It surprises me that I have never explicitly written about this cafe in SD. I am sure that in my myriad musings on great coffee shops, the prototypical place that has always been at the back of my mind has been cafe Bassam. I have no doubt that whenever, with clenched fists of anger, I have scoffed against the soulless and slick coffee shops which crop up with embarrassing regularity in this world, the one place against which I was measuring all others was Bassam. And, therefore, it is rather surprising that I have never thought of mentioning all of it quite so clearly. In this world which is so incredibly unfair to so many, what an amazingly ridiculous and pretentious enterprise it is to take one's cafes so seriously. But Bassam can only be understood against the backdrop of such an incredible folly. It's not great coffee shop. The coffee isn't even all that special. However, it is a poignant work of art, the culmination of the fantasies and dreams of one man who may or may not be clinically insane: the only kind of man who is capable of creating things which are beautiful and not just useful.
Bassam cafe sits in a location which is as much a puzzle as the fact that it exists at all in a city like San Diego. I lived not too far from it for a little more than a year and I hardly ever noticed much foot traffic in the area. I'd invariably walk over and spend my late evenings behind those large glass windows, reading a book, and listening to the same 30 songs which the owner (Bassam) seems to put on repeat everyday. The cafe is decorated with what can only be termed a bizarre, yet lovingly assembled, collection of paintings, portraits, glassware, antique furniture, cigars, wine bottles, teas, armoirs, hip-flasks, clocks, statues, marionettes, musical instruments, and of course, guns and rifles. The interior is illuminated with sodium lamps whose warm yellow light refracts through the mirrors, window panes, and glassware and lends a beautiful depth to the heavy dark wooden furniture. There are times when the pianola is playing instead of the recorded music and there are times when one of Bassam's many curious patrons takes to the grand piano and ascends into Beethoven and Chopin pieces. Then there are times when the cafe's chairs are pushed to the sides and the central area plays hosts to those who wish to tango. But often the place is simply a beautifully remembered memory of some reality which was created, bit by bit and painstakingly, into something which could not be made any more beautiful. There is that old familiar tune in the air. There's the sanguine glass of port. There are those pretty baristas chatting away behind the counter. There's Proust. And then there are those puzzling characters who swerve around the space loosening further the flimsy grip of reality. With the setting so perfect, the coffee almost doesn't matter.
I understand that this is a rather romantic description of the place and it misses some issues which go on behind the scenes but I'd like, for once, to maintain and embellish the illusion which takes flight in my imagination rather than take it down through vapid tangents. I see the cafe as a paean to the creative power of an individual, his flight from mundane reality into a fantastic world that is both enchanting and infectious. The owner appears to be a curious and troubled character but I'd expect nothing less from someone who is capable of creating such beauty. Very rarely do I come across anything comparable. Compared to Bassam I find the best cafes merely adequate and I find those which are trying to be cool and sassy, in hilariously bad taste. At best, the others sell decent coffee in a tolerable setting but often they are just soulless and tasteless*.
* One hilarious example that comes to mind is a cafe which has the gall to call itself cafe intelligentsia in Chicago. Its patrons are women in yoga pants and men who go to gym! I am stereotyping here with the understanding that there exist very rare exceptions.