Of all the websites I've recently encountered, the one that makes me feel the most empathy toward my parents belongs to the Arabica Lounge. I do not understand it. The navigation features don't make sense to me, the tiny font forces me to put my glasses on, and though I'm certain the logo must mean something, I have no idea what. Approaching the page for the fifth time or so this past week, I realized: This must have been what my mom felt like when first confronting Facebook. Whether by chasm of concept or simply by degree of cool, I am unmistakably separated by dialect from Arabica's website. (Also, by microscopic font.)
Listening to Ravel at the Arabica Lounge.
Consequent to this introduction, I did not know what to expect upon visiting the Arabica Lounge this weekend. But since it kept coming up in conversations, I thought perhaps I should go see what the buzz was about. So at 8:30 on Saturday night, after searching futilely for parking near the intersection of East Denny and East Olive Way (and eventually walking farther than I wanted to), I stepped away from one of Seattle's first spring evenings through an unassuming door and into a crowded room. I found myself suddenly standing in the midst of statuesquely still people, all intently listening. To the right of the door, I discovered five or six different friends I'd not planned to see. To the left of the door, also unplanned, a live and subtle piano performance of Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l'oye (or "Mother Goose") suite. The room stretched on ahead, artistically lit and curiously decorated, past the bar and kitchen, toward people sitting on couches or curled up on the floor in quiet conversation. Walking in from the hum of Capitol Hill's usual weekend pace, it was all very surreal.
Behind the bar, working as quietly as possible to simultaneously conduct closing duties and not distract from Ravel, the barista kindly made a Stumptown Americano for me, taking my order in a whisper and wincing a little as he switched on the coffee grinder. (Funny that performers typically care less about noise levels at informal performances than their surroundings do . . . I felt awkward, and the barista felt awkward, but on the other side of the piano and throughout the majority of the room, the coffee-making went unnoticed.) Under such confined circumstances, it is nearly impossible to judge the coffee in general with any kind of accuracy. But I think it is safe to say that coffee isn't really what anyone goes to Arabica to get.
Owner/designer Jojo Corväiá, better known for his work in art than his work in food or coffee, seems to have designed a space with a wholly different intent than that behind most of the restaurants and coffee shops in Seattle. This is not really a coffee shop, nor even a coffee shop/art gallery. It is more like a work of art itself. One of the baristas tells me that the room was designed "to feel like you're in a movie, all the time," but I feel more like I'm on the stage of a ballet. Of course, that could be due to Ravel in the background: a piano suite that eventually became a ballet, as Ravel subjected it to his habit of rewriting, reorchestrating, and reimagining his own original works. Or it could be due to the expanses of white walls interspersed with heavily poignant decor--a tree reminiscent of trees, a clock far too small and colorful for its wall, an abstract pillar that could easily serve a dozen purposes as a prop in a play.
Whatever the case, coffee and food at the Arabica Lounge are more a means to an end than a focal point. Or to put it another way, it seems that the Arabica's primary purpose is found in giving the Lounge a reason to exist. People seem drawn here in order to participate in the art and music of being present . . . and it so happens that they might eat and drink while being art or having conversations.
Should you be in the mood to feel curated with your coffee this week, the Arabica Lounge is open, according to its website, from "7:00 am-9ish pm," Monday-Friday. On the weekends, its hours are "9:00 - late, you know..."