Serious Coffee

“Isn’t that crazy, hanging art like this in the bathroom?”

Stephanie (left side). Bassam Shamma (right) shares a bottle of port with his friend Joe (left) on his sidewalk patio.
  • Stephanie (left side). Bassam Shamma (right) shares a bottle of port with his friend Joe (left) on his sidewalk patio.

Café Bassam

3088 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill

It hangs below four others like it, an ancient rifle from ancient wars. Did it kill people? Did it save someone’s life? As I stand in line waiting for coffee and something to eat, I can’t help wondering.

On the other hand, it’s just the kind of thing you’d expect at Café Bassam. I’d heard that the owner, Bassam Shamma, had moved his coffee and tea house from its original location at Fourth and Market up to Bankers Hill about five years ago. Bassam was one of the pioneers of the Gaslamp Quarter; you’d never believe what the neighborhood looked like in 1991.

This newer location is still a li’l old coffee house, but, unexpectedly, in a brand-new building. Step inside, and it’s like a Victorian museum. Ornate mirrors, those vintage rifles displayed on maroon-painted walls. Comfy sofas, pink-stone-topped tables, jewelry collections, a baby grand piano, displays of cigars, medals, wines, paintings, a round silver tray with three bottles of port on it —they’re definitely being served from; each is only half full — plus a flock of ceiling fans hovering overhead, like, I dunno, swans? It feels like your anthropologist uncle’s dark sitting room. Except there’s a glow of laptop screens around the tables where people sit, mostly sipping coffee, and working away.

The first time I came in here was six days ago. Jes’ walkin’ by, about sunset. Noticed the nice smell of coffee and a faint whiff of cigars coming from the outside patio, a narrow space, but with a mini-forest of potted trees between the tables and sidewalk.

I decided to pop in for a coffee. Ordered that from Stephanie. It was beautiful, served in a wide china cup. And only $2. Then I noticed one of the chalkboard menus. “Port, $5 per glass.” Could I resist?

Coffee and port.

Coffee and port.

Uh, no. Five minutes later…man, this was the life. I was outside at a classily shabby French-style slatted table, sipping my port — rich, not sharp — and chasing it with coffee. Listening to two gents nearby, talking away in Arabic. They were sharing a bottle of port. The big gent had a big cigar and a big laugh. Before long, we were all talking — in English. The big guy’s name was Joe, from Lebanon. His friend’s name was Bassam.

Oh, Bassam? Must be the owner, I realized.

Turns out Bassam is Palestinian, from a wealthy family in Jordan, and a social pioneer in San Diego. Then I spied the neon sign inside: “Café Bassam. First Real Coffee House in California.”

“I wanted this to be like a Middle Eastern café, a little bit French, a sort of daily meeting place,” Bassam said. “And I’m a collector, so I have filled it with things that interest me, but also for people to look at or buy, like period jewelry, crystal, teas, cigars. And I have very good art that’s mine. Come.”

I follow him through the coffee shop to…the restroom. On the wall, among a dozen other paintings and posters, is a Picasso, a real, limited-edition pic — etching, litho, whatever — of the double-faced woman. It’s number 45 of a run of 500. “Paris — collection of Marina Picasso” is written in pencil along the bottom. Wow.

“Isn’t that crazy, hanging art like this in the bathroom?” I asked.

He smiled. “Art has to be appreciated to live.”

Back at the table, when Bassam saw me drinking my port, he topped up my glass, along with Joe’s. Couldn’t stop him.

“Don’t even try,” said Joe. “He’s that kind of guy.”

So, what about Bassam’s being the “first real coffee house in California”?

“Of course other places had coffee,” Bassam said. “But not serious. Not the urban, social-gathering place where cultural things happen. Here, we do things like Argentine tango classes on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.”

When Bassam first opened up downtown in 1991, there was Croce’s, Sybil’s Down Under, and the Spaghetti Factory. “That was it! Now it’s maybe too commercial downtown.”

This all was last Friday.

Tonight, a week later, it’s suppertime and I gotta eat. I’m up at the counter. On the sound system, a sad cello plays. Argh! I know this piece. “It’s the dying swan,” says tonight’s gal, Urs, behind the counter. “From Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky’s ballet.”

God, it’s beautiful.

I give the chalkboard menu a look.

Panini are $7.50. There’s a Caprese (with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil), which is $8. So is the mozzarella and pesto. An olive plate’s $7, cheese plate’s $12, chicken pesto (sandwich?...not quite sure) is $8.50. Soups (tomato, red pepper, or squash) are $5, and the two straight sandwiches, turkey or tuna, go for $7.50.

“I’d take the tuna,” says Urs. “It has pomegranate juice and cumin in it.”

I get that, plus the $2 coffee. Go sit near where a couple of students are tinkling with the baby grand. Play pretty well. They’re drowning out the dying swan, which seems to be on a continuous loop.

Then Urs turns up with the sandwich. It’s two triangular halves, one on top of the other, with a knife stabbed through to hold them together. Great thick wads of rye bread with caraway seeds (or maybe fennel) plus cheese, tomato, and a juicy layer of tuna. It’s a lush combo. Think I can taste the pomegranate.

It’s past 7:00 p.m. Time to go. This time of night, Bassam’s seems to be a staging place for people on their way to somewhere else. Lots of “There he is!” and quick clusterings, and heading out the door.

What a find. Before leaving, I ask Bassam about his ancient rifles.

“I collect them,” he says. “Bottom one is the Zulu. It’s British.”

As I leave, the swan is still dying on the soundtrack.

Next time, I’ll have to bring Carla and maybe a couple of philosophers. We can drink port and coffee, talk a lot, snack a little, learn how to tango… ■

The Place: Café Bassam, 3088 5th Avenue, Bankers Hill at Redwood, 619-557-0173

Type of Food: American

Prices: Caprese panini (with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil), $8; mozzarella and pesto panini, $7.50; olive plate, $7; cheese plate, $12; chicken pesto sandwich, $8.50; soups (tomato, red pepper, or squash), $5; turkey or tuna sandwich, $7.50

Hours: 8:00 a.m.–12:00 a.m. (till 1:00 a.m., Friday–Saturday)

Buses: 3, 120

Nearest Bus Stops: 5th and Redwood (#3, northbound); 4th and Spruce (#3, southbound); 5th and Upas (#120, northbound); 4th and Upas (#120, southbound)

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