Rebecca's Coffee House

3015 Juniper Street, South Park

It's embarrassing. Cracked off two teeth on peanuts. Now I have to face the world looking like Bugs Bunny. So I call down to TJ. Doc Solorio's there. "Anytime, my friend," he says. "But not till Friday."

Oh man. Today's Wednesday. Gotta eat. Can think of one place where you don't feel bad looking stupid: Rebecca's. I've had coffee there. So-o-o laid back. Liked it, but I've never tried the food.

"Whew!" I say as I bang into the way-big room. Deep yellow-wash walls give it a glow, and a whole hand-me-down collection of interesting but, well, unrelated furniture makes the space feel like some dowdy gentleman's club.

But the first thing you notice is the quiet. It's the silence of a library. Lots of laptoppers sit scattered at the different antique tables, sipping coffees, staring, or clicking. Others sink deep in couches, nibbling on scones, some snoring.

Yes, this is a coffee place. But they have quiches and baked stuff in the counter display cabinet and a lunch special on a little blackboard: "Canadian Bacon Bagel Melt with Tomato Swiss, $6.25." As I'm reading, this tall guy with a Three Musketeers goatee comes out from the kitchen holding a steaming plate. He shouts, "Bacon bagel melt?" Oh God, that looks good, golden and red with its grilled tomatoes. Gabriel the musketeer does the rounds of the couches to find the customer.

Meanwhile, I spot a menu. They have a respectable bunch of sandwiches, and soup. Basic soup of the day is $4.75, with toasted torta. The quiche plate with ham, spinach, and veggies runs $5.50, a French crêpe with salad is $7.50. They have croissants stuffed with things like ham or turkey for $3.75. That sounds like a deal. But no. How 'bout the blue cheese, pecan, and apple melt for $5.75. Or, oh Lord: melted French brie and Dijon, also $5.75.

Gabriel is back with his Canadian bacon bagel melt still unsold. I'm thinking of making an offer when this sleepy-looking gal comes up and claims it. "Lot of people doze off over their laptops," he says. "Part of the reason they come here is we've got free wi-fi access, and we're open 24 hours, Thursday through Sunday."

I have a thought. It's about teeth. I need to look again at that soup option.

That's when I notice a sign under the counter. "Black Bean Soup with Roasted Chicken and Toasted Bread, $4.75."

"Chicken chopped up?" I ask Gabriel.

"Oh sure," he says.

I order it, and a coffee ($1.50), and take off for the nearest table.

And here's another thing I like. No way is it one man, one table here. I sit next to these guys, Alex, who looks like Papa Hemingway meets Santa Claus, and Mike, who's a guitarist, and there's this lady named Evie too, and pretty soon we're talkin' and laffin' and -- thank God -- not about my teeth.

Alex is also talking to Joe Marillo, a famous jazz bandleader around town. Evie's saying how she brings busloads of women here from places like Palm Springs. "It's my 'Nitty Gritty of the City' tour. I had one woman say to me, 'It's so Bohemian. I would never come here alone.'"

"Bohemian?" says Rebecca herself, who drops by the table. "A South Park house I almost bought would've cost me $79,000. Then it went up to $150,000. Now it's $950,000."

Gabriel turns out to be an artist doing a way-big painting about the circle of life. "An endlessly repeating hologram," he says. I lean back to talk to this gal Nola, who's writing in her journal and pasting in arty color pix to make it a thing of beauty. And now another customer, Philip Virgo, sits down at the baby grand piano and starts playing "Summertime." Turns out they have open-mike poetry, music, and Joe's band plays jazz on Friday nights. But anybody can play, so long as they can play, anytime. This place is hopping.

Gabriel brings the broth. It's seriously good, home-made soup, chock-loaded with black beans, dee-lish chicken that tastes almost as rich as roast beef, and veggies like celery and carrots. And yes, my two front teeth can handle the two toasted sides of the torta without making me look like some drooling basket case.

"What you need now," says Alex, "is one of Rebecca's scones. They're from her Scottish grandmother's recipe." Seems Rebecca only bakes them eight at a time, throughout the day. Alex's favorite has sausage and cheese inside. But this load right now is stuffed with berries -- blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, and boysenberry, plus a bowl of strawberry jam to dip it in. It's certainly a big craggy, Scottish-looking thing. And the best news is it ain't heavy. Yes, cracking through the outside's my (temporary) problem, but once inside, we're talking sweet heaven. 'Specially with the (50-cent) refill coffee.

"This is my family here," Rebecca says. "We started with no money, and people actually helped me financially, came with furniture and, like, a friend did the mural. Another customer, Dale, painted the walls, Larry did all the hinges on the doors. Those front doors are from Habitat from Humanity..."

She brings out a pic of this place when it was San Diego's first Safeway, an open produce store, back in the 1920s. "We're sitting where the produce aisles used to be," she says.

On the way out, I notice the thing that says it all. Somebody has graffitied the once-wet concrete outside. Arty, though, not scrawled. Flowery letters.

"Peace, Love and Coffee."

Who could ask for anything more?

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