Chapel Hill

Café Crossroads

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This coffee shop wasn’t built for you. Chapel Hill Coffee is an extension of owner Rafael Vizcaino—and you’re invited to join in the experience. After ten years of being in the food truck business, and with a desire for more work-life balance, Vizcaino was ready to switch his focus to a brick-and-mortar location. A café was at the top of that list.

His taco truck was one of the first to arrive in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. “It was cool in the beginning; pretty punk rock. No one else did it,” he says. Pushing up his round-rimmed glasses, he acknowledges, “Food is a rough business. If you don’t love it with all of your heart, then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

To Vizcaino, the change from mobile food to serving coffee over a bar is a welcome one. Food, at its core, is a combination of many ingredients and the sourcing of each can be both tedious and difficult. With coffee, Chapel Hill chooses to work with one local roaster—Four Barrel—and sticks to a simple menu.

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Owner Rafael Vizcaino. (Photos by Jenn Chen.)

The café opened in June 2015 with only eight drinks on the coffee menu. High-quality organic milk is sourced from local purveyors Straus Family Creamery and tea blends from Chamois & Twig. For the hungry, Chapel Hill offers a selection of croissants from Neighbor Bakehouse and packaged bars from Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate.

Expanding on the café’s choice of only five vendors, Vizcaino says, “I wanted to be more in control of what I was selling. I believe in these companies that supply me. I wanted to be surrounded by people I look up to.”

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Looking out onto Commercial St.

Much like the choice of its roaster, Chapel Hill’s location is the result of careful selection. The mostly concrete interior is squeezed between an herbal center and a dim sum restaurant. Outside, the street it closed to automotive traffic during the day. Inside, it’s standing room only for the long and narrow space.

Commercial Street, the street Chapel Hill resides on, connects the suited up Financial District with the oldest Chinatown in the US. This particular street is closed daily to traffic because of its high-volume tourism. The businesses along this tree-lined alley set out tables and chairs for those who want to enjoy a secluded lunch outside.

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The bar at Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill fits easily into the neighborhood, perhaps because it was an intentional decision. When putting together plans for the space, Vizcaino told Boor Bridges Architecture, of Four Barrel and Sightglass fame, that he wanted the shop to be inspired by the iconic, 1980s Bianchi bicycle color “Celeste.” That color is currently the only color on Chapel Hills’ walls.

The space itself is built out with wooden touches throughout, a torched wood bar, and some steel to hold up the only table. A single-pane glass window opens easily onto the street to allow passersby to peer into the cafe.

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Chapel Hill’s neighbors include a dim sum restaurant and an herbal center.

Choosing certain woods and finishes was important in the overall aesthetic. “With most places, they look beautiful when they open. And being a coffee shop, it gets worn in and dirty. Stained. Some places, they use marble and I don’t like it when coffee stains that stuff.” Vizcaino gestures to the table and says, “I wanted to break it in using wood and this type of steel—it’ll get scratched and scuffed and chipped, but it’ll still look beautiful.”

Today, Vizcaino is dressed casually in a chambray shirt and dark pants. He hoists himself up to the corner of the window, grinning. “This is my favorite spot.” It’s noon on a weekday. The street is closed and the lunch crowd is filtering in. “I don’t really think too much about what I’m doing. I built the shop for me and I hope other people like it.”

Jenn Chen is a coffee marketer and writer residing in San Francisco.