Only in the Bay Area can three coffee shops thrive on just one block — stretching between Oakland and Berkeley — and can do so in the spirit of community, not competition. 

Living around the corner from this stretch of College Avenue between Claremont and Alcatraz for the past decade plus, I’ve often speculated about how so many coffee joints (Cole Coffee, Philz Coffee, and Peet’s Coffee — not even counting the to-go only Starbucks located inside Safeway) manage to not only survive, but flourish. 

I asked my 15-year-old son, Errol Sloan, what type of customer he thought each café attracted. His quick answer? People my age (ahem, middle-aged) went to Cole, teenagers hung out at Philz, and people on their way somewhere else — dog walkers and the like preferred Peet’s. 

I set up a not-so-scientific experiment to see if his speculations held merit. That is, I asked around. After several visits to each location, it appears that my son got two out of three (mainly) right, but more importantly, it appears that there are enough coffee lovers at this little intersection of Berkeley and Oakland to go around. As Cole Coffee’s Desiree Salas-Murphy put it, “There’s room for everybody.”

Cole Coffee

Cole Coffee, shortly after its 2017 renovation. Credit: Sarah Han

Cole Coffee
6255 College Ave. (near 63rd Street), Oakland

Cole is the old-school original, and was around before any of its competitors across the street and down the block. Formerly called Royal Café, the spot became Cole when it was purchased by long-time manager Michael Murphy and his wife Desiree Salas-Murphy in 2005. 

Cole customers are a ferociously loyal bunch. In what’s a common refrain, Oakland local Elizabeth Gessel said “Cole is the best, of course.” 

“Cole is a neighborhood institution, part of the fabric of the community,” Gessel said.

Community comes up a lot when fans talk about Cole. “For the general vibe and neighborliness, Cole Coffee wins, “ said Berkeley resident Louise Paige.

“Lots of people come here themselves looking for connection,” said Salas-Murphy. “They’ll come and read and start a conversation outside.”

Oakland local Christine, who was hanging out at one of Cole’s sidewalk tables recently, has been a loyal customer for 15 years. At first, she was just interested in the proximity of the café to home, along with its house-roasted beans. But soon she became a devoted fan, so much so that she said, “We were all defensive” when Philz moved in across the street, “but it all worked out fine.”

“I don’t know if we were worried, but you can’t stop it,” said Murphy about the café that landed directly across the street from Cole in 2014. “But we have our loyal crowd and it made us reimagine the business, we decided we were going to add sandwiches and the food. It helped us up our game.” 

Besides the coffee drinkers and poached egg eaters, something else you’re likely to see outside Cole is a passel of cycles, both the human-powered and motor-fueled types. The café has long been a stop for two wheel fanatics of both stripes.

Robert, who lives in El Cerrito and who I caught up with on a recent Saturday, first came to Cole on a motorcycle run. He loved the food, coffee, and the connection he’s made with Cole’s regulars. It keeps him coming back decades later. 

So, is my son’s assessment correct? We see “every age group and walk of life,” said Murphy. Still, a recent visit revealed the café filled with folks about my age. 

But the Cole crew is working on it: “We have new drinks, like horchata latte and chai,” said Murphy, to attract the younger crowd.

Cole Coffee’s personality: If Cole were a person, “they’d be into vinyl and old movies,” said Salas-Murphy “If it weren’t a café, it would be thrift shop.”

Philz Coffee

Philz on College Avenue. Photo: Kate Williams

Philz Coffee
6310 College Ave. (near 63rd Street), Oakland

Phil Jaber launched the first Philz in 2003, on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. In the early days, you could waltz into the café and have Phil himself whip you up a Turkish coffee with a pop of cardamom. 

Now, Philz is a chain that’s spread its way across California and into the Chicago and D.C. areas. 

The College Avenue location’s current menu definitely has Gen Z gastronomy down, with mint mojito coffee, iced coffee rosé and bacon and onion pretzel croissants. 

But is Philz really where the youngsters flock? Seems so! When I headed over to find some customers to chat with, I wound up talking to a tableful of UC Berkeley students, along with one recent graduate. 

Cal student Kim said that she loved the specialty drinks and all the outdoor seating on the public plaza in front of Safeway, while recent grad Anisha said that she often studied at Philz when a student, and that being able to get some shopping done at the same location was a welcome bonus. “A lot of students come here for grocery shopping,” added her friend Roxy.

Student Liz added that people come to the plaza to eat their Boichik bagels while sipping a fancy Philz brew, a statement that was backed up by a quick glance around nearby tables.

But, still, it’s not only the kids who flock to Philz. Local writer Allison Landa said, “I’m a Philz girl. Cole is always far too crowded.” The flavored drinks at Philz also cause some split loyalties. “I love some Philz fancy drinks with cardamom and mint, so I would go there if I’m craving that particular drink,” says Cole fan Paige. 

Philz Coffee personality: Philz is the cool mom’s house where you can hang out after school, with just the right amount of supervision and a stocked fridge.

Peet’s Coffee

The Peet’s at 3200 College Ave., in a photo from 2015. Credit: Run Level Zero/Yelp

Peet’s Coffee
3200 College Ave. (at Alcatraz Avenue), Berkeley

So, does locally founded chain Peet’s only attract the to-go crowd at its College and Alcatraz location?

Turns out, the answer is a resounding no. 

Gabriel from Berkeley was hanging out in the café on a recent weekend morning and said there’s one major reason he’s a regular, coming by three to four times a week: comfy chairs. “And they are also open earlier” than their competition, he said. 

And there’s something comforting about the mellow vibe Peet’s offers. As local Oliver Hesse put it, “Philz is too hipster, Cole is nice but the coffee too dark, to Peet’s it is.”

And Susan Mahon said Peets is her jam, partially because “I always found Cole Coffee intimidating as there are so many regulars who sit there for hours.”

A quick look around any day of the week shows that the café attracts locals who come in to relax in the aforementioned arm chairs and work on their laptops, though there is also a brisk business of orders placed through the Peet’s app for those who want to grab and go.

Manager Jenille Basan says there’s yet another lure for her regulars: the strong coffee that Peet’s is known for (though apparently not as dark as Cole, according to Hesse). 

According to Basan, the most popular drink order is the humble latte. And while the clientele skews older than Cole or Philz,  Peet’s has been “trying to change it up to attract a younger demographic” with new drinks like fruit teas with jelly — their slightly controversial take on boba.

Peet’s Coffee personality: That warm cardigan you turn to again and again. It might not be trendy, but it fits you perfectly and keeps you warm.

Elise Proulx

Elise Proulx is a freelance writer and director of communications and marketing at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, teenage son, dog, four cats, four chickens...