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“First real coffee house in California,” says the sign.

Oh. Guess I’m the last to find it. This is Café Bassam (3088 Fifth Avenue, at Redwood, Bankers Hill, 619-557-0173). Used to be downtown, right?

It’s coming on evening. Have to go in. Loved it downtown. Heard it was different up here on the way to Hillcrest.


But what clinches it is when I go in. Wow. Surrounded by Victorian mirrors, a heckuva vintage-rifle collection on the walls, comfy sofas, antique tables, jewelry collections, displays of cigars, medals, paintings.


Horse on the counter


Cabinet of crystal


And this actual Picasso in the bathroom

Place is awesomely rich in, well, stuff. Feels like your anthropologist-uncle’s dark sitting room. Glow of laptops of around the tables where people sit, mostly with coffee.

Get up to the counter. They have sandwiches and things such as cheese and olive platters, but I’m just angling for a coffee.


Then, uh oh. I see on the menu they have a glass of port wine for $5.

Love that. Love it with coffee when I have the dinero. I check the wallet. I have the dinero, just. Gal named Stephanie serves me a big wide china cup of coffee and a glass of port. This luxo coffee’s only $2, so I’m out $7, all in.



I take them outside and sit down at a slat table. Looking out to the setting sun in the trees of Balboa Park. How have I’ve missed this beautiful spot before?


So I’m going sip coffee, sip port, sip coffee, sip port, and thinking deep thoughts when this guy in a hat and another guy come sit next table up. He has a bottle of port in his hand.

Turns out he’s Bassam Shamma, aristocratic Palestinian, originally from Jordan. The owner. He and his friend Joe, from Lebanon, are sharing a port and holding forth in Arabic.


When he sees me drinking port, he tops up mine along with Joe’s. Can’t stop him.

“Don’t even try,” says Joe. “This man is generous to a fault. He’s that kind of guy.”

“When I opened downtown in 1991,” Bassam tells me, “there was Croce’s, Sybil’s Down Under, and the Spaghetti Factory. That was it. I wanted to create a café such as you find in France, the Middle East. A meeting place. Good coffee, good conversation.”

“And good port,” I say. But I hold my hand over the glass -- he’s that kind of a guy.


This is how long I stay: it's night when I leave

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