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Downtown's Cafe Scene Perks Up

By Stett Holbrook

I BELIEVE a lively cafe culture is a necessary ingredient for a downtown district to fully flourish. Cities need places that not only offer a full line of a caffeinated beverages, but space to while away the day engrossed in a book, tapping away on a computer (with the aid of free WiFi of course) or plotting revolution or new business ideas with a with a few like-minded co-conspirators/friends.

Because we live in an increasingly nomadic culture no longer confined to offices and the home, cafes enable creative types and slackers alike to do their thing with the help of an iPhone, a laptop and a well-made cappuccino. Cafes can become hives of activity that help enrich a city's cultural and intellectual life and create community in small but significant ways.

Los Gatos has such a cafe scene. Campbell and Saratoga, too. But poor downtown San Jose has long lacked the good cups of coffee and cafe society a city of its size needs and deserves. Yes, there are Starbucks and Peet's and they'll do in a pinch, but I think the chains' cookie-cutter corporate aesthetic impedes the development of a true coffeehouse culture in all its bohemian, anarchic glory.

But there are signs of life. Two cafes have recently opened downtown.

Caffe Trieste. Yes, it's a chain of sorts, but it's a small one (in addition to San Jose there are only two other locations outside of San Francisco) and Caffe Trieste's original location in North Beach pretty much defined the beat coffeehouse. Maybe some of that will rub off on San Jose. The cafe opened about a month ago next to Original Joe's, a neighbor that gives it a bit of old-school cred, as does the "since 1956" tag on the cafe's sign. It's a simple-looking place with wooden tables, photos from the original Caffe Trieste and a garretlike upper level perfect for holing up with a book and a cup of strong coffee.

Penguin Froyo. You could argue that Penguin Froyo is more of a dessert place than a cafe, but this independently owned newcomer makes great coffee and offers free WiFi and a hands-off setting in which to sit and sip for hours. Located under the old Firato ravioli sign on East Santa Clara Street, Penguin Froyo combines high-style architectural details with good- looking exposed brick walls. The cafe has made a serious commitment to green design as well. The cafe uses biodegradable cups, fair-trade coffee from Java City Coffee, nontoxic cleaning supplies, energy-efficient lights and machines, and floors made from nonproductive palm trees that were replaced with new trees after they were harvested.

I was sad to see Broken Door Espresso close. I went when it was called eMocha and I had a great New Orleans–style (chicory) iced coffee. How can a cool cafe located across from City Hall that serves Blue Bottle Coffee not succeed? Maybe they'll be back. Their blog ( says the cafe is closed "for now" and that they're "working on certain details here and there that we hope you understand we can't discuss in the open."

That's just the kind of conspiratorial cafe chatter this city needs more of. Please come back soon.

Caffe Trieste

315 S. First St., San Jose. 408.287.0400.

Penguin Froyo

30 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose. 408.280.0808.

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