From the street, the only hint that Cafe Gallage exists are two small signs sitting at the bottom of a staircase—one with the shop’s logo, the other a curious wooden board with the following message on it:
“Our coffee is all light roasted. No bitterness but awesome fruity aroma and tastes. Thank you.”
Climb the stairs and you’ll find a plain white door with nothing on it—the entrance to Cafe Gallage. It feels like a mistake, but the door’s design has an interesting effect: entering feels like stepping from one world into another.
Inside, the cafe is quiet and intimate. The dimly lit space is decorated with photography, a few tables, and a modest counter space around which a jazz soundtrack swims. The young, stylish baristas deck themselves out in white shirts, black vests, and neckties—the uniform of the traditional bartender.
It all feels right out of a classic gangster film—you can imagine a group of thugs talking over cocktails at the bar, or a lonesome private investigator drowning his sorrows with a cup of coffee in the corner. Owner and barista Kenta Tsukada says this is intentional—he sees Gallage as an expression of his personality, style, and love for coffee.
“I wanted to make Cafe Gallage unique,” he says. “It’s about doing things in a different style to everyone else: my style. It’s like a kissaten, but with the kissaten there’s an image of bitter coffee, you know? For us, that’s an entry point—a chance to surprise customers with a fruitier coffee.”
Tsukada started in coffee five years ago, when failing a university entrance exam meant a year of extra study before trying again. He began working part-time at Starbucks, and things progressed from there.
“I thought coffee was a cool thing to do,” he says. “I thought baristas were cool. I thought latte art was cool. I went to coffee shops for latte art, and then I went to Paul Bassett. I was like, ‘Paul is cool.’”
He laughs about it, but that was his entry to specialty coffee. He started visiting more shops, practiced at home, worked at Paul Bassett, and traveled Southeast Asia and Europe. Eventually, he moved to Glitch Coffee & Roasters, where he now spends his time when not at Gallage.
Tsukada, 25, is something of an eccentric character. With his long beard, constant mean-mugging for the camera, and an eclectic mix of English and Japanese, he comes off as wild, free, and goofy. But spend a little time with the young man and you’ll find he’s also obsessed. You can hear it in the way he talks about coffee, and see it in the care he takes to brew it—it’s a drive to get things just right every single time.
The menu follows suit—there’s something of the academic to it, including long explanations for each coffee on offer. There are only three. From these three coffees—courtesy of Glitch—comes a limited but specialized menu carefully curated by Tsukada himself.
“I’ve always wanted to run my own place, and do things my way,” he says. “I always thought of myself as number one, and I’ve never wanted to lose to anyone. So, I wanted to try doing it my way.”
That’s at the heart of Cafe Gallage: an attention to detail that Tsukada feels appropriate. It’s in the way he prepares his ice so it melts slowly, and the way staff pick through the beans before brewing each cup of coffee. It’s in the way they sometimes take a moment to simply brew another cup if they’re not satisfied—the kind of approach you won’t find at a place that runs at a faster pace.
The coffee shop is also a chance for Tsukada to indulge in coffee cocktails, a long-time hobby. “I guess the cocktails started because I was doing it at home anyway. I have lots of coffee, and I have lots of alcohol. I love them both. I mixed them together a lot.”
With all of the cocktails on offer—the espresso gin and tonic “Kingsman,” the cassis-and-cold-brew soda “Michelle,” and the whiskey-based “Django”—Tsukada says the key lies in a mix of balance and respect.
“To be honest, I don’t like Irish coffee. For me, it’s just bitter coffee mixed with whiskey. It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea. What I aim for is a drink that really expresses the unique flavors of a coffee, and accentuates them. If a coffee has a strawberry sweetness, the alcohol needs to bring that out. Even if I can make something delicious, if it doesn’t express that core idea, I won’t put it on the menu.”
So Cafe Gallage is about a love for coffee and alcohol, and a desire to present them with the appropriate respect for both, as well as the customer. Coming here is one of those experiences that makes Tokyo feel magical; the sort of place you find in nondescript neighborhoods that makes no real attempt to advertise itself, and yet does something you won’t find anywhere else.
Hengtee Lim is a Sprudge staff writer based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of @kazu_poon.