How Blue Bottle Revitalized a Beautiful Palo Alto Theater

News that a third-wave coffee roaster is opening in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley feels like describing new restaurants as “neighborhood bistros focused on seasonal, organic, local ingredients.” Captivating and innovative stuff, right?

Old hat for city folks, but not so for Palo Alto. We’re still waiting for that game-changing chef who can make us start to compete with that other university town in the East Bay. Fortunately, legitimate, top-tier coffee arrived with Blue Bottle Coffee’s opening in Downtown Palo Alto around St. Patrick’s Day. It was the seventh Blue Bottle café locally (there are now nine altogether), but remains the only Bay Area Blue Bottle not in San Francisco or Oakland. Peninsula Pride!

[jump] Being a quintessential Bay Area start-up model complete with Silicon Valley funding, it’s only appropriate that Blue Bottle staked the first third-wave claim in this tech haven. Previously, the only “very good” coffee was Philz or a quirky running store/coffee roaster/coffee kiosk hybrid coincidentally housed in a former movie theater. It’s also appropriately fitting that this Palo Alto Blue Bottle is part of the new communal tech workspace, Hanahaus. The Ferry Building Blue Bottle teems with tourists and, on cue, this Palo Alto laptop farm has been inundated with “Series A” pitch slide-deck discussions. No need to ask if there’s free wifi. You’re not in Four Barrel territory.

Following the classic Blue Bottle blueprint of spare cafés in spectacular buildings — think Morse, Heath, Ferry Building) — this location resides in the legendary Varsity Theater, a classic film palace dating back to 1927. (Don’t worry, the 1925 Stanford Theater, still shows classic films just down the street). Sadly, in the past half-decade the Varsity had been left virtually vacant. Outside is a de facto town square with strings of overhead lights, a central fountain and dramatic Mission-style arches, while the interior boasts lovely floor tiles, vaulted ceilings, and ornate 1920s lamps and pillars. Everything is gorgeous. Most recently the complex was a Borders where underage Palo Alto kids would browse books on late weekend nights, before we knew what beer or coffee tasted like (in theory).

The usual Blue Bottle drip and espresso drinks are here, including the very secretive Gibraltar. Outside of some sloppy cappuccino handling, I can safely write this Blue Bottle’s baristas are just as consistently excellent as their peers to the north (or south, east, or west). A compact food menu sports items like a Cubano-style ham tartine, curried cauliflower soup, and — of vital importance at any hour — Belgian waffles. For those keeping score, the thick-cut Firebrand toast with raspberry jam is exactly $4. Snacks are basically brownies, granola, pretzels, and cookies.

One glaring omission: why in the world have my beloved sesame absinthe cigars not taken the Caltrain south to Palo Alto? Absolutely unacceptable.

At least as the Peninsula anxiously waits for the cigars, Palo Alto now has coffee on par with Mid-Market, Mint Plaza and that miniscule Hayes Valley alley. And hey, everybody is all for a great espresso and for reviving a city’s cultural and architectural icon — as long as guests look up from their laptop and macchiato occasionally to appreciate it.

Blue Bottle Coffee, 465 University Ave., Palo Alto.

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