It's appropriate that third-wave coffee pioneer Blue Bottle Coffee is serving up its carefully crafted cups of java out of Palo Alto's historic Varsity Theater. The more than 80-year-old building is the perfect setting for a company dedicated to making coffee the old-fashioned way -- one cup at a time.
Blue Bottle's main entrance along University Avenue features an old movie theater marquee sign -- a nod to the building's history -- and takes you through a charming and spacious open-air courtyard with fancifully shaped columns and arches, an inviting fountain, zig-zagging overhead string lights and plenty of seating. There is no shortage of laptops, smartphones, tech workers and lattes. (There's free WiFi, of course.)
Varsity Theater, located at 456 University Ave., is listed on Palo Alto's Historic Inventory under Category 1, reserved for buildings deemed to be of "pre-eminent national or state importance." Due to its status, tenants are prevented from making significant modifications that would change the overall appearance or character of the building.
That's not a problem for Blue Bottle, said General Manager Conner Burns.
"We tend to mold with the space that we're moving into as opposed to other companies," he explained. "Larger brands and chains tend to build out their spaces identically in terms of aesthetics and style, but if you go to this space you see that we wanted to maintain (the history of the building)."
The courtyard leads into the theater's remodeled lobby, where one can order coffee or eye baked goods on display in a pastry case designed to look like a movie theater concession stand. It's "not super functional," Burns said, "but it hails back to what this space used to be."
The space is somewhat dark due to the scarcity of windows, but the inviting ambiance puts one in the mood to spend an hour or two sipping a cup of joe while chatting with friends or catching up on work.
The cafe, Blue Bottle's first on the Peninsula, opened in March as part of HanaHaus, a tech-centric gathering space created by Palo Alto software company SAP. The cafe features a minimalist menu: drip coffee, tea, espresso drinks and Blue Bottle's famed New Orleans iced coffee (a sweetly satisfying cold-brewed drink made with Clover whole milk, roasted chicory and organic cane sugar). Each cup of coffee, which is offered in only one size and costs between $4 and $7, is brewed to order, ensuring that coffee lovers can enjoy their drink at its peak of flavor. It's no drive-through; individual brewing takes at least three minutes per cup.
"Every drink is different," Burns said. "We don't do batch brewing and so people sometimes get a little confused when they come to a third-wave coffee producer like Blue Bottle or others in the area where every cup is made to order. ... It's a little slow for them, but there's a lot of people who really want to wait that three minutes for a great cup of coffee."
Say you come in wanting a drip coffee. A skilled barista -- who goes through an in-depth training process at Blue Bottle's headquarters in Oakland -- will grind the coffee beans when you order and then brew them via one of the many brewing methods used at Blue Bottle, including pour-over coffee, which involves pouring hot water in a steady and slow stream over coffee grounds in a paper filter; and siphon coffee, in which baristas use a glass coffee maker that looks like it came from a chemistry lab to brew a full infusion style of coffee.
Barista Sean White explained that siphon brewing uses a cloth rather than paper filter, meaning more sediment but also more "delicate" coffee.
Blue Bottle's espresso is prepared using a pressurized brewing method, Burns said. (Don't miss the cafe's affogato: espresso poured over San Francisco's famous Humphry Slocombe brown butter ice cream.)
Brewing methods aside, the key to a great cup of coffee lies in the beans. That's why Blue Bottle, which was founded more than 10 years ago in Oakland by freelance musician and coffee lover James Freeman and now has cafes from San Francisco to New York and Tokyo, offers a variety of beans from small coffee co-operatives where beans are produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way, Burns said.
"We won't work with companies that are not like-minded," he said. "Coffee has a troubled history, and we will not play into that. We actually do our best to pull people out of the state they are sometimes in and help the farmers and growers."
In addition to responsibly sourced beans, the Palo Alto cafe serves breakfast, including Blue Bottle's signature crisp and buttery Belgian waffle, which comes with a lightly sweetened strawberry compote, maple syrup and butter. Needless to say, it goes perfectly with coffee.
A highlight of the cafe's lunch offerings is its simple but elegant ham tartine -- a generous slice of toasted bread covered with mustard, gruyere cheese, a hearty spread of spicy cilantro sauce, thinly sliced ham and pickles. The tartine comes with a simple green side salad.
If you're looking for something lighter, the cafe also offers cookies and pastries, but their baked offerings are soon to change with the company's recent merger with Tartine Bakery & Cafe, a famed San Francisco bakery with a seemingly perpetual line out the door. Blue Bottle will start to serve Tartine's breads, pastries and sweet and savory breakfast treats in the coming months. As far as specific goods to be sold at the Palo Alto location, details are still being sorted out.
Meanwhile, Burns said the Blue Bottle staff is excited to be in a community like Palo Alto that has so much power over how the world operates. A lot can happen over a cup of coffee, he added.
"You never know if the next amazing startup is going to be thought up or put together over a couple of cups of Blue Bottle coffee."
Blue Bottle Coffee
456 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.