Frank Murdocco opened the doors of his Café Calabria in the early 1970s. It was one of several private men’s clubs on Commercial Drive that was dedicated to the region of origin of its owner and, of course, its patrons. It did not take long for Frank to get a bit restless with the situation, though, and true to his methods and to himself, he went in a different direction. “Why restrict it only to the gentlemen, and only to one part of the world?” he says. His son Vince, who these days is a fixture behind the bar, confirms this: “My dad didn’t worry too much about what people might think. He wanted this place to be welcoming to everyone.”
You will still find Frank in his barista maestro role most days. He knows a lot of people’s names, but even more know his. There is a lively open atmosphere, always bustling, always on the edge of being too loud, but never quite that. Café Calabria keeps a well-stocked panini selection, among many other Italian delicacies available, as well as the house blend coffee and whole beans by the bag. The walls are decked with pictures of the family and many special visitors over the years, many of which are signed. If you sit and watch for awhile, take that second cappuccino served in the old-country size—not the gargantuan boats of milk served in many other places—you will notice that there is a remarkable amount of exchange going on between casual acquaintances, between tables, folks coming in and out of the place. It’s a kind of impromptu community that ebbs and flows throughout each day.
Frank and his sons, Vince and Nick, are at the centre of it all. The massive Nuova Simonelli machine they have operated for more than 20 years keeps on putting out the perfect espresso. You can get an organic tea if you wish, since Frank stays remarkably with the times, and since day one has been there to meet the needs of his customers. We should be clear about something, though. Café Calabria is resolutely, proudly, itself. Comparisons with other establishments, with award-winning baristas and little patterns in the foam, are misplaced. Vancouver has a multitude of fine coffee houses, and some international-calibre roasters, baristas and products—that’s all granted. But there is only one Café Calabria, and in a certain mood on a certain day in this city, there really is no better a place to be.