Scarlet City has been roasting coffee in West Oakland for the last few years. Powered by Jen St. Hilaire, a veteran of Espresso Vivace in Seattle and the long-since-departed Ecco Caffe, Scarlet City does classic northern Italian style espresso blends, and medium-roasted single origin coffees, all similar to what you might find from Schomer & Co. at the highly influential Vivace. The coffee’s good, but the cafe itself is among the Bay Area’s most notable for sheer audacity and range of influences. This, dear nerds, is a fully operational intergalactic science fiction cafe.
St. Hilaire says that the café’s design is inspired by Star Trek, the noodle shop in Blade Runner, and other sci-fi lounges and marketplaces. The Star Wars cantina came up in our conversation; the bridge of the Starship Enterprise was also a primary design inspiration. To describe her vision to her contractor, St. Hilaire pulled out her Star Trek wallet, and said: “Make it look like this.” This might not be the most conventional way to go about designing a café, but maybe that’s the point.
Scope the IKEA Death-Star-inspired lamps, the futuristic chairs that you can see through, the logo that recalls Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. Even the saucers are decidedly off-center, indicating that they’re from another world.
The café is right on the border of Emeryville and Oakland, in what some enterprising rebranders have dubbed NOBE. The ground floor storefront is in a six-year-old residential building, but the space has never been rented. The owners had been using it for makeshift storage, and hadn’t even completed the floor. That allowed for a sweeping, sloping, stepped floor plan, reminiscent of the split-level bridge of the Enterprise. You can almost imagine Geordi La Forge seated at one of the bar stools.
The café only serves espresso. No drip coffee. The only coffee equipment in this cafe is a two-group La Marzocco Linea and a couple of Mazzer espresso grinders to make their house blends, dubbed Warp Drive and Light Speed, appropriately enough. “We want to just focus on one thing and do it really well,” St. Hilaire told me. The model is somewhat based on Vivace’s famous approach to coffee service, albeit with a markedly different aesthetic. “We take coffee really seriously—but that’s pretty much the only thing we take seriously,” St. Hilaire said.
It seems like they also take pinball pretty seriously, and with four machines–Star Trek, Dr. Who, Genesis, and Millennium Man–they’ll soon be hosting pinball tournaments. Jen St. Hilaire is something of a pinball enthusiast, and participates in a league at the pinball sanctuary/pizza bar Hi-Life in downtown Oakland, where pinball only recently became legal.
Scarlet City opened up shop in Emeryville for a reason. “Emeryville really is a small town plopped right in the middle of a big city. You can actually get involved in city politics,” said Susanna Handow, St. Hilaire’s business partner. “In Oakland, the city inspectors will say, ‘Here are two ways you can do it, but you might not pass inspection,’ but in Emeryville, the inspectors say, ‘Do it this way and you’ll pass.’ They’re just easier to work with.”
Scarlet City also recently procured a beer and wine license, so in the near future you’ll be able to get your sci-fi inspired libation of choice (perhaps some Romulan Ale, or a Pabst Blue Robot). Scarlet City and Emeryville might seem a little out there for those who rarely venture form San Francisco, but with a location a couple of blocks from the MacArthur BART station, I can’t imagine this café will stay hidden in deep space for long.