On a chilly November day in San Francisco, escaping the fog rolling in and the now-falling leaves of the Financial District might entice you into a good hot cup of coffee or tea. If stepping out from the offices looming overhead like the Manhattan skyline, the last place you’ll want to grab your cup of joe is surrounded by laptops, endless tech talk over Google Hangouts, and a modern aesthetic stripped down for a more straightforward, industrial feel that pushes its users to get their work done, feel at home like a second office.
But with Caffe Bianco, Silicon Valley disappears back into the future, and a whole new, rather Old, World is before you.
As Market meets Sutter Street, the cafe is tucked behind large windows that flood the dark space with the right amount of natural light, adding to the warmth with cream walls and red carpeting. Wooden fixtures make up the counter from where you grab your coffee or sandwiches at the bar farther in the back, while small, marble tabletops across the front of the cafe or looking down on the hub below from the mezzanine level give patrons a simple taste of opulence with their orders. No bare bulb fixtures, stripped walls revealing scratched brick, or anyone asking about wifi. Bianco is a classic cafe scene, fittingly ageless and standing strong against the changes of this city since 1981. Converting an old real estate office into the grandeur that greets passerbys today, Banipal Warda and his brother-in-law opened one of the few cafes in the Financial District at that time, an age long before Starbucks were at every intersection.
These days, Banipal’s son, Anu, has taken most of the reigns, leaving the aesthetics mostly untouched for a more modern and tasteful approach to customer adaptations: the food. “I set up a menu to make sure I could appeal to larger demographic with all of the changes in food trends,” he explains, referring to newer items like the breakfast burritos and chia bowls and their popular wraps that come in distinct flavors like chipotle or Mediterranean. Despite these changes in delicacies, Anu takes pride in the classic charm of the cafe. “The atmosphere of the cafe is unlike any other cafe in the financial district, you can picture yourself in any European city (Budapest, Prague, Berlin). Our atmosphere above all separates us from other cafes. In this city you really can’t find a place like ours that has so much culture without any pretentiousness. Our food isn’t revolutionary but it’s consistent.”
And with a business like Bianco’s enduring over 40 years, there is much soul to be found along with its success. “The cafe has been around since I was born,” Anu reminisces. “In many ways there is a lot of nostalgia. I have a wonderful memory when I was 5 years old while my family celebrated my grandfathers 80th birthday at the cafe.”
Memories like these give true meaning to “family business,” but with Bianco, everyone is family. You step in feeling like you’ve been there before, even if you haven’t, and not before long you engage in a good chat with Anu or the staff about their recommendations or whatever parade or new building is popping up in the district. Mostly, you feel like you belong at Bianco. It’s so rare that a coffeehouse today, in a bustling city like San Francisco, can retain customers not for a spot to work, but for a space to sprawl and socialize, enjoy a book, or just sit and sip coffee.
As the Old World charm in Bianco stands still, perhaps it’s time the rest of the city looks back onto its past to remember how to enjoy the little beauties to come.
Visit Caffe Bianco at 39 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94104