Seattle roaster Caffe Vita has expanded its operations into Los Angeles; specifically, into the westernmost tip of a triangular brick behemoth on the border of Silver Lake and Los Feliz (Vita's website calls it Silverlake, so let's agree to agree). Perhaps not coincidentally, the building also houses a Rudy's Barbershop location – Rudy's being another Seattle export that, like Caffe Vita, seeks to engage the aesthetically fastidious with locations in Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles. I myself can relate, as a long-suffering Seattleite who now resides in the Southlands.
Two other cafes, Bru Coffeebar (Los Feliz) and Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (Silver Lake), already offer specialty coffee within a one-mile radius of the new Vita. Let's agree further, then, that in a market of such density, the “feel” of a place becomes critically subjective – maybe even more so than the quality of the product on offer. It stands to reason that the more casual consumers of specialty coffee may actually go out of their way for a better “vibe” rather than a proper extraction. This creates a contest-of-the-ambiances that can only drag us all further into that odd pocket of cultural critique where one flavor of vibe, or X factor, or hipness what-have-you is declared abhorrently overwrought or underdone, whilst another is embraced as somehow just right.
With this in mind I walked into the new Silver Lake Vita on a bright, warm Saturday for a cup of coffee.
Unlike many industries – telesales, say, or strip mining – the coffee business is very nakedly aware of the psychological importance of atmosphere. Coffee shops are sometimes taken to task for presenting too calculated an ambiance, but this isn't something they can afford to get wrong: as a social junction with rent to pay, any coffee shop will have a fundamental interest in cultivating an aesthetic to please their public. Not every business can afford an artisanally-carved redwood superstructure, or translucent Japanese floor panels that illuminate underfoot. But one way or another, any new entrant to the coffee shop market is essentially creating an end-user Habitrail for whichever flock of folks they're hoping to attract. Looking at a given build-out, part of your brain is likely asking: “Who is this all for? Is this for… me?”
This issue of ambiance goes hand-in-hand with the concept of coffee as a sacred ritual, wherein the slightest deviation from expected behavior may be construed as a profound wrongdoing, as the Yelp pages of innovative coffee bars can surely attest. Dare to not offer soy milk? A pox on your house! No raspberry syrup? Quelle horreur! This attitude is testament to the basic premise that most people – most consumers – look to coffee for a fair degree of predictability. They're all a bunch of philistines, surely, but that stress on predictability puts people in a pickle when evaluating a new coffee location. The whole experience is predicated upon quick judgement, and first impressions may impede a better understanding of the proprietors' goals.
Even with an optimistic attitude, it's difficult to avoid judging a new entrant against the familiar environment of your home turf. Habitual coffee users already know which places they can look to for the atmosphere, bean selection and beverage quality that they prefer. Routine and reliability are part of the appeal, making new talent worthy of suspicion. This bit of consumer psychology isn't particularly fair, but even putting such unfair comparisons to the side, what's left to titillate our jaded attention? What makes me want to hamster-jog in that particular Habitrail?
So I walked in to the Vita, noting numerous pairs of cold, blank eyes starring down at me over the lips of laptops. “There is nothing wrong with this,” I thought. “I brought my laptop, too. And I'm probably imagining the hostility – what do I expect them to do, get up and hug me?” The architecture is familiar enough to be, yes, uninspiring. Vaulted ceilings, exposed structural beams, warehouse-loft windows, and unfinished brickface. Some cafes are built to resemble precision-bound laboratories; others, homey dens; but to me, Vita feels more like someone's idea of a coffee shop. It's a perfectly uncluttered, innocuous environment that could almost have been ordered from a catalog, or constructed for television – a lot of the people who make television reside in this neighborhood of Los Angeles, after all.
Shelves by the entrance display Vita-branded swag and a pair of Kyoto slow-drip brewers both impressive and precarious. At the time of this writing, the shop offers four single-origin roasts as pour-overs and Vita's “signature espresso” Del Sol blend for all espresso. Over the course of two visits, I don't believe I saw them move a single other single-origin. The Gayo River Sumatran I tried was entirely pleasant, while my Del Sol blend americano was, in contrast, deep and earthy to an almost muddy extreme.
Possibly the sharpest idea in the whole place: two matching pieces of vintage stereo equipment, complete with luxuriously oversized VU meters, shined up and embedded directly in the center wall. Audio detritus of the 60s and 70s can be found commanding obscene prices in vintage boutiques throughout Silverlake, but these units are totally embedded in the wall, ensconced by plaster and preserved for posterity in a manner reminiscent of Michigan J. Frog.
Can the trend-heavy Silver Lake area sustain yet another upscale coffee shop? Has this particularly sub-section of the white-hot Los Angeles specialty coffee scene reached a moment of ur-saturation? The respectable throng availing itself of Vita's free Wi-Fi seemed to say, “There's plenty of room, Raymond. Join us. Be one with our collective silence.”
Cool, sounds good, but do we have to listen to the sitar drone orchestra?
Ray Proudfoot is a working musician and music producer living in Los Angeles. His band, Body Parts, is really good. This is his first feature for Sprudge.com.
Original photography by James Hanna.