(Update: 10/19/10 – See comments)
I have to admit that the arrival of Local 123 took me something by surprise. It’s not that I hadn’t been eagerly waiting for a cafe of this caliber to open in the East Bay. It’s just that I assumed such an opening might be more like waiting for Godot than reality. In fact, I nearly did find myself in waiting limbo, my coffee sniffing skills apparently having gone rusty. It took a trusty coffee seeking friend to point out Local 123’s opening to me. Thank goodness he did. This cafe, named after the Painter’s Union that formerly occupied the space and highlighting the locavore-inspired aspects of its menu, provides atmosphere on par with some of San Francisco’s best spots and serves one of the best cups of coffee or shots of espresso in the East Bay.
It’s worth noting that East Bay coffee has been on an upward trend. Awaken is likely one of the most highly skilled East Bay cafes (and I’ve softened a bit on their choice of Taylor Made) while 33 Revolutions and Cafe 504 have won some high marks from me for their selection of Ritual and Blue Bottle beans. Of course, Blue Bottle has two kiosks, but only for a few hours each week at the Berkeley and Temescal Farmer’s Markets (at least until the opening of the highly anticipated Jack London Roastery coffee bar). And while Pacific Bay Coffee Company rules the roost in Walnut Creek, I’m loathe to consider Walnut Creek as part of the East Bay. None of these places, however, have combined choice, skill, beans, and (inner) East Bay availability in a single, full-sized, well-designed cafe location. Local 123 does all these things with its own individual flair. Did I mention that Local 123 uses coffee from Flying Goat Coffee, which, in fact, can’t be found at any cafes in San Francisco?
Local 123 starts things off with an impressive aesthetic and spacious interior with multiple seating areas, including an small section situated behind the garage door front wall that opens in nicer weather, a building-length bench with tables and chairs, a gorgeous wooden-topped bar where one can sit and quickly sip espresso, a back area filled with coffee tables and couches and a rear patio contained by neighboring building walls. The overall sense of design is modern with paper lights, splashes of Local 123’s signature green and little touches of design magazine cuteness from scripted menu cards to toy airplanes sitting on an outside wall. The grand effect is one of many splendid details while still retaining a sense of comfort one might find in a well-designed modern home.
As I mentioned, Local 123 uses coffee from Flying Goat, serving of a selection of coffees, brewed to order, that bests even that roaster’s own shop in Santa Rosa. Local 123 pulls shots of either Flying Goat’s No. 9 blend or a rotating single origin espresso off their shiny, silver, La Marzocco GB/5. You can also chose from one of 4 coffees that staff grind and brew via their four cup drip station. Staff will also bag up beans for sale, which I so far have found to range in roast dates from 2-12 days, which is quite good for a wholesale client cafe.
At the time of writing this, I’ve visited Local 123 a handful of times and not yet been disappointed with the quality of the coffee. The shots of No. 9 are short and dense with nicely mottled, reddish brown crema. I noted sweet oranges, tobacco and molasses in a thick, syrupy shot. The profile of this espresso is a brighter variation on a more traditional blend, just interesting enough to stand on its own but likely also to please quality coffee newcomers. On another trip, I sampled a single origin shot. It was a Brazil that day, but an El Salvador the time before. The Brazil was more uni-dimensional than the No. 9 blend, and not nearly as interesting, but it was well-pulled and seemingly at the top of its game. I can fairly attribute any disinterest to the coffee and not barista skill, and I’ll certainly look forward to trying other single origins in the future.
So far my favorite from the pour over menu has been the Kenya Nyeri Gatina, which is rich with a red wine-like acidity and fruitiness. It’s a viscous coffee with some notes of currant, cranberry and grape that has a more mellow profile than one may be used to in a Kenyan coffee. That said, I also very much enjoyed the Guatemala San Jose Ocaña that I consumed at home. It produced a fairly full-bodied coffee (darker than what I had in the Santa Rosa shop last year) with a well-balanced brightness and notes primarily of chocolate and cherries. While still good, I found myself less drawn to the Brazil Boa Sorte Peaberry that you can read more about here. Of course, the menu will change, but hopefully the care and attention staff give each cup will not.
My one tiny complaint is that the homemade pastries, which look amazing, seem exaggerated in price, especially considering their size. But this tiny mark shouldn’t stop you from visiting. Local 123 should be added to your list of coffee destinations, even for folks living in San Francisco! Of course, this news may be poorly timed for city residents given holiday weekend and Bay Bridge closure. The good news is that leaves all the more coffee for the rest of us.