Just a sip or two into a Guatemalan single-origin drip at the new Blue Bottle Coffee in Berkeley and I’m already being regaled by an elderly gentleman hunkered down next me: how he was mysteriously gifted a 200-year-old Bible in a New Mexico desert, the way his great-grandfather “really started” Berkeley, the countless joys of staying in Marriott hotels. He periodically stops to catch his breath and scoop little waves of chocolate from the bottom of his mocha up to his mouth with his index finger.
“Sorry, I can’t help myself,” he says. “It’s too good!”
Blue Bottle's first Berkeley location, which opened in late 2016, has a unique vibe. It straddles the border between one of the top university campuses in the country and a quaint, quiet neighborhood, creating welcome juxtapositions where thoughtful, minimal architecture meets the kind of neighborly friendliness that rivals the Midwest.
Credit for the cafe's open atmosphere goes to Lincoln Lighthill Architect (Lighthill worked on previous sites for Blue Bottle) but also to the choice of a Modbar—a first for Blue Bottle—with its sleek, solitary taps the only elements visible to customers (the machine itself does its work under the counter).
“Blue Bottle is always interested in breaking down the barriers between the barista and the customer, so the reduction in counter space is huge,” Lighthill says. “I don’t know of another cafe with such a narrow counter that allows for such an intimate interaction.”
Which can be one of the most important dynamics in specialty coffee—to stop, slow down, and enjoy a little human interaction that ends with a quality cup of coffee. Maybe you chat about the coffee's source, maybe you talk about what you’re doing that day. Either way, there's no craning awkwardly to shout around a piece of equipment.
When a barista returns to the counter where my new friend is spinning another of his yarns and squeezes the man's shoulder, then asks him by name if he’d like another mocha, I’m no longer surprised by the community-cafe vibe. For an hour on a Berkeley morning, I’m just happy to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee and easy conversations with people I don’t know.
Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello.