Easy question: what's the most important thing about a coffee shop?
Easy answer: the coffee.
That's also the wrong answer. Or at least, it's not always the right one. This is because there is no "correct" answer to such a question. That fact doesn't apply only to coffee shops, but I'll stick with java for this edifying conceit. There are coffee places where I go for the coffee and the coffee alone, there are coffee shops I go to because they are good for working at, and there are cafe's where the decor is good enough that it makes up for any failings in the coffee.
Take Pannikin in La Jolla, for instance. The coffee there is average. It merits neither special mention nor condemnation. If I am realistic, this is the territory that 80% of coffee falls into. For the rest, 5% is outstanding and 15% is sub-par. Yet, despite it's normative coffee, Pannikin is very successful and I would rate it highly as a coffee shop, mostly because of its amazing patio.
The multi-level deck made of old, faded wood incorporates trees and geometry in a way that creates a quirky sense of original space. Such a vibe is surprisingly difficult to get right and usually comes from a sense of organic growth and patina that's charming and authentic rather than uncomfortable and forced.
I also must recommend the delicious weirdness of the "french toast muffin." Studded with chocolate chips, the batter must contain huge volumes of egg. The muffin threatens to break the boundary separating morning pastry and custard, indeed it is almost like a popover that never popped and instead remained dense, sweet and chewy. It's a unique sweet by any means and, while not pretty to look at, is a sugarbomb worthy of sharing.
When we are spoiled for choice, as we are with coffee shops and most other types of business, I think it's important to differentiate between specific aspects and attributes of the many, many places we might patronize. It's actually a boon that we have so many options in front of us. There are places I might go just to get an exceptional cup of coffee and places I might go just because they have comfortable spaces. In a way, no place can really be perfect in every aspect, and it's valuable that we have a plethora of restaurants, nightclubs, bakeries, and cafes that bring different things to the great potluck of commerce. Don't get me wrong, proliferation and specialization going hand in hand has had its downfalls (a totally different subject that I won't get into) but the upside of the diverse market is that we are allowed some autonomy in fulfilling our desires and, in some respects, there is a little something for everyone out there if you just know what you're looking for.
7467 Girard Avenue