So far on this great cappuccino adventure, we've visited a wide range of coffee shops - some famous pillars of Los Angeles' "third wave" coffee movement, some that are under the radar and quirky, and others that are on the cutting edge of modern coffee-making technology. Today, we bring you back to very origins of LA's "third wave," the place that started it all with its rigorous standards of excellence and genuine passion for excellent coffee: Caffe Luxxe.
Let's take a little trip back in time. Do you remember 2006? Things were a little weird back then: George W. Bush was president, Grey's Anatomy was new and actually really good, Miley Cyrus was adorable and oh-so-innocent, and we were all drinking Starbucks like it was going out of style because, well, it was (we just didn't know it yet). Even back then, Caffe Luxxe founders Mark Wain and Gary Chau, long-time friends from their grad school days at USC, knew something we didn't: coffee, and the entire café experience, could be better. Inspired by their love of European "caffe culture," Wain and Chau aimed to create a neighborhood café that combined the kind of artisanal coffee preparation they'd come to appreciate during their time Europe with approachable, friendly service that would foster a sense of community. What's most amazing is not that they succeeded and were soon listed among LA's best coffee shops, but that today, over ten years after their first Caffee Luxxe location opened in Santa Monica, they are still able to perfectly embody those values and deliver top-notch coffee in a warm and welcoming environment.
I recently visited Caffe Luxxe's flagship location on the decidedly refined Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, a street lined with lovely boutiques, eateries, and perfectly groomed trees. It's unclear to me, as someone who admittedly hasn't spent much time on Montana Avenue, which came first: is it the sleek and beautiful Caffe Luxxe that fits so perfectly into this neighborhood, or is it Caffe Luxxe that has set the standard for the neighborhood around it? Either way, it fits right in. This café oozes class and sophistication, its understated decor and grey-and-white color palette offering a subtle backdrop to the gorgeous, rich cappuccinos or the vibrantly colorful French macarons they serve to their loyal patrons.
The word loyal doesn't quite seem to cover just how true these patrons are to their coffee shop - in fact, I don't think I've ever seen such familiarity between customers and baristas in Los Angeles before. They chat like they're lifelong friends - picking up the conversations they'd started yesterday, razzing each other about the performance of a favorite sports team, discussing in detail what makes Caffe Luxxe's ristretto shot better than any other in the city. An older lady comes in, hoping for the same raspberry tart she enjoyed yesterday - unfortunately they're all gone, but one of the baristas assures her she'll enjoy the alternative pastry she's chosen as he helps her to a table. People meet, they mingle, they relax, and they enjoy a treat. It feels like a community hub, a place you go each day to recharge and catch up with old friends.
The heart of this operation is, of course, the coffee. Wain and Chau roast their own coffee beans, which are sustainably sourced from farms across the globe and roasted at their facility just outside Los Angeles. Here they roast the beans by "sight and smell," adjusting their roasting methods to compliment each different variety of coffee bean. Bags of their ever-popular single-origin beans are available for purchase in the cafés, as well as blends that feature complex flavors and aromas. Wain and Chau maintain an extremely high standard of excellence in all that they do at Caffe Luxxe; even their employees must endure a six- to twelve-month training period before they can earn the coveted title of "barista."
This standard of excellence was clear when my cappuccino slid across the counter to my eager hands, topped with a thin layer of deeply saturated honey brown foam that is punctuated with a crisp, delicate white heart. The texture was like satin: rich, smooth, and luxurious, coating the tongue with perfectly warm, creamy milk. The espresso was bold and full-bodied, with a warm, toasty flavor that reminded me of a perfectly browned, buttery pie crust. This was clearly expertly crafted, and enjoyable to the last drop. I was also able to taste a latte made with decaffeinated espresso, which was slightly more understated in flavor, though similarly delicious and still able to hold its own - a feat not always managed when it comes to decaf.
While it can be counted as the very beginning of the "third wave" coffee movement in our fine city, Caffe Luxxe also manages to continually stand out from the crowd of successors through its consistency, friendliness, and commitment to excellence. It feels timeless and delightfully refined, a haven for coffee lovers and neighbors, a respite from the hectic energy of the city. It's been a true neighborhood gem for ten years now, and I sincerely hope we'll be enjoying their excellent coffee ten years from now, too.
925 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403