Monday, June 20, 2011

Cafe Solstice

I can’t remember who it was that first introduced me to Cafe Solstice half a decade ago. Was it a lover? A Seattle native or a transplant like me? A man or a woman? It really bothers me that I can’t remember, because this coffee shop has become the center of my creative universe. A place this important needs a founding myth in the book of my life stories, but I can’t dig one up from the chaos of my memories. So I’ve decided to at least find out more about Solstice’s actual origins by interviewing one of the owners. I want to give Solstice solid roots in my mind, lest I start to convince myself that the place is some magical portal to Narnia. You see, Solstice is not just another hipster Seattle coffee shop. It is a place where human souls cross and intertwine in magical ways. I have met people at Solstice who have shown me entire new paths in life that I never would have found alone. I have fallen in love there at least three times. I have observed a thousand fascinating individuals who have become characters in my writing. The place is part of my spirit now.

I probably spend at least twelve hours per week at Solstice. This is where my fellow writers and I hold our Thursday night Write Club sessions. It is also the place where I hand out the majority of my “A Happily Married Woman Thinks I’m Gorgeous” button pins to beautiful men of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Solstice is where I go to escape my own neighborhood in bland Snohomish County, and to reconnect with American culture when I am feeling overwhelmed by my Korean household. It is where I go to feel enchanted by unusual colors, music, and atmosphere. When I’m feeling terrified of something daunting, I go to Solstice to find comfort.

For those of you who have never been to Cafe Solstice, let me take you on a tour. To get there, walk south on Seattle’s University Way, on the east side of the street. Once you have passed a bazillion Thai restaurants, you’ll know you’re there. Look for the silver sphere with the word “Solstice” in swirly letters hanging over the sidewalk. Admire the iron leaf designs on the railing around the outdoor seating. Walk in, take in the colors…the rich brown of hardwood floor, walls in olive green and magenta, bright red chili pepper lights hanging over the baristas. See the art of this month’s featured local artist exhibited on the walls.

Our Write Club cats on a typical Thursday night at Solstice:

It didn’t always look like this, though. Solstice began as a coffee cart on Broadway and Thomas on Capitol Hill, back in the early nineties. Back then, Pike and Pine weren’t the streets that had all the cool bars and restaurants. Broadway was. And the Solstice coffee cart was one of the centers of this social scene. It was a great place for people to buy coffee and standing talking on the sidewalk. In early 2000, Solstice opened their current U-District location, and for about a year after, the owners ran both the cart and the U-District location. They actually began leasing the U-District location in 1999, but it took about a year of renovation to get it in working order. At the time, the place was boarded-up and gutted. Half of the floor wasn’t intact. This gave the owners the opportunity to work with an architect on the exact design they wanted for the cafe. Cuban born metal worker Rey Alfonso made the bar stools, the spherical sign outside, the outer railings, and the wonderful giant praying mantis and dragonfly that watch over the two locations in the cafe where you can find napkins.

The praying mantis, with my favorite pal, Brett Doll:

Solstice has been exhibiting local artists since they opened their U-District location. Each month, they choose a different artist’s work to display on the cafe walls. Last month, my pal Pavel had his photos displayed:

Solstice has also hosted live music ever since they opened. On about a weekly basis, you can attend a live music show, where anything from Flamenco to Balkan dance music is performed.

One of my favorite things about Solstice is their food and beverage selection. The recipes for their baked goods and teas were invented by the owners and staff. Each baker at Solstice has added unique touches to the recipes for scones, cookies, and cakes. My favorite is probably the cardamom swirl cake, followed closely by the blackberry peach scones and ginger-molasses cookies. When it comes to beverages, Solstice has wonderful lattes, mochas, and other coffee concoctions. For chai, they use the REAL stuff: Morning Glory Chai. None of that sweet Oregon Chai for pansies! Solstice also serves beer. The owners are friends with the folks at Elysian Brewing Company, so Solstice has several Elysian beers on tap.

