orders tea and I quiz the guy behind the counter about the various desserts. He's funny and friendly. I immediately wish he was on the other side of the counter. I settle on the apple pie and a latte and look around the room for guys sitting alone. Three possibilities. The guys I really want to talk to are wedged so tight into a corner table that it would seem foolish to ask to share their table. Certainly obvious. I approach another table with two guys and ask if we can share. They tell me the other two chairs are taken. By whom, Casper the ghost? I go to my third choice. The two guys at this table agree to share, reluctantly. I start talking to one of them. Turns out he used to live in the same town right outside of Boston as I did. We start right in on the neighborhood, lousy winters and Bostonians. He seems very pleasant. Nancy is chatting up his friend. These fellas are both doctors and have lived in San Francisco less than a year. I tell them who my doctor is and they know him. My new friend wants us to guess who his friend looks like. "He's a dead ringer for someone really famous!" Really? I'm stuck. The guy looks familiar, but not as familiar as, say, Tom Cruise. He gives us a clue. "It's a famous comedian." The comedian look-alike is not enjoying this game. My light bulb clicks on. "Jerry Seinfeld" I say. My friend concurs. We keep on talking about life in the city, coffeehouses and other seemingly relevant things. Suddenly the doctors look at each other in that knowing way and tell us they have to leave. They get up, walk around us and leave. Almost in mid-sentence. Nancy and I look at each other. Oh well, my pie was delicious and the coffee is good, too. Nancy lets me taste her tea, the Love blend. Not very effective in this case.
I look over at George and Marty. They chose to sit at a large table in the center of the room which seats about eight. They don't seem to be talking to anyone. Nancy and I walk over. "George and I had a great conversation," Marty tells me. I tell Marty about our experience. "They must be gay," Marty says. Guys have such simple explanations for everything. I insist they're straight, just not ready for my brand of coffeehouse friendliness. George notices that a lot of people seem coupled, or grouped, together. "I feel like I'm imposing on these people" he tells me. Marty agrees, and reminds me that Saturday night is still date night. I thought that went out years ago. "It's an amiable place, though, very Marina" Marty adds. Nancy sums it up best: "Hey, where else could we get a tea called Love?"
Brain Wash Cafe, 1122 Folsom Street, SOMA
I had been wanting to check this place out for some time, and since SOMA usually means nighttime in my mind, this is the perfect opportunity. There is a lot going on in here. The place is bigger than I expected, especially the laundry room. A sea of washers and dryers, and it's so clean. I have my own washer and dryer at home, but this looks like it would be fun. You can play pinball while you do the laundry. The cafe is crowded, and a band is setting up at one end of the room. The chairs catch my eye. They're hand painted with various well-known consumer product logos. Nancy and I canvas all the chairs in the room. Then we canvas the crowd. It's a young crowd. Real young. I quickly realize that Marty is the oldest person in here, and he's not even that old. Most of the people at the long counter are ordering beers. There is a large table in the center of the room filled with people. Actually they've pushed together about three or four tables. They're all drinking beer and yelling and screaming. Nancy tells me they're playing a college drinking game called quarters. You flip a quarter into the glass and drink beer, or something like that. I've been out of college for a while. Not these folks. They all look 21. Nancy gets some fruit juice and I order another latte. We sit along the wall so we can get a view of the entire cafe. The guy seated next to us is waiting for a neighborhood club to open. We've never heard of it. He looks about 22. Nancy points out that there are no lights on in the kitchen. They are cooking in the dark. This seems to have Nancy worried. George and Marty are chatting up a young gal across the room. For only a few minutes. Then she leaves. I feel like I'm in a college bar. Most of the folks in here are drinking liquor, not coffee. Why is it called Brain Wash Cafe?
Nancy and I collect George and Marty and move to the other side of the cafe, where the band is about to start playing. We listen to a couple of songs and conclude that the band is good. My pals think this place is a winner. They think it's friendly, easy-going, fun. Me, I'm ready for the Steps of Rome at this point. Soon.
Coffee Zone, 1409 Haight Street, Haight Ashbury
I had to include one grunge coffeehouse on our tour, it's only fair. We all seem a bit apprehensive. There aren't a lot of people in here, which surprises me. It's the Haight on a Saturday night. I guess there are a lot of options in this neighborhood, so everyone is spread out. Nancy and I step up to the counter. I notice that there is a troll doll affixed to a large tip jar. He has a lot of wires and straps around him. This troll is in bondage. I mention this to the guy behind the counter. "Hey, he used to have more leather than that!" he tells me. I order straight coffee in this place. Nancy has more tea. We take a look around. The folks in here seem to be seated fairly spaced apart from each other, and no one seems to be talking. It's eerily quiet. Two guys are playing chess, one guy is writing in a notebook, another couple is sipping their drinks. A guy walks in with something wrapped around his head, just a lot of rags done pirate-style. It does not work. Another guy walks in who looks like Jerry Garcia, but hairier. Okay, so no one looks really approachable. Everyone looks dazed. I notice the SF Net computer, and it looks inviting for the first time. Nancy and I pull up a chair. We've never tried this, but Nancy works with computers for a living so I'm confident. A quarter for six minutes, so we pool our quarters. We have four. Our first twelve minutes are spent trying to figure the thing out. Finally we're in the chat group. This is live chat. And fast. Our handle is Simbacat, which is my cat's name. Lots of good names in here -- Miss Anthrope, Ruby Tuesday, Calvin. And Hobbes, of course. Our name proves androgynous enough, because Calvin and Hobbes are quickly trying to find out if Simbacat is male or female. We spend the next twelve minutes being mysterious and trying to keep up with this fast-paced cyberchatter. A guy comes up behind us and watches. He tells us he's a regular on SF Net and has actually met some of the people he's talked to on-line. I'm a softie so I tell Calvin and Hobbes that Simbacat is a sex kitten right before I sign off with "ciao, meow." This net stuff is fun. But it's a Saturday night and we're talking to a machine? Bad sign. We round up Marty and George, who are starting to get that dazed look on their faces as well. On the way to the car I get an earful. "I just picked up a newspaper and pretended I wasn't there," Marty tells me. "Everyone smelled," says George. Maybe they were just jealous that we got to the computer first.
