Local 123 Wants You to Stick Around Awhile

Categories: Coffee

Molly Gore
Simple snacks and homey atmosphere at Local 123.
Of its many comforts, it was Local 123's dark chocolate sea salt cookie that first catapulted me into a committed relationship with my now-favorite writing spot.

The two-bite confection, pushing the size of a half-dollar, laid waste to nearly every other cookie in my working memory when I tasted it. Sound dramatic? Consider this: I opted to risk a parking ticket yesterday by saving my quarters for this cookie. Desperation? No. Just an act of love. It's tiny and rich, packed with Valrhona chocolate, sprinkled with a speck of sea salt, and dosed with a pinch of finely ground Four Barrel coffee that makes the salt-and-chocolate combo pop like no other version you've likely tasted.

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And so began my growing fondness for Local 123. The café is an unlikely oasis on a particularly languid stretch of San Pablo Avenue, flanked by pet supply stores and laundromats. Inside, you'll find a freelancer's sanctuary: quaint and welcoming, cozily furnished, and gastronomically satisfying. Besides the cookie, that balance is perhaps the best thing about Local 123: the symbiotic marriage of its atmosphere and the quality of its nosh.

For starters, the coffee on deck right now is Four Barrel, a delicious and cultish wonderchild of the San Francisco coffee scene. And they do it right, either hand-dripped through KONE metal filters (a technique that preserves especially well the subtleties and flavorful nuances of coffee for you super tasters out there), dripped in small batches, or pulled as espresso by some highly trained baristas who seem quite amiable.

local 123 coffee.jpg
Molly Gore
The tables are weighty and wooden, and the walls wear an eclectic rota of local art. The music is as inoffensive and palatable as an indie playlist gets -- the likes of Sufjan and Andrew Bird getting a bulk of airtime -- while Etta James and '80s ballads sneak in edgewise. A communal table anchors the back, beyond which you'll find a patio decked with a hanging garden and whimsical flora. In warmer weather, that's where we'd be. But for now, we settle next to the mural of a moon at the longest table in the house, shuffle our Mac next to its brothers in a line of work-from-homers swooning over each others' lunches.

Speaking of, the lunch menu is short, simple, and seasonal. The café emphasizes sustainability, serving wine and beer on tap to minimize packaging waste, and sourcing many of its ingredients from a close radius. The sandwiches elegantly straddle the breakfast-to-lunch transition, incorporating poached eggs and light creamy cheeses with various greens on Acme baguettes, including variations with Fra Mani meat, and a consistent side of Acme toast slathered in herb butter. There's a seasonal market soup (try the French onion), and the salad is always absurdly fresh. Granted, the portions aren't grand and everything is plated simply, but what's done is done well. The pastries are either housemade or by Starter Bakery. Yes, that devilish buttery bomb, the Kouign-amann, is available here.

I've spent the months since moving to the East Bay on a hunt for a good and cozy cafe from which to work (read: eat and watch other people work). I'm picky about my cafés. I like inviting lighting. Wood-paneled ceilings. A finely curated tea selection and fresh, buttery pastries. Excellent and thoughtfully made coffee with a well-placed story behind it. It might sound snooty, but there's an art to creating that intangible appeal in a café that makes you want to stick around all day. Local 123 is the kind of place you want to sit down and bang out your e-mails, or a few bad poems, and then call all your friends to come play gin rummy over chai.

Luckily, there's one more outpost in Albany at a nursery called Flowerland, where they serve coffee and pastries from a sleek 1969 Airstream Streamline Princess trailer. I haven't been yet, but Airstreams and flowers sound like a good start to any weekend. Who's in?

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Wow! Sounds like a great place! Can't wait to go there.

Except that YOU and about 8-10 other folks hog all the 2- and 4-tops to yourselves so that very few get to sit at those lovely wooden tables. There is a new movement among coffee shop owners to limit free WiFi access so that table monopolizing becomes less of an issue which is something I applaud. You probably were not the guy I saw with something like a Big Gulp shoved between his legs which he sipped on surreptitiously as he wrote his amazing new novel, or worked on his dissertation, or contributed to his earth-moving gaming blog...without paying his due rent at the 123 cash register where those---sorry, my experience is different from yours---attitude-heavy and angst-ridden coffee-jerks. Yep, I've experience mostly hipper-than-thou attitude, sloppy service and inaccurate order delivery at this hallowed new temple of the Third Wave Coffee Cult. I wanted so much to like this place, but they've just stumbled on so many points. Those lovely food selections are priced out of proportion to their worth...over-cooked "poached" (those 50s-style "poaching" cups are a bit ridiculous and produce a terrible egg), their pastries are insanely priced, and, more to the point, their coffee is inconsistent at best. I've had a couple of OK cappuccini there, but more often, they come out a bit unbalanced and bitter. Maybe it's those trendy, under-roasted beans, and the too-frequent insistence on using single origin espresso offerings. Read some Illy on the science of espresso and you (and maybe these third-wave experts) might learn that very few single origin beans can produce a really proper espresso, i.e., balanced, sweet and yummy. I had to laugh at the description of the "baristas" as "amiable". Not my experience at all. But, of course, YMMV!!!!  You won't have to compete for space with me there too often, that is for certain!

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