Neither local nor new to the District, La Colombe has set up shop in DC’s small, busy Chinatown, with a cafe just one block up and one block over from both the Verizon Center and the neighborhood’s iconic Friendship Archway. The 21-year-old roastery based out of Philadelphia already introduced itself to Washington last February with a location in tucked-away Blagden Alley.
“This building had been vacant for years, but it was a restaurant, and before that a laundromat,” said Dave Bise, a La Colombe group manager and trainer. “A customer walked in the other day and was pointing out all these spaces—‘I slept over there; the kitchen was over here; this entire place was the laundromat…’ ”
Bise gestures around a space that is now both subdued and stunning, its history preserved and also reincarnated. Light is in no short supply, thanks to large windows and skylights, as well as custom-made neon and soft white lights. Painted, brick, steel and wood textures all play nice in this 1,700-square-foot space, and there’s little distraction from signage or décor. A large painted dove quietly shimmers on the wall above the bar, next to an alcove with bay windows. Once a week this upper tier serves as a public cupping space; otherwise, it’s a coveted nook for studying and selfies.
La Colombe cofounder and president JP Iberti leads the charge in selecting new storefront locations, and works closely with architects when a new space is being designed. According to Kathryn O’Connor, director of marketing and brand merchandising, this location was “a perfect storm” of good building bones and good location. “The layout of the building was kept about the same, and a lot of the bricks were salvaged and reused. When the facade of the building had to come down and be rebuilt, the bricks were numbered and then reassembled in the same locations.” In the bold and now national story La Colombe is trying to tell, the company still maintains its unpretentious neighborhood-first vibe; here in Chinatown they collaborated with two historical societies during buildout, and launched with a soft opening for the neighborhood.
On the other side of the counter, bar flow is optimized for getting the “justa cuppa coffee” folks their drinks ASAP, while the coffee fans with tons of questions slip around to the side for more in-depth chats. The usual suspects are on hand as far as gear: two white La Marzocco GB5s, two Mahlkönig EK 43s, and a FETCO XTS are rounded out with Yama Silverton drippers and Mythos One Clima-Pro grinders, as well as singular coffee taps for cold brew and draft latte. Pastries are by Rare Sweets, and a reach-in fridge filled with investor Ulukaya’s Chobani yogurt complement the coffee offerings.
Like all businesses in this Chinatown, La Colombe displays a translation of its name in hanzi: “鴿子” (literally, “dove”) was chosen for the sign, just as the company uses the French word for dove as its name: it’s a universal symbol of goodwill.