Maybe this used to happen in bookstores or record shops, before those became a thing of the past, but here’s something special about coffee shops: There will be a moment where you can look around and there will be people—strangers—all in sync. This generally can only happen when the right song comes on. You see light bulbs go off in five different heads, connecting that well-worn tune to a memory. If you don’t look up at the right time, you’ll miss it. And they may not even know that they’ve connected for this tiny instant.
This happened to me at The Mill yesterday. A brand-new coffee shop on Divisadero and Fulton, The Mill is a Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread joint venture. It’s all white tile and (naturally, this is SF) exposed wood and poured cement floors. An asymmetrical shelving system spans one wall, wood of a deep blond housing beautiful coffee-related items: tea towels, French presses and Chemexes, olive-wood spoons, jars of honey, and, of course, coffee beans.
The façade is red brick with white trim and those great clerestory windows you see—and are often ill-used—on many San Francisco storefronts. There are round, marble-topped tables along one wall, with a big bench and individual seats that are a little reminiscent of classroom chairs. Two window seats flank each side of the door. A long, narrow wooden table runs along the left side. And cantilevered tables jut out along the wall towards the back, overlooking the bread-making and espresso machines.
A wire rack near the counter holds the bread—mountain rye, whole wheat, wonder, country, walnut and cranberry, seed feast. The bread is dark-crusted, with high ears (ridges on the crust caused by scoring the dough; yes, I had to look it up) and perfect dustings of flour or oat. A strong, chewy crust, a soft interior, a tang. I can’t stop eating it. The glass counter holds a few baked goods, but the star here is the toast. There is nothing quite so perfect as coffee and toast. Especially when accompanied by good music (others agree).
Behind the counter, the centerpiece kitchen. Open-plan, with a stunning skylight (you have to go see it; I can’t do it justice), you can sit at one of the cantilevered tables and watch Josey Baker and assistants expertly shape loaves and load them into baskets and buttered tins for rising and baking. Baristas bustle back and forth between the two espresso machines, grinding beans, steaming milk, tamping down the grinds. At the toast station, one or two cooks man the toaster, spreading spreads, sprinkling sugar. It’s fascinating. And it makes me jealous because it seems like they’re always having a ball back there.
I’ve been here (almost) every weekend since The Mill opened in mid-February. Often crowded, it’s still a soothing—and yet energizing—space. And they play the best old-school music. Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding, The Doors. Today, they hit a lot of Tom Petty.
In keeping with the Four Barrel philosophy, there are no outlets and no Wi-Fi. This is shared space to interact. Hence the communal table, the open kitchen, and the music just loud enough to make it difficult to drown out with headphones but not so loud that you can’t talk. Even if you’re there on your own, reading—as I often am—you can’t help but look up, see what’s going on around you, appreciate the music for a moment, watch the bustle in the kitchen.
Yesterday, as I read a back issue of Lucky Peach and nursed a cappuccino, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” came on. I looked over at Baker, shaping a boule with a dough scraper. His lips subtly mouthed the lyrics. A barista moved his head to the beat as he made a latte. A tattooed toast-cook rocked out, kitchen cloth over his shoulder. And a customer in the burgeoning line paused, listening, eyes skyward. I looked back over at Baker, and our eyes met. We exchanged huge grins, nodding, as he started to sing. It’s those perfect, synchronous moments. That’s what a coffee shop is for.
Want some good photos of The Mill? Here.
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