Entry #11: Café Bolivar

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Only thing better than a cup of coffee? A cup of coffee alongside a jamón and queso fresco arepa dipped in salsa verde. 

Café Bolivar, located on the corner of Ocean Park and 18th, fills a niche in the Santa Monica coffee scene by offering above average coffee alongside excellent food. If you are in the mood for a freshly made pulled pork arepa with coffee on the side, or a cup of coffee with a freshly made pulled pork arepa on the side, this is the place for you.

Coffee In many ways, the coffee itself is Café Bolivar’s weakest link. While by no means bad, the pour-over I ordered was a bit bitter, due to the fact that it was brewed with a blend rather than a single-origin bean. That being said, their signature drinks which include the Café Tacuba which is a latte sweetened with cajeta (Mexican caramel) and the Mocha Oaxaqueño sweetened with Oaxacan chocolate are very tasty and worth checking out.

Setup The coffee setup is pretty simple at Café Bolivar, with an La Marzocco espresso machine and ceramic Hario V60 drip cones. Of more note is the fact that Café Bolivar manages to function as both a coffee shop and a restaurant in a relatively small space. With a menu featuring freshly made arepas and tortas, the food itself makes Café Bolivar worth going to. Because the food is made to order, it is not uncommon to see veggies being chopped and coffee being brewed right next to each other. While some people may be turned by off food and coffee being prepared in such close proximity, I appreciate it because it showcases the freshly prepared nature of the food, somewhat of a rarity for coffee shop chow.

Ambiance  With plenty of tasteful wood tables and chairs and large windows providing natural light, the spaciousness of Café Bolivar— alongside the smell of pulled pork and brisket— welcomes and draws patrons in. With Latin American tunes in the background, this is the type of place where one sits down to enjoy their coffee and arepa.

Intangibles If you are in the area and are craving top-notch craft coffee, you would be much better off going to Love Coffee Bar, right across the street from Café Bolivar. But this does not mean these two coffee shops are mutually exclusive, as they fill different niches in the Santa Monica coffee community.

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I have been going to Cafe Bolivar since before I drank coffee, which is something that cannot be said about most coffee shops in Santa Monica. I think Cafe Bolivar has been able to achieve this longevity by sticking to a simple formula: decent coffee, freshly prepared food, served in an aesthetically pleasing environment.

 

 

 

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Entry #10: 18th Street Coffee House

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Sometimes it is not about what’s in the mug but the setting outside the mug.

18th Street Coffee House on Broadway is a blast to the past to a simpler era. A time in which our President wasn’t unhinged and craft coffee was a thing of the future. 18th Street Coffee House, which is rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan, may be older than some of my younger readers, and is emblematic of a time when good beans was all a coffee shop needed to stand out.

Coffee In Entry #5 I was critical of the Pico Groundwork coffee, saying “There are simply better coffee shops in the Santa Monica area…a place I will not be returning to.” 18th Street Coffee House uses Groundwork beans, but gets more out of them. While the coffee at both of these places tastes more or less the same, 18th Street Coffee House is simply a better coffee shop (emphasis on “shop”). Don’t go to 18th Street Coffee House if you are looking for world class coffee but rather go to 18th Street Coffee house if you want to catch up with a friend, read a book, or write a blog post over a cup of very decent coffee.

Setup In terms of nuts and bolts, there is nothing special about the setup at 18th Street Coffee House. The menu is very standard when it comes to beverages, but they seem to offer a solid selection of hot food, which is always nice to see at a coffee shop. I spent a little over an hour in the shop, and at least a dozen people ordered soups or sandwiches, so I assume the food is reputable. When it comes to seating, 18th Street Coffee House has it it down. With a cozy inside, and an outside area featuring ample greenery and chairs, the needs and preferences of most everyone should be satisfied.

