When I first saw Coffeehouse Nishiya, it struck me as out of place. Its blue wooden sign boards, aged veranda, and white tiling all stood in contrast to the surrounding concrete mix of houses, apartments, and office buildings. Coffeehouse Nishiya was simple and unique, compact. It felt like maybe it had always been there on that street corner.
At the same time, it was odd to have walked 10 minutes from Shibuya’s busy intersection—a place of giant billboards, thousands of people, and a cacophony of sound—to find myself at…an Italian bar.
Inside, owner Kyohei Nishiya stood behind a wooden counter. His co-worker Yoshiki Okada directed me to a spot at the far end of the counter. The two wore button-up shirts, neckties, and dress pants—the Coffeehouse Nishiya uniform.
I ordered an espresso shake and asked Nishiya how he started.
He said that coffee wasn’t his entry to barista work; it was meeting a real barista for the first time. He said the guy was cool, sophisticated, and a smooth talker. Nishiya was impressed. “It wasn’t what was in the cup that drew me to coffee,” he said. “It was everything around it.”
I watched Nishiya prepare a drink. He worked with a smooth, well-practiced grace. Everything was where he wanted, each movement was efficient. There was an element of dance to it—a rhythm and flow. He placed the finished drink on the counter, where Okada whisked it away to a waiting customer.
A singular kind of cool permeated the coffee shop—part of it performance, part of it atmosphere, and part of it design. Nishiya visited some hundred places around Italy for research. He wanted a place that would last, and said he wasn’t interested in the makeshift, the slapdash, or the vintage. He had a very particular image in mind: of durable quality and the air of traditional Europe.
Nishiya Coffeehouse opened in September 2013. The first year was slow. At that time, there wasn’t any clear signage out front; passersby thought it was a bar and simply kept passing on by. With time the menu was revised, and locals started coming. The pudding and the banana espresso shake gained a reputation. Business picked up, a crew of regulars developed, and, Nishiya says, they’ve been busy ever since.
Nishiya said the menu develops based on customer needs. “[It] is all the standards,” he said. “I’m not interested in making something completely new. But if a customer asks for something, I want to provide it for them. I take the standard recipe, then add a little or take a little. That’s it.”
“The standards are the standards because they’re reliable,” he continued. “Established.”
Whereas other successful businesses spur talk of growth, Nishiya isn’t interested in expansion. He says that if he wasn’t the one making the drinks, he couldn’t maintain quality control. I asked about Okada, zipping around taking orders and clearing the counter.
“He makes drinks too—I mean, I need to rest sometimes. But when I’m here, I make the drinks.”
Watching them work, I saw something of the traditional craftsman in Nishiya. The cafe was a physical manifestation of his style, a particular aura you felt in the service and tasted in the coffee. The whole reason it’s called Coffeehouse Nishiya, after all, is because it’s where you’ll find him.
Customers came, went, talked, and drank. Nishiya made drinks, Okada delivered them, and the two engaged in playful banter.
I wondered, is this what an Italian bar feels like?
There was no way of knowing. But what mattered was that Nishiya had—with inspiration from his favorite coffee shops—created a space that shared the style and service that most impressed him when he started in coffee some 13 years ago. That seemed like quite a feat.
And looking back at Coffeehouse Nishiya as I left, I found myself hoping it would be there for a long time yet; that years from now people might still talk about the pudding, the coffee, and the cocktails at that little Italian place on the corner, 10 minutes from Shibuya station.
Original photography by Sonia Cao.