Crêpe Bar is sort of an unfathomable place. It’s a big tangle of contradictions: casual, yet high-end; simple, but so sophisticated. All of the things that make it unique seem to be at odds with each other, building together towards an unreplicable experience. This unassuming little breakfast spot in Tempe, Arizona, serves some of the best coffee in the Grand Canyon State. Allow me to blow its cover.
The restaurant is housed in a standard suburban strip mall, complete with a bright-red plastic block-text-lettered overhead sign. The atmosphere is casual; this is a breakfast joint in the purest sense. Guests order at the counter, then sit wherever they can find a seat. In stark contrast to the cafe’s relaxed atmosphere is their impeccably sophisticated service. At Crêpe Bar, it’s actually kind of a pleasure to wait for your food. Staff frequently sweep through the restaurant with beautifully arranged amuse-bouches, then disappear back into the tiny kitchen to crank out plate after plate of gorgeous, simple Parisian street food, made with the finest ingredients the Sonoran Desert has to offer.
Chef and owner Jeff Kraus’s life has taken some interesting—and eclectic—turns, so it’s kind of no wonder his restaurant is so dynamic. Kraus went to culinary school just after he finished high school. At some point, he was a professional bowler (like, real live bowling, like the Dude). He listened to a lot of Phish.
Kraus wound up in Arizona by accident. As the story goes, he was flying back to the Midwest from a ski trip in Tahoe that was cut short by a particularly icky snowstorm. “It was probably January or February,” he tells me, “and miserable in Indiana, and extremely cold in Lake Tahoe. The layover was in Arizona. I looked outside, and I thought it was one of those things on the window to psych you out. Like a projector. I was like, “Dude, where the hell are we?” and my friends were like, ‘Arizona!'” He checked out the climate and weather and was hooked; not long after, he put in for a transfer for his old job and moved here permanently.
He only intended to stay for a year, but fell in love with a woman named Erin Ware (they're now married), and the self-described “hearts in eyes, pitter pattery feelings” made him want to stick around awhile. Eventually, Kraus got back into the culinary world, working under Chef Pascal Diomot at Classic Cooking Academy. A trip to Paris introduced Kraus to the wonders of the Nutella crêpe, and he was hooked. “On the plane home, I drew up the business plan and a menu,” Kraus says. He has a tendency to repeat himself for emphasis: “On the plane. I got in, I took a leave of absence, I put together the LLC, and in three months I found my first spot to do business as a mobile crêperie.”
Crêpe Bar started as a mobile concept (known, at the time, as “Truckin’ Good Food”). Kraus set up shop at a local farmer’s market, peddling crêpes, pâte à choux, and other Parisian street fare. It was at this market that his food first caught the eye of Shelby Moore. Moore was a coffee fan, and was market testing a multi-roaster concept at the same market as Kraus (it never took off). In high school, Moore would drop his sister off at dance class, then sneak off to sip cappuccinos at Press Coffee Roasters—he told his mom he was doing his homework. In college, Moore desperately wanted to learn more about coffee. So he got a job at Cartel as a line cook. While he never became a Cartel barista, he learned enough to stay motivated. And on a trip to Portland, Moore fell in love with Heart Roasters.
By this time, Kraus had found a brick-and-mortar space to call his own, and it came with some perks: a surfeit of coffee equipment. “My original coffee concept—don’t laugh!—was to do individual tableside French presses. Don’t laugh! I wanted people to pour their own.” There's some logic to the madness, Kraus explains: “You have to get your hands dirty, you have to play to appreciate my cuisine! That’s all I was hoping for until I got introduced to the science of roasting. After that, I wanted it to be more forward-thinking, more innovative, more creative and playful.”
So what is now Crêpe Bar opened in July of 2012 using coffee from Ecco Caffe. At about this time, Moore returned home from his trip to Portland, and in need of a job. He was hired on about a month after the cafe opened, and introduced Kraus to Heart Roasters, an American brand known for roasting in a lighter, brighter style derived from the techniques used by top roasters in Scandinavia like Tim Wendelboe, Drop Coffee, Coffee Collective and Koppi, to name a few.
Crêpe Bar’s coffee is not just great because it’s well prepared, and it’s not just great because it’s good coffee. It’s great because Moore and Kraus put the same level of attention into the coffee program as they do any other element of their service. It’s a system that Kraus calls “The Golden Rule approach” to service. “It’s not science based,” he says. “We try to produce by demand. Demand will always be there if service is high…ask yourself, how do you want your drink to be served? That’s how we’ll do it.”
They have solid technical skills, but are also artistic and even intuitive. They’ll serve you a stellar shot of straight espresso, sure—but they’ll also get playful with signature drink combinations. Last fall, they served up a rich, textural drink made with cold-brew coffee, toasted farro, wheat berries, and date sugar. In winter, they switched things up with a “Nordic” hot cocoa. This homage to their Scandinavian-style coffee featured Lakrids syrup, rose water, and a delicate spice mixture. They also served a seasonal mentholated hot chocolate that was clean and refreshing.
This month, Moore hopes to debut a stylized version of what he calls “a Coffee Arnold Palmer.” The drink will feature cold-brew concentrate, mesquite smoked lemonade, and rosewater. Moore dilutes the beverage with leftover whey from Crêpe Bar’s house-made yogurt; this adds a silky mouthfeel and body that “isn’t sticky or cloying—and it’s less waste.” To finish, Moore hopes to garnish the drink with a juniper sugar straw (this element is still in the works.)
Jeff Kraus hopes, as we all do, that someday there will be a “Ferran Adria of coffee.” For now, we think Crêpe Bar is doing a pretty damn good job of elevating coffee: as a drink, as an ingredient, and as a component worthy of being called “cuisine”.
Zaida Dedolph is a Sprudge contributor based in Phoenix, Arizona. Read more Zaida Dedolph on Sprudge.