Caffe Centro, 102 South Park, San Francisco
I sit down with my coffee and croissant and the guy next to me blurts out "wow, Disney is going to start offering benefits to same sex partners! Can you believe it? Gee, and I had a friend who was looking to take a job at Disney and this was a real important issue for him...and I was afraid to ask Disney for him. I just didn't think they'd go for it. And look! Wow, this probably means that other large companies will follow suit!" "Like IBM?" I interject, caught up in the excitement of this revelation. "Yeah! Gee, I feel bad, I should have asked Disney about it." My new friend seems to be on top of things. He's reading The New York Times. Scanning it. I figure I'll pick his brain. "Did you see the mayoral debate on TV last night?" I ask. "No," he fires back, "but how was Roberta?" "She was really good," I tell him. "I was surprised -- she was the most composed and sensible of the lot." "Yes, I knew it!" he exults. "I've been meaning to call her. I want to work on her campaign. She's the one. She can look into the future. Four years ago she knew multimedia was the way to go..." I'm smack in the middle of multimedia gulch at Caffe Centro. It's fast here. Pow! Zap! Ideas flying. Rapid-fire conversation. My new friend is in the multimedia business. He tells me Caffe Centro is a common meeting place for the exchange of ideas. "But -- you really have to look over your shoulder these days," he cautions me. "You don't know who might be listening at the next table." He leans over and whispers: "it's like the Casbah!"
The influx of multimedia firms has brought new energy to South Park, and along with it hip new spots such as Caffe Centro, which opened in 1993. The cafe is small and airy. The windows are large squares with glass doors that swing open. All of them are wide open, giving the place an indoor-outdoor feel. Small tables and chairs have been placed on the sidewalk right outside the windows. The interior of the cafe is cozy but not crowded. There are two rooms with a large opening between them as a connector. The place has a mildly industrial look to it -- exposed wood beams with large bolts holding them together. There is a well-stocked service counter along one wall. A sign nearby spells out the rules: "Please no plates or glasses to the park. No moving outside tables. No pets inside. No public phone available." One dog, Abigail, has not read the sign and is escorted out. She looks disappointed. Caffe Centro doesn't feel so much artistic as it does functional. Is this the multimedia mantra?
A lengthy menu is written in small letters on a blackboard. One offering is a ceasar salad. I wonder if it's misspelled on purpose, so I ask a fellow behind the counter. "Uh, I'm not sure if we misspelled it on purpose," he tells me. "Is it misspelled? It's not e-a?" I give him the bad news. The other fellow behind the counter is curious, too. "Are you sure it's a-e?" he asks. "Isn't it e before a except after, ummm..." I remind him that's the I before e rule. "Oh," he continues. "You must have won the spelling bee or something." I admit that I did. They're such nice guys that I don't tell them about proscuitto. I order a cafe au lait and a croissant and take a seat facing the park.
The crowd at Centro is mostly young and cool. Every other guy resembles Jake on "Melrose Place," with a nice, firm jaw and stylized sideburns. These guys, however, are reading Wired magazine and other techie titles. Computer types don't look as geeky anymore. Even Bill Gates looks better these days. I mention this to a fellow seated nearby. "No!" he says. "He still looks weird. He'll never look good." "But his skin looks better," I insist. "Nah, well...he has better glasses now." Agreed. My new friend, like many folks here, is eating oatmeal. I think there is an oatmeal renaissance underway. You can get your oatmeal in a cup or a bowl at Centro. The bowl is a heaping portion of cooked oats, topped with chunks of fresh fruit or raisins or both. A spoonful of yogurt on top is the crowning touch. Suddenly, oatmeal looks appetizing.
I look out at South Park from my seat near the window. Jungle jims, swings and picnic tables fill the ample stretch of grass. Leafy trees loom overhead. Abigail the dog is romping through the park. People are meeting, chatting, connecting. Caffe Centro is at the center of the action, multimedia and otherwise.
© 1996 Elaine Sosa