Ambiance The steller seating provides the foundation for the “best-in-class” atmosphere found in 18th Street Coffee House. With a no cell-phone policy and no Wi-Fi (you can access Spectrum Wi-Fi), some may find themselves at a loss of what to do with themselves at 18th Street Coffee House. But settle in with a good book or an engaging conversation, and you’ll see that this policy has its perks.

Intangibles While the coffee itself at 18th Street Coffee House may not be world class, it is better than your average cup of joe, and comes with free refills. This, in combination with the inviting atmosphere makes 18th Street Coffee House a place I will no doubt return to when I am looking to escape from the chaos of the world for an hour or so.

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18th Street Coffee House is a holdout from an era before coffee became hip. Because of this, it is fitting the coffee is just slightly above average. There is a time and a place for $5 pour-overs, but there is also a time and a place for a $2 cup of coffee with free refills in a welcoming environment.

 

Entry #9: Love Coffee Bar

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Love Coffee Bar, located on Ocean Park between 17th and 18th, is a place that I drive past regularly, but have never been to until now. With quality pour-overs and an equally impressive vibe, this is a great place to sit down and take a minute to enjoy craft coffee for what it is.

Coffee With cold brew season coming to an end, I ordered a pour over — Ethiopian — and was thoroughly impressed. Sweet yet robustly nutty, this was better than anything I could consistently make at home, thus validating the purchase. While Love Coffee Bar does not roast beans in-house, partnering with high-quality local roasters allows them to serve a wide variety of top-shelf coffees from around the world.

Setup While the nuts and bolts of Love Coffee Bar are very standard, there are a few things worth pointing out. The first is the price. I paid $6.50 for my pour-over, which is not unheard of for craft coffee in Santa Monica, but is still higher than average. That being said, with an ample amount of coffee, tasteful presentation — see photo above — and above all tasting great, I did not feel in any way ripped off. I get the sense that Love Coffee Bar consistently changes their beans, meaning the price for pour-overs may fluctuate. Unrelated, Love Coffee Bar offers cold brew tea, which seems worth checking out if you are a “tea-person”.

Ambiance With aesthetically pleasing yet comfortable chairs abound, a large table ideal for hipster power meetings, plus a wooden table carved in the shape of California, Love Coffee Bar is a textbook example of how to tastefully design a coffee shop. If Love is  going for the “hip-cali-craft-coffee-shop” vibe, they gave certainly nailed it.

Intangibles  Located .5 miles from Lo/Cal, Love Coffee Bar is not the only craft coffee shop in the area. I think Love may be a slightly better coffee shop, but Lo/Cal is also slightly cheaper. I also don’t have much data to make comparisons between these two shops, so why not go and try both yourself? The overall point is that there are two great coffee shops in the same area, which is a great thing.

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There is nothing fancy about Love Coffee Bar, nothing you could not find at other coffee shops in Santa Monica. But they take coffee seriously, and make a damn good pour-over. In my book, this is enough to warrant a thumbs up and a second trip back.

Entry #8: Lo/Cal

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Lo/Cal’s cold brew, served over ice in a glass tumbler. 

In entry #5  I wrote that Groundwork Coffee located in the Santa Monica Whole Foods 365 was the only good coffee shop in the area. I was very wrong in this assertion, since literally across the street is Lo/Cal, which is not only the best coffee in the area, but also one of the better places in the city. 

Coffee A bike ride that left me sweaty made a cold brew the natural option. In addition to being nice and balanced, Lo/Cal serves their cold brew in a chilled tumbler. This is a major plus in my book, and coffee shops that do this stand out simply because the act invites the drinker to sit, stay in the shop, and enjoy their beverage, which unless I’m on the way to work, is the way I like to enjoy my coffee.

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Lo/Cal, with their simple setup, has nailed the “simple-coffee-shop” aesthetic 

Setup With an espresso machine, cold brew on tap, assorted pastries and various chilled beverages, the setup at Lo/Cal is very standard. It is worth noting that they offer three different types of cold brew: standard (i.e. house blend), single origin, and nitro. I ordered the single origin, which is 75 cents more than the house blend, but is also a lighter roast, which I prefer for cold brew. They also serve cold brew floats, which may be worth checking out if that’s your thing. Lo/Cal also serves empanadas, the first time I’ve seen this in a coffee shop.