I asked one of the Solstice owners what he and his staff seek to contribute to the Seattle community through their coffee shop. I really liked his answer. He told me that they just want to be a neutral palette for the local community. A laid back coffee shop where people of all ages can come to read books, talk, write, enjoy music, etc. Which brings me to the people of Cafe Solstice. The magic of Solstice is not complete without the people. First, meet the baristas. It is appropriate to start with my favorite one, both because he is my favorite and because he works the earliest morning shift: I like him for a lot of reasons. On the surface, it’s because he looks a little rugged. He’s got the kind of facial hair and masculine-mystery-filled eyes that go with a Tom Waits song. But the REAL reason I like him is that he doesn’t treat words lightly. He uses them sparingly and thoughtfully. When he does choose to speak, you cherish every word. You truly LISTEN to every subtle connotation that falls almost inaudibly from his lips. It makes you more aware of your own carelessness with words. You become hypersensitive to how you are likely to ramble on mindlessly about the most asinine things. You start to realize what he already knows: words are shallow and overrated. Eyes can communicate all that matters. So can music. He puts on ethereal music in the mornings and taps out beats on the counter as he runs the espresso machine. I listen carefully to his tapping. I think that’s his language, and I really want to know what he’s saying.
The perfect counterpart to this fellow is the man who joins him behind the counter a little later in the morning. This man is one of Solstice’s owners, and he is a drummer for the band Guardian Alien. He greets every customer with genuine warmth, despite his self-described shy nature, and he calls out orders in a clear, cheery voice. He is one of the most sincere men I have ever met. His demeanor is straightforward, humble, and thoughtful. I often overhear him talking about his little daughters, who sometimes come to visit him while he works. These girls are some of the most precious children I have ever seen. They look like they stepped right out of a fairytale, with long white-blond hair, striped tights, and cups of hot cocoa in their little hands.

Later in the day, more staff shows up. You see the flour-dusted bakers running around, bringing fresh pastries up from the back room. The afternoon baristas take over behind the counter. One, musician Zeke Keeble, has beautiful tattoos of crow silhouettes and trees winding around his arm. Another is the happiest lad I have ever seen in my life. His tousled curls and smiling eyes would lighten the heart of even the most embittered curmudgeon, as would his t-shirt featuring jolly caricatures of Karl Marx, Stalin, and Mao in party hats. (Get it? It’s the Communist Party!) And don’t even get me started on the female baristas. They are all so gorgeous, intelligent, and stylish that I am pretty sure Solstice plucks them right from some mythical Daoist peach orchard in the sky. My favorite of these ladies has actually just gone on to a new job at a pie bakery. I miss her so much! We used to trade music when she worked here. She introduced me to groups like Juanita y los Feos, Miss Li, and Shugo Tokumaru.

Then there are the customers. I’ll just introduce you briefly to some of the regular Solstice patrons:
A chess-playing lad with a physics degree who tutors UW students for hours on end at the little round tables.
A hunched, white-haired lady who reads a book or magazine while sitting in the center of a cacophonous sea of young people and music.
An intriguing middle-aged man with VERY thick, long, curly hair, who always comes in with his pet collie and newspaper. (He pulls his hair back in a thick ponytail, and he often has a pen stuck in alongside the hairband.)
A beautiful dark-eyed fellow in a big puffy coat who only sits at the outdoor tables, no matter what the weather is like.
A Vietnam War vet with demons in his head who licks muffin crumbs from his plate while looking suspiciously at everyone sitting around him.
A physics professor who unravels the puzzle of how electrons behave in a hot universe while a starry-eyed lass sitting across from him sneaks erotic peeks at his math equations.
An insecure girl with two coffees in front of her, waiting for her boyfriend to show up.
A blond frat boy who greets me with a fist-bump every time he sees me.
A tall, skinny, middle-aged man with glasses and a Band-Aid on his nose, who laps up his latte with his tongue like a dog.
A bearded hippie kid in a gigantic t-shirt, reading a book on Jewish magic and mysticism.
A solemn student from Japan who sits scribbling numbers intensely on scrap paper, trying to improve his ability to multiply five digit numbers in his head.
A sad-eyed literature professor I try to aim all my sunshine at.
A lonely poet from another land, sitting dark and beautiful with his beer.

This is my Cafe Solstice.

(Snowflakes Solstice had up during December.)


  1. Wow, this might be my favorite post you've ever written. The list of people who frequent Solstice is beautiful, and the history of the place is amazing. Have you ever thought about putting Guardian Alien in the Spotlight? That band sounds fascinating...

  2. Did you ever find out the name of that burly guy who's covered in tattoos from his jaw to his wrists?

  3. Ah, so you're the one that gave me that button pin. Thanks for making my day -- everyday.

    1. Wow! You're very welcome! You made my day... Thank you!