Settling in for an evening’s card game, Bajies Abdo and friends pushed aside their coffee mugs and cake plates.
“All right guys, get rid of your pairs,” said dealer Abdo, explaining the rules of an Arabic game akin to Old Maid whose name he couldn’t remember.
The group of seven men and women gathered at Alta coffeehouse, a.k.a. the Alta Coffee Warehouse and Roasting Co., looked like regulars. Laughing loudly and mostly ignoring the soft background guitar music, they could be clustered around the dinner table after a casual Saturday supper at home.
None had ever been to the local eatery, though.
The ability to feel and act right at home is the way it is at Alta, where the garage sale/swap meet china doesn’t match, and no souls are ever booted out for spending an entire afternoon over a bottomless cup of “joe,” as owners call their dark brown liquid staple. And that’s the way it was last Saturday night, when the neighborly, 6 1/2-year-old cafe made its official debut as a place for entertainment, and dinner was served for the first time.
Professional musicians and other artists--as well as amateur folk who perform for fun--will occasionally be booked as soon as Alta’s nascent program of music, poetry readings and other live performances shapes up, owners say.
But the weekend’s decidedly informal inaugural was left to the amateur talents of friends and staff.
“It’s whatever anybody wants to play and whatever instrument they want to pick up,” said regular Steve Crisafulli, one of about five guitarists who joined in the evening’s mellow jam session.
Added cafe employee Donald Miller, who loosely organized the musical debut: “Anybody who comes in can sit down and play. I wish we had a piano.”
Sitting in a crowded corner of the small cafe at 506 31st St., Miller and fellow strummers played an impromptu medley of blues and folk tunes on acoustic and electric guitars. A busy kitchen crew served hearty Mexican meatball soup, 13 kinds of freshly brewed coffee and homemade bread pudding, carrot cake and brownies to patrons, many of them regulars who give new meaning to the word.
“I come in for my first cup at 7 a.m., then go home and do a little work, then I come back for another cup around 11, then I’m back again for lunch,” said Tony Shepardson, a real estate investor who keeps a running tab.
“I’m here more than I’m at home,” said Jane Elliott, a painter who displays her watercolors at Alta.
The coffeehouse has the sort of ambience that customers liken to “someone’s home,” rather than a public place, with well-worn hardwood floors, chairs that match about as well as its myriad fat coffee mugs, original art on the walls, people who know one another, and the feel of a bohemian coffeehouse in Berkeley, not any place in Beverly Hills by the sea, as some dub Newport Beach.
Entertainment there is part of a natural progression that started when co-owners Patti Spooner and Tony Wilson launched their venture strictly as a wholesale operation supplying restaurants with freshly roasted java--which they still do, said Spooner, who expects to offer entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights and perhaps Sunday afternoons.
Dressed in comfortable slacks, running shoes and a colorful embroidered shirt from Guatemala, the warm 48-year-old who learned about really good coffee when she lived in Costa Rica for three years discussed Alta’s genesis during a break from counter service Saturday.
“I wanted to start a business, and someone said, ‘Why don’t you do what you like doing the most?’ which is probably cooking and entertaining, " said Spooner, whose approach clearly led to the come-as-you-are-and-stay-awhile feel of Alta, a former bookstore.
“I didn’t want to open a restaurant because of the high failure rate, but (selling) coffee sounded good. It was something I could learn about, and friendly feelings go with coffee--people talking--and I like that.
“When we opened, we had a Mr. Coffee in here for ourselves and people were just coming in off the street and we started selling them coffee.” Responding to popular demand, cappuccino sales followed, then pastries and, 18 months ago, light lunches of soups, salads and a different bread baked each day.
Eventually, the shop’s casual atmosphere attracted the attention of Friends of the Norman E. Watson Library at Orange Coast College, a support group that recently staged its third reading, Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” at Alta.
Soon after the first reading, Spooner realized that she wanted to do more of the same and needed more space to do it. Physical expansion and longer hours would mean more crowds coming to Cannery Village, the cluster of shops and restaurants that includes Alta. And that required permission from the Newport Beach City Council and the state Coastal Commission.
After renting space nearby for extra parking, city approval came a couple of months ago. Two weeks ago, the state followed suit, clearing the way for Saturday night’s inauguration and eventual expansion of the restaurant from 23 to about 55 seats.
“We really had to fight for the permit,” said Spooner, who used as ammunition a 500-signature petition signed by Alta patrons who said they either walked or rode bikes to the cafe.
“But I think we need poetry and culture and music,” said Spooner, who also plans a puppet show this month and some sort of entertainment each night of the Dec. 17 through 23 Newport Beach boat parade. “It’s just a void that’s been in Orange County for 10 or 20 years.”
In fact, poetry readings have been cropping up around the county more and more lately and about a dozen are now regularly scheduled.
But Lee Mallory, a 25-year resident of Newport Beach who runs the successful Factory poetry readings in Santa Ana, feels that more of the same in the county’s “spiritually empty bastion of affluence” just might nudge it from its “yawning complacency.”
“People in Newport Beach are insulated from strong societal currents, shielded from the poor, protected from all but the most narrow politics,” said Mallory, a poet and English instructor at Rancho Santiago College who was unable to attend on Saturday. “Poetry will put them back in touch just by nature of its basic themes, which are love, alienation and nature and the environment.”