As I write this, I am sitting in my San Francisco office — the Royal Ground coffee shop on Russian Hill. It’s evening, and I’ve got a few hours to crank out a column, fueled by a Max’s Blend espresso and the Whole Foods sushi and salad I wolfed down at dinner time. This is the 21st Century, when anywhere you plug in your laptop is your office. As far as that trend goes, I’ve been ahead of the curve, using the R.G. as my HQ since I tapped out articles on a primitive word processor in the 1990s as a critic and columnist for the Chronicle. (Yes, that Chronicle.)
I have previously used this space to burble about the pleasures of being a “regular” at certain cafés where not everybody knows your name, but the counter people know your usual order. It’s a comfort to receive that treatment, especially when you’re about to plow into a daunting project. There have been other Royal Ground coffee shops dotting the Bay Area landscape since original owner/founder Ramzi Faraj set the mini-chain in motion a couple of decades back, but my favorite location on Polk Street has always been as much a de facto writers’ room, study hall, and business HQ as it’s been a place to hang out with your friends and meet new people. In the latter regard, I should mention my part in introducing two folks at the R.G., who subsequently courted there. They eventually married, though not at the café. That would’ve been weird, not to mention disruptive to all the drones at their computers, myself included.
Ramzi was a native of Jordan who intended the Royal Ground’s atmosphere to evoke what he recalled and cherished about the cafés in his hometown of Amman. As he once told me, they were casual places where locals could while away the time over strong cups of aromatic coffee, talking about life, love, and the news, reading, playing chess or other board games, and generally relaxing. He eventually sold the Polk Street outpost, but regardless of the ownership, the welcoming, easy-going spirit of the place has stood fast. So it’s been years of high-octane caffeine blasts, pastries, and the occasional sandwich (especially, the delicious and reasonably-priced banh mi chicken delight now served by the current proprietors) in the most congenial of workspaces. Sure, I’m surrounded by law students and code monkeys and the random tortured poet or would-be novelist. On the other hand, I am also apt to see other regulars with whom I have bonded over time — neighbors turned pals of varying degree, all of whom I am happy to have on hand when I need a chat break or commiseration.
As a part-time resident of Los Angeles, I have found a fitting equivalent to the Royal Ground to serve as my southern branch office: the Solar de Cahuenga. This unpretentious café/restaurant with full kitchen and bakery, plus beer and wine service, nominally specializes in crepes. Located at the corner of Franklin and Cahuenga in the heart of Hollywood, its real specialty is serving as an all-day magnet for screenwriters, producers, and musicians — aspiring, rising, and veteran — who are toiling away on various projects, taking meetings, and networking. In other words, the clientele is a bit of a change from the Royal Ground. Though the no-nonsense vibe of the place belies its industrious, insider functionality as a creative or business nexus, the endless parade of young, unknown, and often beautiful actresses and actors can be a bit distracting. Then, there are the more recognizable artists that breeze into the joint, all of whom are generally left to their own devices.
I couldn’t help noticing the established, quirky comedic actress and legacy kid whose father was a distinguished character actor. She entered the café one balmy spring morning in a fetching floral print sundress; she smiled, beaming as if from some inner light source, ordered a fruit smoothie, then powwowed with a burly producer type for a half-hour. What about the boyishly handsome sit-com star who spent a month of weekdays at a table in the front of the room, writing the script to what would be his well-received feature-film directorial debut? It was hard to miss the lanky, appealing actress who frequented the Solar on free afternoons between the cancelation of a snarky, funny situation comedy and the start of her starring role in a highly regarded Netflix mini-series. One Saturday, everyone was aware of the loud stand-up comic and part-time actor who held court, joking and bantering with his posse on the back patio. And kudos to the successful British actress who was in town to audition for a couple of parts, including the Showtime drama that she eventually landed. Super-casual in a T-shirt, jeans, and a fisherman’s cap, she was unfailingly friendly as she sat down in the chair next to mine and, sipping on a tea, became engrossed in Don DiLillo’s novel White Noise.
It’s a hive of activity, and one’s eyes may sometimes wander. Nonetheless, the energy is stimulating and the job generally gets done. The proof is in the word-count. I have created a career’s-worth of articles, columns, reviews, essays, scripts, pitch documents, project bibles, and random editorial content at both destinations — and counting. Café society was never so profitable. Thank goodness. And I’ll have that with soy milk, please.