A coffee shop for locals

Photograph of Royal Ground at Fillmore and California by Daniel Bahmani

By Chris Barnett

FILLMORE STREET’S oldest coffeehouse is gussying itself up, and there’s a whiff of concern in the air.

Royal Ground, a funky haunt for neighborhood caffeine addicts for 25 years, last month rearranged its milk and sugar stand and its refrigerated juice display. Hardly a full facelift, but some customers were flummoxed. Loyalists who pay for their coffee or lattes at the front counter piled high with seductive sweets habitually step over to the scarred, wooden milk bar for a sweetener or a stir stick. But it’s been moved — from the left to the right of the counter.

A few weeks earlier, a legal notice had been taped inside the front window announcing that Royal Ground had applied for a license to pour wine and serve beer. Plus, the lighting at night seems darker and moodier, giving rise to fears that the humble storefront with its prime location at 2060 Fillmore will be transformed from a vintage coffee shop into a rambunctious pub.

Not to worry. Ibrahim Alhjat, Royal Ground’s genial owner for the last 10 years, insists the minor changes will neither destroy nor disturb the coffee shop’s successful ecology, where a small cuppa joe still sells for just $1.50, less than nearly all of the street’s other coffee shops.

Royal Ground’s planned new limited offerings of wine (four whites and four reds) and beer (five bottles, no draughts) will be aimed at patrons who prefer something more than a Macchiato or an Americano. Alhjat says he’ll probably sell the wine for $4 to $5 a glass, considerably below most neighborhood saloons. He’s been waiting for a liquor license for a year and feels confident he’ll be popping his first cork in the fall.

Change comes slowly at the southeast corner of Fillmore and California, which Royal Ground took over in 1987. The space, brightened by sunlight streaming in two walls of windows, was previously home for decades to Bi-Rite Liquor. Alhjat also owns the laundromat next door, the Wash ’n’ Royal, where you can do it yourself or have Sylvia Hernandez wash, fluff and fold your sheets, shirts, socks and skivvies, with reliable one-day service, for $8 a pound.

At one time there were 24 Royal Ground coffee shops dotting the Bay Area. While that number has been shrinking, the cozy coffeehouse on Fillmore feels more like a family enterprise than just another link in a corporate chain. Alhjat, who was an electrician and a cab driver in his native Palestine and owned a liquor store at 15th and Church before setting up shop in the neighborhood, has amassed a lovely, lively family there.

A soft-spoken gentleman named Ray Bagleh, deemed one of the city’s most creative cookie makers when he ran his own Market Street shop, came out of retirement six years ago at Alhjat’s urging. Bagleh works the morning shift at Royal Ground now — cooking breakfast, making sandwiches and salads, toasting bagels and slathering them with cream cheese and concocting everything else that’s listed on the back wall menu above the industrial-sized coffee makers.

“Ray is the best,” says Alhjat, breaking into one of his wide grins. “He’s like a brother to me, like a dad. He’s cooking here as a hobby, not for the money.”

Adds Bagleh: “Actually, I’m working here for the fun of it. I don’t want to lose my brain.”

Alhjat’s son, Anthony, age 8, also sometimes pitches in part-time — taking orders, drawing the coffee and making sure all transactions are rung up on the register. He works seriously and silently until you coax a conversation out of him; then his stiff upper lip melts into his dad’s signature smile.

Royal Ground serves coffee roasted by the McLaughlin Coffee Co. in the East Bay. And there is also no shortage of food — cakes, muffins, fruit, energy bars, homemade falafel, chicken kabobs, hummus and other salads. Just about everything on the menu is $6 to $7 except the breakfast bagels, which run from $2.50 to $5.75. There’s also a basket of day-old muffins, scones, pastries and sticky buns for a mere buck apiece.

But it seems that at least some of Royal Ground’s customers come in for the smiles, schmooze and genuine greetings as much as the food or the coffee. The baristas, three young Russian women who swap shifts and run the shop from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, all oblige.

Siberian-born Tyatiana Shifruk has high energy, a dramatic flair and a gift for remembering many of her customers’ names and what’s going on in their lives. A geography and economy major taking a break from studies at St. Petersburg State University, she says she loves her work.

“It’s great for a foreigner like me because you’re always improving your English, learning the culture, making friends,” she says. “I’m a communicative person and I like to get opinions on all the different things going on in the city and in the world. And when I don’t know how to say something in English, I talk with my hands. People understand.”

Royal Ground's Russian baristas: Tyatiana Shifruk, Tina Kuznetsova and Natasha Lysova.

Shifruk, who moved to the neighborhood recently, says one of her biggest surprises about the U.S. is seeing people order coffee and lattes to go. “In Russia, you never take food out on the street and eat it or drink. It’s rude,” she says. “In fact, in my Siberian town of 100,000 — Ust-Ilimsk — they don’t have coffee shops.”

Natasha Lysova, a St. Petersburg native, prefers the night shift because she’s studying psychology at UC-Berkeley. She has a following of regular guests running the gamut from University of the Pacific dental students — who fill the place to eat, drink and bone up for exams — to San Francisco police officers, who gather around 10 p.m. for coffee and an informal update on the night’s happenings in the neighborhood.

“I like having the cops here,” says Lysova. “They protect us.”

Not that ducking into Royal Ground is all that risky. One recent night, eight members of a book club gathered to dissect and discuss the tome of the month. “They all drink decaf,” says Lysova, who, like her sister baristas sharing the late shift, finds herself preparing food right up to 10 p.m. for customers who also work or study late, or who party and get the munchies. At the stroke of 10, the kitchen closes.

Tina Kuznetsova, who works morning and night shifts, studied finance in Russia and is taking accounting classes here, but is also a drumbeater for Royal Ground. “We’re a coffee shop for locals and we have the lowest prices on the street except for Burger King,” she says. “But their coffee is no comparison to ours.”

Kuznetsova, who lives nearby, is a big fan of the neighborhood. “Fillmore is different than any other place I’ve been to in San Francisco. It has a different attitude. Not too slow, but no one is in a rush,” she says. “People on this street smile and you see the same people every day. That’s what a real neighborhood is.” Her local favorite: “The soups across the street at Tacobar. Best soup ever except for my mother’s Russian borscht.”

With a little luck, Royal Ground will remain an island of funk and friendliness in the neighborhood’s sea of stylish storefronts. The well-worn chairs and tables just fit the place. The Wi-Fi, free for those who buy something, works with minimal hassle and there are enough AC outlets for laptoppers.

All that — and soon, wine and beer, too.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: “Before Royal Ground, the Bi-Rite