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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Westlake Coffee Shop

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

That song, called "Little Boxes, was written in 1962 by Malvina Reynolds, a native San Franciscan, presumably about the newly built/newly developed suburb of Westlake in Daly City. If you're not a folk connoisseur, don't worry. You've probably heard the song if you've ever watched the phenomenal Showtime series Weeds, a dark comedy about a young, suburban widow who turns to selling pot to support her kids and middle class lifestyle.

The song was just one of many in a series of criticisms leveled at the then new housing development that 50 years later is viewed as one of the finest examples of post-World War II suburban planning and architecture in the United States. At the time, Westlake was unique in that it was a planned community built very quickly and very cheaply for the thousands of returning soldiers and their families for whom living in cramped city conditions was no longer an option. Unique for its time, the development consisted of newly constructed 2-3 bedroom homes equipped with all of the modern conveniences (ie., small yards, parking garage, modern appliances), a shopping center, a library, and schools.

It was the Suburban 50s like you wouldn't believe – unless, of course, you lived through it.

It isn't difficult to imagine what the critics of Westlake felt as rows upon rows of homes were built over the course of a decade (starting in 1949), turning what was once a peaceful coastal hillside and valley into the proto-sprawl of what we see happening in America's small towns today. Although Westlake, unlike it's sister-suburb Levittown, offered the new homebuyer with a choice of eight stylized floorplans, it's must have been hard not to feel just a little bit of your soul sucked out by the overwhelming conformity and sheer enormity of the project.

This is, after all, the age in which Howl was written; read aloud just a few miles up the way by a young and horny Allen Ginsberg. Yet while Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and the rest were busy getting their coffee-skewed beatitude adjusted in the city, young families of doctors, lawyers, business executives, and their pretty children made of ticky-tacky, were busy getting their optimistic burbs on westside.

Interestingly enough, despite the many legitimate criticisms of the then-new Westlake community, I imagine one huge criticism fairly applied likely didn't surface until years later: that homes were sold to "whites only". This may seem odd, especially given the Bay Area's liberal reputation, but until somewhat recently it was common practice in San Francisco and outlying areas to openly discriminate against non-white homebuyers – most notably, San Franciscan icon Willie Mays.

Even though Westlake shares this ugly bit of history with much of the Bay Area, it would be unfair to lump it in as just another suburb. Its history and the history of the man who built it are just as colorful as the many homes maintained (though, with some controversy) and preserved to this day – homes that, in my humble opinion, match San Francisco's Victorians in terms of beauty, architectural integrity, and historic significance.

A great resource for anyone interested in Westlake can be found in the book "Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb" by Rob Keil, which details the beginnings of Westlake, the eccentricities of the man, Henry Doelger, who built it, the architects and builders who worked for him, and what Westlake was like to the people who once lived there and what it's like now.

I happen to have a copy of the book at home, right now. In fact, I checked it out from the Daly City library. It's a beautifully written and designed book, with many full color photographs, which would look perfect resting on my Boomerang coffee table, if I had one.

However, what's interesting and unfortunate is that, while the book also highlights Westlake Joe's (which I thoroughly rake over the coals here), an extinct drive-in called Tips, and the Westlake Shopping Center, the Westlake Coffee Shop is never mentioned.

If you, like me, happen to enjoy your irony served warm with a low-carb side and a tall, cool glass of ice tea, then perhaps you'll appreciate knowing that the community that began as a "whites only" enclave 58 years ago is today one in which whites constitute a mere 25 percent of the population, with Asians (mostly Filipinos) being the majority group.

Nowhere is that more evident than the Westlake Coffee Shop; a culinary landmark that, perhaps more than Westlake Joe's or any other place in the district, speaks more to the legacy and current culture of Westlake than any other business in the area. While many, if not most, of the Westlake Coffee Shop's regulars are elderly whites, the business is owned and operated by middle-aged Chinese immigrants.

However, much is still the same at the Westlake Coffee Shop, despite a complete overhaul and redesign of the whole Westlake Shopping Center (for the worse, if you ask me). It's original fixtures and seating are still intact and the signage has changed little. The waitresses still wear uniforms – uniforms that match the interior color scheme of the shop.

I have to mention that, while I'm on the subject, the waitresses here are all very gracious and dependable. Something I've noticed every time I've been in is that, if you do become a regular here, they'll greet you by name and give you a warm send off.

I also appreciate how they go out of their way to decorate for various holidays. Around Christmastime, they have plenty of poinsettias decorating the counter area (which could seem sinister, since poinsettias are poisonous). And even though Easter is still two months away, they have all sorts of porcelain chicken and egg figurines poised behind a metal and glass display case above the coffee station. It has that whole "Aunt Shirley's house" feel to it, and I like to imagine that somewhere there is a glass candy dish filled with stale mints lying around.

Regular coffee shop hours are in play here and so are the menu items. The breakfast items shine the brightest while the sandwiches can be hit or miss.

Hit: my Monte Cristo; so bad it was good. Lots of ham and cheese, so much fried egg batter it was crazy, lots of powdered sugar – and if that wasn't enough, two packets of strawberry jam.

Miss: the Pastrami on Rye and the Patty Melt.

These were virtually the same sandwich. The meat portions in general were skimpy (considering the price), while the pastrami itself was perhaps the biggest hate crime against the Jewish people I've seen since Adam Sandler. Like Sandler, this pastrami was some weird, processed, imitation of the real thing and made the traifling hot pastramis at Lee's Deli look like they just aliyah'd from Second Avenue (RIP).

The Patty Melt, a coffee shop sandwich if there ever was one, lacked the sex appeal one automatically finds when taking a butch hamburger patty and tarting it up in Grilled Cheese drag. As any self-respecting queen will tell you, never show your pickle on the first date. Unless it's big. And this pickle needed a penis pump. In fact, I've seen better patty melts on prison visits.

But despite improvements to be made in the Certain Sandwich department, the Westlake Coffee Shop is a real keeper and we should be thankful that it's still around, virtually unchanged. Anytime I'm at Beverly's getting my crafting supplies, I definitely make it a point to stop by the coffee shop, if nothing other than they're the only decent game in town (sorry, I don't do chain Greek or Italian).

I wonder sometimes if the whites who worked so hard to keep their neighborhoods ethnically homogenous, who populated the ticky-tacky houses and all wanted to be the same, could've foreseen a day when one of the few sole surviving businesses of their era, this lone coffee shop, ended up itself being an anomaly, a place perhaps Malvina Reynolds would be seen at if she were alive; a place surrounded by the 21st ticky-tacky of Starbucks, Home Depot, and Trader Joes.

This lone coffee shop, shunning its eccentricity, and kept alive by the people Westlake was built to keep out. The same people who now smile at you from the other side of your coffee cup.

That's what I love about this place.



At 9:38 PM, Blogger Tax said...

Thanks for the nice writing and the review of this diner. I grew up in the Westlake district and lived there for many years, but never tried the coffee shop. I will have to check out the place on one of my return pilgrimages to Westlake.


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