My new top pick for café that I wish would move in down the street has got to be Octane Coffee Bar and Lounge. Perhaps it’s the “and Lounge” part that does it, but they pretty much steal the show when it comes to full service café’s with a cool vibe that you could pretty much live in if it weren’t for the fact that there have no beds. It’s too bad they decided to set up shop nearly 2,500 miles away in Atlanta.
I won’t bore you with the details of my trip to Octane, but I was glad I made it. Let’s just say that despite its best attempts at public transit, Atlanta really is really a city in which one needs a car. If not, you’ll spend all your time getting to where you want to go and have too little time to do what you want once you get there (and you’ll have to fork out cab money because you’re late getting back).
The space at Octane is welcoming and diverse. Two bars line the entryway just past the front counter and right before the cafe opens into the main, exposed brick-walled room. Booths and small tables line the walls and low-slung couches, carpets, coffee tables and a few larger tables fill the center. The furniture is comfortable yet modern (think Urban Outfitters meets Design within reach) and very pleasant to look at. The lighting was bright enough to read by yet low enough to set a mood and the music was excellent and inspiring. There’s free wifi, plenty of outlets and even local art displayed on the walls.
For coffee, Octane uses Counter Culture Coffee, always a good bet. They pull shots of CCC’s Toscano blend and offer a rotating press coffee stored in an airpot. They also offer selected coffees they’ll press for you on an individual basis. I ordered a macchiato and skipped the press partly because I knew I could always buy the beans and brew them myself and partly because it was already 7:30 at night.
I don’t recall the Toscano I had elsewhere well enough for a close comparison, but this shot seemed even more sweet and chocolate-like than I remember. Compared to this shot, talk of “chocolate” in other espressos really means “hints” rather than a predominant flavor. My macchiato closely resembled a small cup of rich, very bittersweet chocolate, with a few hints of caramel and nuts. In fact, compared to most espresso, there was little “coffee” about it. Amazing, but not what one necessarily expects. My only complaint was that my drink was just slightly silty.
For the record, Octane’s staff have one of the more extensive training regimens out there for a café. Just check out the article in Barista magazine. Plus, if that wasn’t enough, Counter Culture recently opened up one of their training labs across the street. (If you’re not familiar with these labs, you should be: free cuppings and classes on everything for everyone – an absolute amazing and impressive piece of CCC’s business.)
But there’s more. Octane also offers an appropriately short but well crafted hot and cold sandwich menu. I ordered the grilled tofu and gouda cheese with roasted red peppers, an intriguing and successful combination. They also serve a sizable and impressive selection of beers and are open until midnight during the week and 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays (the lounge piece of the equation). Pretty much, there’s nothing they don’t do.
Just to make things complete I stopped to get some beans on the way out where I was fortunate enough to get the guidance of Tony Riffel, the owner. He steered me in the direction of CCC’s La Golondrina Colombia micro-lot, an amazing coffee that turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for, only better (but I’ll write more about this bean later).
Bay Area coffee is nothing to sneeze at and the options only keep growing: Blue Bottle’s new café, the Mr. Espresso affiliated Coffee Bar, and the rumored Ritual/Stumptown venture, Four Barrel Coffee, just to name the all-stars of the scene. But these spots are all pushing coffee in the direction of the coffee bar, a valued and appreciated contribution to coffee in the Bay Area and beyond, but are more akin to a high end restaurant than coffee house. I don’t know if it was vision or economic necessity (you can’t be so coffee single-minded in a place like Atlanta) that drove Octane to think to meld the lounge and bar concept to great coffee, but it’s a welcome and envious business they’ve created and a less high-end model others would do well not to forget.