I walk home from work on a chill midwinter night, music tucked inside my ears, wind whipping my hair and skinning my lips; a night when the sky is so dark and so deep you feel the earth will defy gravity to rid you from its surface, to fling you out into the depths. It’s dizzying and exhilarating. Nowhere in the world do I feel lonelier than in my hometown; an environment so familiar I can reproduce every detail behind closed eyes, where I feel any absence with the startling burn of a fresh wound. Where days, weeks and months become so routine that one wrong step, one new route, or one missing link attracts the gaze of a curious spotlight amid the ordinary gloom.
When I was eight we moved from one side of the city to the other, over the famous bridge, and another less famous one, from the leafy north shore of Sydney to the hot, concreted inner west. Away from my school and my friends and the few suburbs I knew; away from the eat-in Pizza Hut Restaurant and Friday night noodle markets, toward Bar Italia’s gelato and Il Cugino’s anchovy-rife Pizzeria.
I’m a greedy traveller, as I am with most things. I’m rated triple-X with wanderlust and wincing from the nag of itchy feet. Yet as deep as the thrill of the unknown runs, my yearning for the known will always keep pace. I want to walk into a room and know where all the light switches are; want to know exactly how far to turn the hot water tap for a temperate shower. Want to boil two eggs, peel them and roll their warm flesh in the little pile of salt I’ve ground on my kitchen bench top. Want to savour each mouthful, and the ritual. No matter where I am, how far I’ve gone to get there, or what newfangled excitement is presented, some days I wake up and want exactly what I could have at home. See? Greedy. Now, some folks on the road find comfort in expatriate communities, others in bars; I like to find that familiar feeling in food. Plus Coffee. I’d already guzzled the perfect latte in LA (here) but what of the rare and fabled flat white? So far I’d not tasted one, good or bad, and after a week in Las Vegas I’d given up on coffee all together. Coffee + Food, on Melrose Ave in LA, delivered on the familiar front: A chalkboard heralding the Flat White, and an Australian soap actress ‘taking a meeting’ at a corner table, then proving all the world her stage by talking her way out of a parking ticket. Look, let’s be frank, I don’t actually know the difference between a latte, flat white or cappuccino. Are they not all hot, milky coffee beverages differentiated only by the amount of froth on top and the addition of powdered chocolate? I’m going to say yes. What I do know is that the flat white appears to be both uniquely Australian, thus tricky to pin down in LA, and the milky coffee beverage I prefer. The third salve to my homesickness came in the form of corn fritters, with damn good guacamole. There’s a café called Bills right near my house that fancies this their savoury specialty, yet in a Coffee + Food vs Bills battle, I’m backing the former; toast-textured on the outside, ideal corn-to-batter ratio and minimal irritating garnish. Plus, Sydney is a long, long way from Mexico. In summary: sitting on the side of a busy road in Los Angeles, gas-bagging with my best friend from home, about people at home, while enjoying a meal not dissimilar to one I would enjoy at home, I could basically be at home. Seeking out the food and coffee you’re accustomed to is no less embarrassingly insular and prosaic than an Aussie belting Khe Sanh in a Japanese karaoke bar, or slamming shots at a Kangaroo-themed nightclub in Phuket. But for me those are two of the best bits about travelling: readily embarrassing yourself, and being far from where you live, yet feeling at home. And just as Dorothy says, “Don’t be silly Toto, scarecrows don’t talk.”
Hello America! Hello Los Angeles, you vast, flat, wheezing metropolis. It’s early, I’ve come a long way and I want a coffee. What I don’t want is a gallon of bitter, brown water with ersatz non-fat ‘milk’ and extra-ersatz ‘sweetener’. In Sydney I guzzle lattes at Bourke Street Bakery in Surry Hills, or Campos in Alexandria – surely no one in America, birthplace of stultifying Starbucks, can match that? Until there was you G&B Coffee, until there was you. On a stretch of road that looks so much like every other stretch of road in LA that I squeal, “I’ve been here! I’ve been here! Wait, what? Oh, no I haven’t,” G&B is a cog in the earnestly ethical, long-extraction-espresso wheel currently cruising these Groundhog Day streets. The shoebox-sized shop is owned and operated by Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski, graduates of benchmark coffee emporium, Intelligentsia. In both its Venice and Silver Lake locations, Intelligentsia is awash with the hallmarks of hipsterdom: moustaches, vintage specs, quiffs and nonchalant outfits. Four-shot iced lattes are de rigour. As appalling (and intimidating) as that sounds, there’s something about Americans, something about their sincerity, their openness, which stops me throwing up in my mouth. Something that lets me delight in a congregation of hot people drinking hot (and cold) coffee in this hot city; it’s kinda hot. As are Glanville, Babinski and their namesake enterprise; the former is 2008 US Barista champion, Babinski 2012 runner-up (robbed!) and both are proudly and geekily obsessed with the preparation and service of the humble cup of Joe. They’re as sweet and endearing as the recycled glass jam jars their to-go coffee is served in: each jar wearing a bandana that performs double-duty as a burn-barrier for the drinker and dapper accessory for the vessel. Their coffee is exactly how you want it – delicious, smooth and guzzle-able, while the boys are exactly how you want your local baristas – chatty, handsome and knowledgeable. If G&B were in Sydney, I would be slavishly propping up the bar. But what’s a kaffeeklatsch without a little something for snack? Enter, Sqirl. Cosying up in a corner of the shoebox, this canteen, with Jessica Koslow at the helm, would be worth the trip even without G&B. The porridge I order is creamy; real, whole oats* cooked long and low, with love, until their starchy stickiness is released. Not sugary, but mellow with the faint and comforting bovine sweetness of full-cream milk. The crowning glory on this bowl of childhood familiarity is a sprinkling of crunchy, oily hazelnuts and the thick, blood-clot-glob of Koslow’s sublime homemade blueberry jam. Each mouthful incites a sigh of pleasure, on repeat until my spoon scrapes ceramic, digging for one more sigh. Walk back out into the sprawling city with a well-dressed coffee in one hand and the other fistful of fingers jammed messily in a jar of sticky preserve, then make Sqirl / G&B a frequent search in your Navman – ‘cause they’re perfection. And if you’re not from around here, you may never find them again. You may never find them again. You may never find them again…
*DER: The porridge is made with brown rice, not oats.
G&B has moved to:
Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles 90013
Sqirl still serve coffee at:
720 North Virgil Ave #4, Los Angeles 90029