Long before Oakland (aka "The Town") was a hipster destination teeming with endless cafes offering good quality coffee, there was the North Oakland coffee spot known as Royal Coffee, and in more recent years known as Cole Coffee. In 1987, Royal Coffee, which morphed into Cole Coffee in 2005, first opened on 63rd Street near College Avenue in North Oakland near the Berkeley border. Offering strong, quality, affordable coffee with no pretensions and located just half a block down from La Farine bakery, it immediately built a loyal following. Even the recent era influx of new Oakland cafes similarly offering choices of quality coffees and teas has not affected the College & 63rd Street business one bit. This is because Cole, nee Royal, is as much of a social gathering point as it is a place to buy a good cuppa joe.
When Cole Coffee's owner Michael Murphy purchased the business from Royal Coffee six years ago, changing the name to Cole Coffee at the time, he was already quite familiar with the business and its loyal clientele. "I managed Royal Coffee from 1992 until I puchased the business in 2005," he told me. He recalled how back when he started managing the business that, "Royal only had the 63rd Street location and then opened the cafe in 1995." Cole Coffee is one business split into two locations that are side by side. At the front cafe part (corner of 63rd & College) you can sit down inside or outside and specialty coffees are custom made on drip in front of you. Then the Cole Coffee shop round the corner down a bit on 63rd (with an apartment door entrance separating the two) is where you can buy coffee by the pound to go and cups of the reliably strong roasted and tasty house coffee. About a dozen small round green cafe tables line the outside on 63rd and snake up around onto College.
As well as coffee, Cole serves teas, an assortment of cakes & pastries, and (in the College Ave. part only) light breakfasts such as cereal or poached eggs on toast. Of the menu's ever-changing 30 varieties of coffee on offer, approximately 25% to 30% are fair trade beans. Murphy, whose Amoeblog video interview is below, told me that he always buys organics and fair trade and that even years ago as Royal Coffee it was one of the earliest places in the East Bay to actively seek out fair trade deals with farmers. When Murphy took over the business he may have renamed it, but the Royal Coffee vibe of yore, from the coffees brewed right down to the green color scheme and (most importantly) the clientele, stayed the same.
"It's the best cup of coffee in the Bay. It doesn't taste like its burnt like Peet's does. Strong coffee that tastes so good and keeps bringing people like me back," said regular Musashi "Moose" Lethridge, who has been getting his coffee there since it first opened as Royal 24 years ago. As well as a fixture at Cole Coffee, Moose is also a long time part of the local East Bay music community. As a singer/guitarist (ska is his forte) he has played with many artists over the years. As well as in his own band, The Musashi Trio, he's played with The Uptones and for a recent US tour played with the English Beat. Another Cole regular is Oakland musician, engineer, & recording studio owner Jeremy Goody, whose Megasonic Sound studios in the Piedmont district won a Best of the Bay award from the East Bay Express last year. "The coffee is excellent there but it's also a nice central meeting spot. I often have meetings there over poached eggs," said Goody.
Cole Coffee, and Royal before it, has always been a meeting point offering a nice sense of community where all types of people converge for coffee and to exchange ideas. It is a place that deliberately does not have a Wi-Fi signal, where laptop use is frowned upon, and where conversation is celebrated; Marc Weinstein, one of Amoeba's owners, often meets folks there. Like Goody, he generally grabs a seat at one tables outside on 63rd Street. But there is also another part of Cole, albeit unofficial part, on the opposite side of 63rd Street, where smokers (and many non-smokers, too) congregate standing or sitting on the two benches or upturned milk crates from the corner market that people use as seats. "It's a little bit more gritty across the street at the benches," laughed Moose, who can be often spotted there strumming his guitar, or smoking a cigarette, or deep in conversation with anyone from a fellow musician to a member of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club who also regularly congregate there.
In fact, Moose has put in so much time at the coffee spot since day one (literally) that he's become the number one expert in studying the divergent social groups that gather there. "If you were to sit and spend an entire day and watch the flow and cycle of all types of people come and go, it's like an anthropology class," he said with a chuckle, continuing, "You can divide it by time of the day. You have the morning commuters who sit for about ten minutes and then drive to work. Then 9:30am to 11am or 12am it seems to be the AA people. Then later in the afternoon you get people who work at night in bars and stuff. Then a bit later there's the people that are off work from their day jobs and then they show up. The cyclists are usually there in the morning before their rides on the weekends."
"The East Bay just has a great assortment of people anyway but there's all types of people that go by there. If you're looking for anything that you need you can always ask someone at that coffee shop, whether it's a carpenter or a bike mechanic, an electrician, a guy that can build a website. If you need clothes made for you. It's crazy how it's evolved into this hub. It's like a Disneyland of people every day for like a buck sixty," laughed Moose.
Cole Coffee owner Michael Murphy Amoeblog Interview
Like the coffee served at Cole Coffee, the music played there is also quality stuff. Owner Michael Murphy, an avid music fan and lifelong record collector, says that the music played is extremely important. He calls it "one of the top ten ingredients" and one that "helps make the atmosphere of the place." Below is a random list, in no particular order, of 18 artists you might hear being played at Cole Coffee.
This varied list includes free jazz trumpeter Eddie Gale; the long defunct Jeffrey Lee Pierce-led, unique punk meets blues LA group The Gun Club; harmonica playing blues singing legend Little Walter; local band Grand Lake; the (Medeski Martin & Wood related) band The Wood Brothers; the NY retro-funk band The Sugarman 3 (aka The Sugarman Three), founded by saxophonist Neal Sugarman; and the late great soul singer Lyn Collins, who is best known for her work with James Brown.
18 Artists (in no particular order) You'll Likely Hear Played at Cole Coffee:
The Gun Club
The Mighty Hannibal
The Chambers Brothers
The Wood Brothers
Cole Coffee is located at 307 63rd St (between College Ave & Hillegass Ave), Oakland, CA 94618, in the Rockridge District of North Oakland, near the Berkeley border. Its hours of business are 7am to 7pm daily for the cafe (College corner) and 6:30am to 7pm daily for the take out 63rd St. shop.
For more info and mail order visit the Cole Coffee website.
For more info and mail order visit the Cole Coffee website.
This is the latest installment in the ongoing The Town Amoeblog Series, dedicated to celebrating independent businesses & non-profits, and other organizations, plus artists or characters unique to the city of Oakland (aka The Town).