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What’s better than a cold brew on hot day? A cold brew and an Eames chair on a hot day. 

Ambiance With beautiful mustard colored Eames chairs, really good music bumping on the speakers, Lo/Cal has really nailed the ambiance for a coffee shop. And if music isn’t your thing, there are two nice looking tables outside to escape to. Even though shop is very simple, you get the sense that there was much thought put into crafting an aesthetic at Lo/Cal.

Intangibles Centrally located, free wifi, comfortable seating options, clean bathrooms, and above all seemingly very solid coffee, Lo/Cal is a place I will definitely be returning to. Conversely, I do not see myself returning to the Groundwork Coffee at Whole Foods across the street.

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Lo/Cal definitely exceeded my expectations. Maybe this is because I walked in with no expectations, but there is no denying that Lo/Cal is a top-notch coffee shop that is worth checking out.

Entry #7: Primo Passo Coffee Co.

DSC_7092Located on the corner of Montana and 7th, Primo Passo Coffee Co. may not be in the upper echelon of Westside coffee shops, but is nonetheless a great place grab a cup of coffee, sit down and watch the poshness of the Westside unfold.

Coffee I ordered an Ethiopian pour over. Balanced, with a hint of sweetness and a robust nutty aftertaste, this cup of joe was enjoyed from the first sip to the last. Their cold brew, however, is hit or miss. Sometimes it is a perfectly balanced beverage that quenches the thirst and energizes the body. Other times, however, it is bitter, leaving your thirst unquenched and your body unenergized. The espresso, while never unpalatable, has never left a lasting impression, but this makes sense for a place that does not specialize in espresso.

Setup Primo Passo boasts an open, modern space with all the action happening in the middle of the shop. Menus on clipboards can be read while in line, which alleviates much of the anxiety that can be associated with ordering for the first time at a new coffee shop. The menu is very standard for a craft coffee shop, with the addition of overpriced juice. And I don’t mean OJ. I mean $14 green cale juice with radishes ‘n stuff in it. Aside from the juice, nothing is ridiculously expensive at Primo Passo. While the prices may initially seem steep, one has to remember that the shop is located on one of the bougiest shopping blocks in LA.

Ambiance Primo Passo seems to have put much effort into cultivating an aesthetics, as evident in the sleek and stylish interior. While the result is a very tasteful coffee shop, the vibe inside often gets too high-brow for a fella like me. As one of the only coffee shops I know of with valet parking, it is not uncommon to see parents get out of $100,000 Teslas, put a baby into a $500 stroller and order the tot $5 steamed almond milk complete with latte art. Lavish displays of wealth aside, Primo Passo is a great place to grab a cup of coffee with a friend, read a few chapters of a book, or pretend to work on that screenplay that is never getting finished.

Intangibles No wifi makes Primo Passo ill-suited to getting work done, but the bathrooms are clean and many of the seats are comfortable. I go here a fair amount since the front door is less than 800 feet from my house, but it should be noted that Cafe Luxxe is only few blocks away, which is a better coffee shop in my opinion. That being said, there is a Starbucks right across the street, so it is safe to say Primo Passo is the best coffee shop on the block.

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There is nothing wrong with Primo Passo, but there is also nothing special about it either. I would never go out of my way for their coffee, but also would not complain if somebody asked to meet their. It is, after all, my neighborhood craft coffee shop.

 

 

Entry #6: The Refinery

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Note: this photo was taken at The Refinery in 2012 before they switched to using Heath mugs

It’s funny how a 23 year-old can feel nostalgia for a coffee shop, but whenever I go to The Refinery, I hark back to simpler times (i.e. 2011-2012). Located on Santa Monica Blvd between 3rd and 4th, The Refinery was part of the first wave of coffee shops in L.A. making pour-overs. My high-school was located less than a mile away, and I would often go for coffee during lunch hour. It had been over a year since I last visited The Refinery, and when I walked in to the friendly confines, it was like stepping back to an era when craft coffee shops were rare and the President of the United States was not unhinged.

