I always want to be at the coffee shop.
I wish I were there right now. When it’s time to leave, I want to go back. I want to smell beans roasting, hear the whine of milk steaming, and breathe the toasty air that wafts off the espresso machine. But it’s not just a caffeine addiction; hear me out. It’s been like this forever. Since I was old enough to have an allowance, I’d beg my mom to drive me downtown to our local coffee shop, Cornerstone, and drop me off for a few hours. I’d buy one cup of brewed coffee for $1.25 (five quarters), and refill it if needed. When I was there, the world seemed bigger.
It didn’t matter if my friends were there or not, especially since I didn’t have many. I’d sit and read my book alone, or do a crossword — activities I could’ve easily done at home. It wasn’t about being with another person, specifically. As a pre-teen, I wasn’t craving lattes, americanos, or pastries, although a gumball machine in the lobby doled out chocolate-covered coffee beans dubbed “buzz beans” that were highly addictive.
It wasn’t the coffee that drew me there at all, really. It was just the feeling of being around other people chatting, or working, or collaborating; what I was really craving was the power of community, the sweet, cozy hum of being together. In a world that seems increasingly scary and more splintered than ever before, a coffee shop is still a place anyone can go to just be with other people.
Great coffee shops end up becoming the kind of places that church purports to be: places where people care for others, just because we’re all people. Using that rubric, one of the greatest coffee shops in LA is Dinosaur Coffee. Owned by Michelle Hantoot (formerly of Cafe Luxxe) and Ben Hantoot (who created a little game called Cards Against Humanity), Dinosaur has seemingly always been a spot that’s more community gathering point and neighborhood landmark than a cafe that sells coffee.
When I started getting coffee there in late 2016, they’d been open for about two years, and had already done away with a fixture most coffee shops consider imperative — the WiFi (though you can sneak some from the McDonalds next door if you really need it).
Located at the busy corner of Fountain (Hyperion) Avenue and Sunset, the cafe is right on the edge of Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Thai Town, all neighborhoods bustling with eager young screenwriters, aspiring journalists, and Eve Babitz wannabes (guilty), so the area had no lack of potential customers, even with competition from other nearby shops: Intelligentsia is a couple blocks down the street; a La Colombe opened another block down in late 2017. But neither chain could replicate the irresistible vibe of Dinosaur.
Aside from stellar products — they have the best cold brew in a square mile radius (a steal at $3.75), an assortment of gluten-free and traditional pastries from Friends & Family bakery, and some truly unexpected tonic delights by Hot Dog Sodas (about $4) — the electric atmosphere of the place is dictated by the architecture. Designed by MASS Architects, a local firm helmed by Los Angeles native Gregory Williams, the space features plenty of bright, curved wood, including a series of arcs on the ceiling that I’ve always thought of as Stegosaurus plates (Stegosaurus reportedly means “Roof Lizard”), and row after row of exposed beams.
Thin, curved slices of the same blonde wood arc around the entire room at different heights, and a particular shelf-high swath on the right side offers space to display local pottery from Nobuhitu Nishigawara, Dino merch, coffee beans, and tiny potted plants. In the back, an enormous fiber art installation frames a neon sign: things will be fine. The sign’s optimistic glow spills over patrons sitting at the communal table in the back, or working along the half-moon coffee bar encircling the barista’s service area. Some days it might not be true, but the hopefulness is contagious.
The front of the shop is dedicated to rows of similarly blonde, wooden tables — and bar seating looking out the glass front — some of the larger tables have tiny succulent gardens built into the center of them. As I mentioned, there is no WiFi, so many people read or write without interruption from that stream of everlasting input, sit and chat quietly, or draw, handwrite, eat and drink.
Coffee shops are rewarding places because they’re full of possibility. You could run into a friend or acquaintance (hi Zan!), make a connection with a stranger, have a conversation with a barista, encounter some unexpected art, try a new food or drink — basically, expand your world in so many ways that wouldn’t be possible at home.
Moving to LA in my late twenties for a new job where I worked remotely was a challenging thing, socially. I was happy in the role, but feeling completely friendless in a new city, and one of the first places that helped me feel at home was Dinosaur Coffee. It reminded me of the excitement of a trip to Cornerstone, of being 11-years-old and thinking I might find the whole world inside my next cup of coffee.