It’s been 20 years since Cafe Solstice first opened as a coffee cart on Capitol Hill.
Back in 1994, the cart was small, but scrappy, sitting near Angel’s Thai Cuisine (now Jai Thai) at the corner of Thomas and Broadway. The new Cafe Solstice is located just down the street, at 925 East Thomas Street, beneath The Lyric apartment building. But things have really changed in the last two decades: this reincarnation has more than 3,000 square feet and offers sandwiches, baked goods, beer, and wine alongside its original coffee cart offerings.
“I was actually a regular at the coffee cart when I was a teenager,” General Manager Sarah Schafer told me, as we sat in one of the big, dark-wood booths in the bright and open cafe. “And we still have regulars coming by here who remember the cart. Back then it was obviously an amazing time to be on the Hill. But, in 1999, the owners wanted to expand.”
That expansion led them to the University District, and a brick and mortar location at 4116 University Way NE, which is where Schafer first started working for the company, as a barista back in 2000. But owners Joel Wood and Doug Sowers had always wanted to return to their original home on Capitol Hill.
“They were looking for a location up here for a while,” said Schafer. “When this location popped up, it was so close to the old location, it just seemed perfect.”
Not only did it seem perfect for Cafe Solstice, but for Schafer as well. She had left Seattle, and the company, for a job in California and couldn’t wait to return to help open the Capitol Hill location.
“Everything felt right,” she said, smiling. “I was so excited for this opportunity and to get back to Seattle.
The energy at this location is amazing. I think there’s a lot of magical realism that surrounds Cafe Solstice. A lot of people leave and come back because it’s such a special company to work for. We’re a tight family.”
Keeping that family feeling for customers is one of Schafer’s main goals.
“I’ve been both a barista and a bartender, and baristas are just morning bartenders,” Schafer said. “You build up that same relationship with your clientele. You get to know them. You know their drink and it’s on the counter when they walk in.”
Schafer says adding beer and wine to the menu doesn’t change that type of service.
“It’s really the same vibe at night,” she said. “Our main concern is really community and building relationships with our customers. Oftentimes, they become family and friends and there’s this whole lineage that’s created. It’s sort of like a Cheers vibe.”
For a coffee house/restaurant/bar only open a few weeks, Cafe Solstice did already feel like a bustling, established place when I visited it during the middle of a week day. With plenty of seats and booths, people were spread out with computers and friends, typing, reading, and eating.
The décor in Cafe Solstice is modern and clean. A giant buffalo head hangs on the wall, a metaphorical mascot of the slow and steady growth of the company and vibe from the owners.
Cafe Solstice is open from 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, and 6:30 a.m. to midnight on the weekends. On top of a full coffee bar, there are 12 beers on tap, 10 bottled beers, and several types of wine.
The food menu includes salads, sandwiches, and baked goods. (They make their own baked goods at their University District bakery.) Sandwiches are about 10 bucks and you’ll pay a little bit more for some of the fancier fare. Schafer recommends the granola and yogurt with Moroccan-spiced honey as a great pick-me-up breakfast.
The Cafe Solstice of 2014 is a lot of different than the Cafe Solstice of 1994, but Schafer hopes they can adapt to the new vibe, while also bringing back some of the old charm.
“I think one of the reasons we felt like it was time to return to the Hill was that there used to be much more of a sense of community,” Schafer told me. “There were a lot more people walking down the street, making connections, and hanging out. That’s really what we’re about. So coming back I want this to feel like a place people can just come in, hang out, play cards, and feel welcome. We want to help reunite the community a little bit.”
925 E Thomas St