Coffee As one of the first places on the Westside to put pour-over on the forefront of their brand, it is no surprise that The Refinery is still churning out top-notch coffee years later. The Nicaraguan I got for this entry was a perfectly balanced beverage. A medium roast with hints of sweetness and a citrusy aftertaste, this is the type of coffee that makes people understand why craft coffee should be enjoyed black.

Setup The Refinery keeps it simple while still offering a fairly wide-range of options. With standard pour-over and espresso drinks available, the Refinery also boasts an extensive list of teas. I don’t ever see myself ordering tea here, but tea drinkers of the world will be satisfied. At $5 for a pour-over, The Refinery may seem a little expensive, but it’s nothing ridiculous and makes sense due to its central location.

Ambiance A tasteful minimalist, modern interior, along with soothing tunes, make The Refinery a great place to get a zen workspace going. There is wifi, a bathroom, and ample seating, including a large communal table with comfortable seats. Located amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown Santa Monica, stepping into the Refinery is like stepping into a calmer world where quality pour-over is always on tap.

Intangibles Beverages are served in Heath mugs, which if you know a thing or two about mugs or ceramics, is a major plus. But even if coffee was served in styrofoam cups, I would still return to The Refinery simply because the coffee speaks for itself.

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When The Refinery first opened up, it seemed cutting edge. Years later, however, it may seem fairly run-of-the-mill due to the sheer number of craft coffee shops in Los Angeles. Yet The Refinery has weathered the test of time, by sticking to their roots and brewing quality drinks on a consistent basis.

Entry #5: Groundwork Coffee Santa Monica

IMG_6757Groundwork Coffee was making quality coffee in Los Angeles before people knew what quality coffee was. Founded in 1990, Groundwork Coffee was a leader in the proliferation of sustainably sourced coffee in Southern California. With a handful of locations throughout the city, a new branch recently opened up inside the Whole Foods 365 market on Pico and Cloverfield in Santa Monica. While stocking up on provisions, the coffee shop caught my eye and I stopped in for a cold brew.

Coffee  They were out of cold brew, and gave me the nitro (nitrogen infused coffee), but never informed me that they were out of cold brew and that I was drinking nitro. I figured it out because nitro coffee, with its slight carbonation and almost creamy texture, is easy to identify. The barista was very nice, however, and the nitro was tasty. It was nothing exciting, though, lacking the character that makes certain coffee beverages special. In general, however, all of the coffee at Groundwork is quality and should satisfy most snobs.

Setup This particular Groundwork, located within a supermarket, suffers from the set up, or lack thereof. While quality beans are certainly being used and the coffee is solid, there is not much that separates this Groundwork from a chain like Pete’s or Caribou. And while there is nothing wrong with this, in a city where two craft coffee shops can be found on the same street, the slightly corporate, industrial setup of this Groundwork makes it a place I will not be returning to unless I am at the Whole Foods.

Ambiance In addition to being inside a Whole Foods, this Groundwork is very small, making it ill-suited to sitting down and enjoying your beverage. An outside patio, however, shared with the Whole Foods is very nice. A tasteful modern aesthetic, ample tables and a few comfy seats, make this a great place to sip on some coffee, send a few emails or read a book before braving the madness of Whole Foods.

Intangibles There are simply better coffee shops in the Santa Monica area, including the Main Street location of Groundwork. Because this branch is located in a Whole Foods, however, I can see myself returning out of sheer convenience until I find a better coffee shop in the area.

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At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with this Groundwork, and like many reputable coffee shops, suffers simply because the competition is better. The Whole Foods 365, however, is brand new, cheap and worth checking out. If the shopping experience was overwhelming, Groundwork Coffee may provide the restoration you need.