There is a science involved in making restaurants a precise level of uncomfortable. It was quantified in the 1960’s, when certain chains were concerned about customers staying too long over their meals. So they researched color schemes and types of furniture that that would make people decide to leave as soon as they finished eating. There was a fine line here – they couldn’t make the experience so unpleasant that people resolved not to visit again, after all. On the other hand, they didn’t want the place to be as pleasant as somebody’s living room.
The owners at the Catalina Café evidently haven’t heard of this study, or if they did they chose to ignore it. The original location in South Redondo is very much like a cross between a living room and a library, complete with wing chairs, sofas, and a collection of books and games. It’s almost as if they want people to relax and, you know, talk to each other rather than pick up something to go or wolf down their food and leave.
I was immune to their charms for a long time – I stopped in to pick up freshly roasted coffee (the only place in the South Bay where I could do so), but usually didn’t stay to eat anything. Sure, I knew they served sandwiches and salads, but I was often in a hurry and resisted the urge to sink into a comfortable chair and enjoy the atmosphere.
Until the day I didn’t – one of the rare times I didn’t have to be anywhere soon — so I staked out a spot in the sun on the patio and enjoyed a sandwich called the Dirty Swede along with my latte. I had ordered it because there was nothing remotely Swedish about turkey breast, bacon, cream and cheddar cheese, and sprouts on a toasted bagel. I have been to Sweden twice and never had anything like it, but it was quite a meal.
My wife and I returned a few weeks later for brunch, snagging a table with plenty of natural light so we could read the papers while waiting for our order. Two soups were offered that day, Italian wedding and creamy potato-bacon. Italian wedding soup used to be rare around L.A., but I have been seeing it on a lot of menus lately. It’s a chicken stock with meatballs, spinach, carrots, Parmesan cheese, and pasta. (Catalina Coffee Company uses acini di pepe, the tiny wheat spheres that some children call frog eyeball pasta.) It’s a hearty but not heavy soup when well made, and I happily drank it to the last drop, savoring the hints of dill and herbs that were in every spoonful.
The potato-bacon wasn’t trying for lightness – it was the kind of thick, rich, and warming soup that makes you look forward to a cold day just so you can eat it when coming out of the cold. The spicing was subtle but sufficient – a little pepper and onion to go along with the butter and cream, and that was all.
For lunch I selected a breakfast burrito, while she decided on a sandwich called a Jolly Spartan. I don’t think of the ancient Greek Spartans as a jolly people, so assume this was named after the South High mascot – it may be something else entirely, but I didn’t think to ask. As with the Dirty Swede, it certainly wasn’t because there were Greek ingredients; the Panini was made with ham, cheddar cheese, apples, bacon, and mayo on sourdough bread. It was a good sandwich, though the bacon wasn’t quite crispy enough for my taste. When I mentioned this to the woman at the counter, she said that when they made the bacon crisp, some people thought it was too crispy – it is best to specify crispy if that’s what you like. The chopped apples made the difference here – the bacon, apples, and melted cheese were excellent together.
We looked at the array of homemade cookies and cakes – nothing fancy, just American home-style desserts – but decided that we were quite sufficiently full.
I returned the next morning for breakfast and decided to get a sausage breakfast croissant, and in a moment of rebellion decided to get my caffeine fix via hot chocolate even though I was in a place with the word coffee in the name. Catalina Coffee does serve teas, hot chocolate, and other beverages hot and cold; the branch inside Mysterious Galaxy bookstore on Artesia serves beer and wine, including Belgian microbrews. The chocolate was the real thing but just a bit sweeter than I like – since I like it rather bitter, others are likely to find it just right.
The breakfast croissant was not conceptually novel – ham, bacon, or sausage along with an egg, tomato, purple onion, cheese, and mayo, all inside a warm flaky pastry. It was fresh and good and exactly what I was in the mood for; on a future visit I’ll probably try the curried chicken salad, but on this day I had just what I needed.
I left with a sunny disposition, a full stomach, and a half-pound of fresh roasted whole bean Sumatran coffee to go. I could buy a whole pound, which is what most people do – but then I wouldn’t run out of coffee as fast and have a good excuse to come back for more.
Catalina Coffee Company is at 126 N. Catalina in South Redondo, with a branch at 2810 Artesia in North Redondo. Open Mon.-Sat. 7a.m.-9 p.m. in South Redond, 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. Sun. In North Redondo open Mon.-Thurs. 6 a.m -7 p.m., Fri. 6 a.m. -9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wheelchair access good, parking lot at both locations. Website catalinacoffee.com. Phone 310-318-2499 S. Redondo, 310-598-3951 N. Redondo.