Coworking in SoCal: Reviewing San Diego Coffeeshops for Freelancers

by Kurt

Yelp!, FourSquare and TripAdvisor are great for regular consumers and travelers, but what about those of us looking for coffee shops based on other criteria, like: the loudness of music, the availability of seating and plugins and the general vibe for sitting and working? Eschewing coworking spaces on this trip, Mike and I spent most of our productive time in coffee shops both close to and far from our home base in downtown San Diego. Here are some thoughts for anyone interested in following suit, covering 12 locations across 7 popular neighborhoods:

Gaslamp: We happened to stay in the same building as Coffee & Art, which appears to be run by and for friends who themselves live in the building. Indoor seating is sparse – a few small stools at tall tables – but west-facing outdoor chairs with somewhat larger surfaces work well in most weather, at least until the sun wraps to the west face of the building. It has a almost-too-rich edibles including a ham and cheese croissant even the hungriest of might have trouble polishing off, and better-than-average coffee drinks. Village 631 is on the edge of the neighborhood and is part coffee shop, part restaurant, with excellent lattes, friendly staff, lots of indoor and outdoor seating. On weekends, folks with laptops are asked to sit in armchairs or on stools so meal-eaters can occupy tables. The place also has a bar, and that bleeds into the broader restaurant-and-pub vibe it gives off. The area Starbucks is a fine default option as well, with the usual fare plus a lot of seating options including an upstairs. Being along a major commercial strip of the Gaslamp, you will see lots of tourists passing through, as well as vocal locals who live on nearby streets.

Downtown: Most coffee shops (like the too-small-to-get-a-seat Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf) in the institutional and commercial core of downtown San Diego are made for businessmen and women and open mainly during work hours. Dee’s Newbreak Coffee & Cafe is larger than most, meaning more available seating, and offers a relatively comfortable, low-volume (both in terms of music and occupants) space to work. Drinks and food are fine. Heading up toward Little Italy and right along the streetcar line, the Elixir Espresso Bar offers a bit of seating, albeit a bit uncomfortable for long stays, a convenient location and deliciously cheap crepes for working brunches.

Golden Hill: Just a few blocks away from the edge of Balboa park, Krakatoa is an old converted house in its own little private forest that feels as much like a hip youth hostel or small jungle resort as it does a coffee shop. It is a great little place to work for a while (short or long), and switch between indoor-living-room and outdoor-deck vibes, plugging into the former as needed.

Hillcrest: There are many other options on the west side of the highway, but on the east, Filter is a sizable space with lots of seating (and free parking!) that is definitely dedicated to making room for freelancers. It is nothing glamorous, to be sure, but quite functional with light music, some lovely snacks and plenty of drinks as well.

North Park: Places like Caffe Calabria are a good example of how eclectic this neighborhood is – it feels a bit like an Italian coffeehouse randomly set down in the middle of a block of businesses of various other national origins. It has solid lunch fare, some televisions playing, booths and tables at which to sit, but is definitely a step more serious than your neighborhood coffee shop. Meanwhile, nearby, the Subterranean Coffee Boutique feels more gritty and local, with offbeat food options and cheaper menu items across both edible and drinkable realms. Plenty of good spots to plug into the walls, too.

Ocean Beanch: The Lazy Hummingbird will sum up the SoCal (or at least OB) experience for you quite quickly, with a mix of longboarders, tanned and topless (well, the men anyway) surfer types, explicitly communist bottled beverages and friends greeting each other with namaste. They make a decent sandwich, a good latte, and have an eclectic range of second-hand seating for both inside and out front. They also, somewhat inexplicably, share their space with a FedEx, and have no restroom.

La Jolla: If the previous place sums up its setting well, so to does The Living Room embody its neighborhood and surrounds, albeit perhaps on the informal side of the area. It is a multi-level food-and-drink establishment with a hookah bar that has lovely views out to the ocean on the second story, and plenty of seating throughout. The music tends toward decades-old blockbusters, and the people seem just a bit superficial, but that appears par for the course if you walk around the area.

For the most part, staying in the Gaslamp area was probably our best bet in terms of working. It gave us quick access to a number of shops in the neighboring blocks, with only periodic problems finding seating on the weekends, but also put us in range of other neighborhoods with additional offerings. Overall, coworking in various local venues not precisely designed to the task is a great way to get exposure to the everyday feel of different neighborhoods. One regret: apparently Balboa park has free wifi throughout – it would have been interesting to grab a coffee from one of its vendors and spend some time walking and working throughout.