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Back Near Broadway

By Frank Gruber

I have a rule against mentioning restaurants, but I'm going to do it to plug the most authentic espresso in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, the plug is posthumous, or in limbo. Last week Cafe Panini, the espresso bar that was located in the old Crocker Tower on Santa Monica just west of the Promenade, closed its congenial little self.

Two Ethiopian immigrants, Fasil and Selam, owned and ran Cafe Panini. Actually, Fasil is Ethiopian and Selam is Eritrean, and when Ethiopia and Eritrea were warring with each other a couple years ago, we customers would joke that Fasil and Selam would have to get the U.N. to establish a protectorate over their establishment.

Until new owners bought the building a few years ago and evicted all the old tenants so that they could renovate it, a project that after years of work appears to be drawing to a close, I had my office in the Crocker Tower. In those days I was a Cafe Panini regular.

One of the little pleasures of my life was to take a coffee break, usually around eleven. Fasil and Salem know how to make an espresso right -- from the crema floating on top to the few grounds suspended in the dregs, and the two swallows of wonderful bittersweet flavor in between.

I would take my little white porcelain cup -- always on a little saucer -- and stand in the wide doorway that opened onto Santa Monica Boulevard. At eleven the sun would be at about one or two o'clock in the sky: in winter, low enough to make me squint; in summer, high enough to tickle sense memories of Rome.

It would take less than a minute to drink my two swallows of coffee, but in that time, watching whoever was passing by, I would ruminate that perhaps there was something in this civilization thing that people have been working on for a few thousand years.

* * *

Along with the other tenants, so many of whom used Cafe Panini as an auxiliary conference room, I had to find a new office when the new owners cleared everyone out. Back then, in 2001, the office market was so tight that I had to settle for an office near Twelfth Street.

Cafe Panini had a lease, however, and managed to stick it out, surviving despite the loss of so many customers from the building, the huge scaffolding the contractors built in front of their entrance, and the construction of the transit mall. Fasil and Salem looked forward to having tables on the widened sidewalk out in front.

But the value of their lease was much higher than the rent they were paying. The building owners wanted Cafe Panini gone so that they could rent the space for retail. There was litigation, and ultimately the owners made an offer that Fasil and Salem were willing to accept, and they closed shop.

But all is not lost. Last time I spoke to Fasil, he was negotiating to rent a currently empty storefront just across Santa Monica Boulevard, near the Mayfair Theater. Here's hoping he can close the deal. It won't be the same, standing in the doorway with my espresso facing away from the sun, but it will be close enough.

* * *

The loss of eating places on the Promenade has been the major source of angst about Downtown for a couple years, and recently the Promenade Uses Taskforce that that City Council created to study the problem agreed on recommendations. (“Promenade Taskforce Hammers Out Final Recommendations,” March 21)

I will write about the substance of the recommendations at another time, but I want to commend the Taskforce members for reaching some kind of consensus. I intermittently attended their meetings and can report that it was a struggle.

Such diverse interests comprised the group -- property owners at one extreme and restaurateurs and their champions on the other -- that on more than one occasion I heard people compare their deliberations to those of the Security Council.

Congratulations to the Taskforce members -- Chair Michael Feinstein deserves particular credit for separating his own strong views from his role as chair -- and to the planing staff that worked with them.

* * *

Also congratulations to the City Council. I would classify the council's debate last Tuesday night about reallocating capital resources to build the new main library in its "finer hour" department. Ken Genser's explanation of the issue was particularly clear.

Personally, I would rather see more library at the library and less parking lot, but it needs to be built. Council made the best of a tough situation, in a sort of prelude of the even tougher decisions coming up this spring on the budget as a whole.

* * *

So maybe you are wondering why I am in such a good mood, waxing lyrical about coffee and casually throwing encomiums to the likes of Feinstein and Genser.

I don't know. I hope it's not just denial about Iraq.

The reason might be that after two years, I'm back Downtown. Two months ago, another Crocker Tower refugee called me with news that he had found a two-office suite for lease in another old Downtown building, the Central Tower, on Fourth Street just north of Broadway.

Coincidentally my lease on Twelfth Street was expiring. Negotiations were quick, and March 1 my friend and I moved into what we're told were judge's chambers when the Central Tower was Santa Monica's courthouse.

So once again going to the post office or the bank is a pleasurable walk. A four o'clock meeting is a beer on the Promenade. Bookstores, newsstand, library, barbershop, shoe repair, and, of course, good coffee, all nearby.

I needed a microwave for the office and I walked to Sears.

It's great to be back.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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