Cafe la Boheme: a destination for chill
Illustration by Molly Oleson

Café la Boheme is one of my ringers for “chill” any day, any time.

Alice said she wanted to drink someplace “chill,” which is really hard to find in the Mission on a Friday night. If I want chill on a Friday, I go somewhere else. Almost anywhere else. 

This has become especially true as many of the chill places have closed down over the years. The economics of bar investors in San Francisco are increasingly like that of venture capitalists and tech companies: They’re not looking to make a good product that will develop a loyal clientele and build steady returns over time, they’re looking to score a massive, unicorn, success. So they flood the market with bars that are all one in a billion chances to succeed, and the more they do that, the more such massive capital and infrastructure become the minimum requirements to start any bars at all, until there’s no oxygen left for people who are not looking to score billions, sell to a conglomerate, and walk away. 

So “chill” increasingly means “legacy” in this town: a chill spot is a place that’s been open for decades, and survives by virtue of having gotten settled in at a time when more was possible. Café la Boheme, on 24th just off Mission, is a place like that, and one of my ringers for “chill” any day, any time.

Café La Boheme has been there since 1973 – hardly the oldest spot in the Mission, but a legacy bar to be sure – and its occasional tagline “The Mission Is Ours” speaks defiantly to people who want nightlife to be anything more than hanging out in an interesting spot, drinking, and talking with interesting people. It has an old school décor because it is old school: spacious, with mismatched wooden tables and chairs, it very much resembles an only slightly Americanized version of a Left Bank Arabic café.

You’ll never actually think you’re in France, let alone the Middle East, but you definitely won’t think you’re in a Future Bar with the theme of Icelandic anime, where the mixologists are forced to wear uniforms that include tutus and suspenders. That bar has already opened and closed on Valencia in the time it took you to read this sentence. 

Nice kitty.

Alice told me that her cats are as dumb as a box of rocks, and as we ordered our drinks we debated whether the intelligence of any given box of rocks is a constant, or if there’s variation: Would New Agers tell us that a box of rocks that included crystals have a higher base intelligence? Do the number of rocks make a difference? 

“We’re debating the intelligence of rock piles, and we can hear ourselves talk: We’re winning,” she said, and we clinked glasses.

I started out with a $4.50 matcha latte, which was excellent, and moved on to $6 house sangria, which was acceptable. In this town, you really cannot argue with acceptable sangria for $6, and so I stuck with it for a while.

There is, I’m now hypothesizing, a direct inverse relationship between the chillness of a spot and the cost of its drinks. If I can accurately describe this relationship mathematically, I will win the goddamn Nobel Prize. Or at least be allowed to bartend at the Nobel Prize afterparty.

Behind the counter at La Boheme.

Over time, I switch up to beer. Café la Boheme has a modest but pleasant list of beers on tap, including Duvel, Blue Moon, Fat Tire … you know, the better-than-average basics. All running about $6. 

I have as much history with Café la Boheme as I have with any place in San Francisco. This is the bar where I first got to know my friend Miriam … or rather, where she first got to know me. I helped establish a small writing group here almost a decade ago that I had completely forgotten about after I left — and that, I realized last year, is still going on. This is where I would meet the editor for my first book. When I first walked up to place my order, the barista – one of the owners – said “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” She was right. I’m sure she doesn’t know my name, but I appreciated the acknowledgement of our shared history. I am told that the Mission used to be like that everywhere. 

Life goes on. But it’s the really expensive destination bars that are cheap. A dime a dozen. Shared history is priceless: It literally cannot be bought, only invested in.

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  1. This is one of the best cafes ever! I grew up here with my family and at times considered this place to be a second home. I watched as people my age grew up and noticed that the old timers were always willing to teach/talk/tell their stories to anyone who asked or listened. This is a café I wish to bring my future children to one day… for that reason, I hope they stay in business for a along time.

  2. Ben,

    Terrific piece of history.

    Couple of tidbits …

    Dance Mission has been upstairs for decades.

    Robert Crump used write and sketch there.

    Carlos Santana played an early gig there.

    Before it was a cafe it was a cobbler’s shop.

    He planted the narly tree outside, ‘Irene’ after his
    first daughter.

    Thank you for recognizing my favorite bars in Spec’s
    and Thieves and LaBoheme.


  3. I love this place. Full of old timers, and the tech bros with their laptops are all over at Haus wasting their lives on apps nobody uses, so you can actually read a book and chill out.

    1. Love this comment Joe S. I like the coffee at Haus, but almost never go there since every table is covered with one person and a laptop. Love La Boheme!

    2. The last time I was in Café la Boheme, the guy behind the counter was so rude that I slid the plate with a pastry on it back at him and walked out without even demanding a refund.

      I will never enter Café la Boheme again.