The Steps of Rome, 348 Columbus Avenue, Northeach
This place wasn't on my original itinerary, but it didn't take me long to realize that it should have been. My group is starting to wilt, so I encourage them on the drive over to North Beach. "This place is really cool, lots of good-looking guys and gals. It just oozes sex. Eurosex." George wants to know if he can have a beer yet. I decide to drop the liquor ban. When we get to Steps, Nancy tells her favorite story about this cafe. She actually heard about this cafe while visiting Rome. On the Spanish Steps, no less. A Roman (or should I say Romeo?) started chatting her up, and when he learned that she was from San Francisco, told her that a friend of his had just opened a cafe in North Beach called The Steps of Rome. Apparently he had wanted to name it The Spanish Steps, but someone had already taken that name. Or so he said. Anyway, this little episode has always made Nancy feel like an insider at Steps, and that's okay. We trade stories about our experiences in Rome. You get lots of material in Rome.
At this point we're a bit coffeed out, so Nancy and I order gelato. The place is packed. It's after midnight in North Beach. The crowd is spilling onto the sidewalk. Talking at Steps would be impossible at this point. The music is cranked way up and the din is deafening. Good thing the windows are open to let some of the noise out. It's the usual Euromix on this particular night. They're nice-looking and cool. I can't see a single available seat inside so I step outside and notice an empty table right out front. Prime real estate. I grab it. Nancy follows, and we enjoy our gelato among the beautiful people. Four guys are seated next to us. One of them is very drunk. The other three are having fun with him. The drunk fellow gets up and walks away. The three remaining Romeos are from Brazil, Spain and England. They're smoking and drinking. Like most everyone else in the place. They start telling us stories and are laughing throughout. We start laughing, too. Everyone appears to be having a hoot of a time here. It's infectious. It's like being in Rome.
I could stay much longer but we have one more spot to check out, so I look for George and Marty. Nancy and I don't see them anywhere. We wade through the crowd and finally spot them on the mezzanine. They're reading a newspaper and drinking a beer. Not what I expected. The music is getting louder. One of the guys behind the counter is dancing up a storm. "Every place has to have its own Fabio," George tells me. Okay by me. People continue to pour in. George spots a trend. "These guys go to the counter and order while the girls wait at the table." That's very European, I tell him. We're near the back door, so we make our way out. I wave to Fabio. I think he sees me.
Savoy Tivoli, 1434 Grant Avenue, North Beach
This place was a must-do on my coffeehouse crawl. Hey, it's the oldest coffeehouse in town, dating to 1907. Something is working if it's been around that long. It's 1:15 AM and this place is packed, too. I walk in and a guy at the bar immediately makes eye contact with me. Laser beams. He won't take his eyes off me. I don't kid myself. It's almost closing time and he's by himself. He's hoping I'm it. Boy. I keep walking. It's a long bar and I get to the other end, where there's a little more elbow room. I ask for a cup of coffee and am told that they already stopped serving coffee. Huh? Looks like the Savoy is more of a bar than a coffeehouse these days. The fact that many of the patrons are drunk reinforces that notion. I order cranberry juice. Nancy gets a beer. We look for a table on the front patio, which is one of the nicest features of the Savoy. It opens out onto the street, so you're inside and outside at the same time. Guys all around us. Empty beer bottles litter their small tables. I'm too sober for this. The noise is intense. Suddenly the bouncer starts yelling at everyone to move into the other room. "This section is closed! Grab your drinks and move next door. Now!!" He doesn't sound nice about it at all. Most of the crowd staggers into the next room. So now we have two roomfuls of people packed into one room. I start looking for George and Marty. Once I find them, I wave and motion in my direction. I'm not about to move. By the time they make it over to Nancy and me, the bouncer starts telling everyone to leave. We've barely touched our drinks. It's 1:45 AM. I'm not about to argue with Mr. Personality, so we leave.
Our little group is very animated on the drive back home. I think we had fun. Yes, we definitely had fun. We're already recounting incidents that took place just a few hours earlier. And laughing. Which means we'd surely do it again.