Lucy Tomlinson is California Dreamin’ about brunch and bubbles

What cultural contributions spring to mind when you think of California? Gritty noir or hazy, lazy Laurel Canyon? Steinbeck or Pretty Woman? Neon sunsets, Hockney-esque swimming pools, rockstars falling out of nightclubs or harmonising with the Beach Boys? It seems there is a version of California for everyone.

It’s clearly a labour of love, with owner Justin apparently getting up at 4am every morning to roast the coffee beans every day

The influence that California has had on the cuisine of North America (and in fact the world) is similarly eclectic. There are influential high-end places such as Chez Panisse or French Laundry, the fusion of food and celebrity from the likes of Nobu, endless variations on things to do with tofu and avocado, oh and guess where a little ole chain called McDonald’s was invented? Yes, you could say the reach of the Golden State is pretty great.

Sensibly, the owners of California Coffee and Wine (located on Altrincham’s Oxford Road rather than Sunset Boulevard) have swerved the moon juice and kale smoothie side of California eating in favour of showcasing the state’s favourite meal (brunch) laced with lively California-Mexican flavours. Cal-mex is a much lighter, punchier version of Tex-mex, focusing more on vegetables and with zingier flavours, but still delivering the tasty snackability of tacos et al.

2020 10 06 California Coffee Interior
The interior doesn’t necessarily call the Californian Dream to mind though

The only areas where things start to get a bit Goop-y are both water and wine. The latter is often organic and/or biodynamic with a list featuring both old and new world varieties. As for the water, it’s a special filtered variety that is used for making the excellent coffee. When it comes to the liquid element of the menu, it’s clearly a labour of love, with owner Justin apparently getting up at 4am every morning to roast the coffee beans every day, while his wife and co-owner Diana is in charge of sourcing the sustainable wine. (Read more here)

2020 10 06 California Coffee Hot Cakes
These hotcakes sell, hotcakes

Unusually (and for obvious reasons), this review spans over six months, with the first visit taking place just before lockdown hit. I visited on a March afternoon with a friend. Virus chat was almost non-existent and I don’t think I’d even seen a disposable mask at this point. Carefree days.

If you can transport yourself back that far, then picture me ordering from the hotcakes menu (for those of you wondering, this isn’t an over-familiar term of endearment but essentially another name for pancakes). The Grande California stack (£9.95) was layered with sausage, bacon, poached egg and a homemade ‘Cali’ salsa, with tomatoes, red onion and coriander transforming a regular breakfast into something a bit more vibrant. 

2020 10 06 California Coffee Salmon
Smokehouse salmon bagel
2020 10 06 California Coffee Salad
House salad

My friend had the Smokehouse salmon bagel (£10.95), featuring salmon from the Manchester Smoke House, which was a solid rendition of a classic with luscious salmon but I missed that Californian pep. A house salad of leaves, feta and grapes (£8.95) sound good in principle but didn’t spark much joy in either of us.

Speaking of joy, a glass or two of Domaine Ste Michelle Brut (£8 a glass), a toasty, green-apple sparkling wine in the champenoise style (though as it is made in the state of Washington, we are definitely NOT calling it Champagne) made brunch a bit special. ‘Wonderful I’ll be back soon,’ I thought, completely erroneously.

2020 10 06 California Coffee Burrito
Route 66 Burrito

Six months and one global pandemic later, many changes have been wrought. The menu has been tweaked and I’m glad to see has leaned even further into the Cal-mex inspiration. Poached eggs have also all but disappeared and I wonder if someone in the kitchen perhaps has a bit of a grudge against the tricky blighters. I can’t remember if there was previously an evening menu but there certainly is one now, consisting of blue corn tacos and medium plates, many of which sound very tempting.

Sticking with brunch again, however, the Route 66 Burrito (£8.95) was a delight, light warm tortilla filled with scrambled egg, chorizo, crispy onions and chilli jam, the sweet spiciness of the jam elevating it to something a step above a rolled-up breakfast. I could have easily eaten another one.

2020 10 07 California Coffee Tuna Copy
Fairfax Chilaquiles with tuna (£7.50)

The Fairfax Chilaquiles (£7.50) give me a bit more pause. The tortillas are crisp and overall it’s a tasty combination, but the spicy tuna just didn’t sit all that well with me at that hour and I’m normally pretty adventurous in the breakfast department. Maybe next time I’ll try it with roast chicken. Still it was packed with citrus and spice flavours.

While the menu is light the interior doesn’t necessarily call the Californian Dream to mind though. It’s cute and cosy, but the lighting scheme is very definitely by the North of England – more Alti and less Palo Alto. Is it too nauseating to say the sunshine is located in the service? Probably, but it is very good - perfectly cheery without being over the top.

2020 10 06 California Coffee Lemon Cake
Lemon cake to be washed down with some damn fine coffee

If California Coffee and Wine were a cultural artefact, I’d say it was a rom-com. Light-hearted, feel-good, well-crafted but without taking itself too seriously. It’s a shame the Covid plot twist was imported from more of a thriller movie. I just hope some other global catastrophe doesn’t prevent me from visiting again soon. 

California Coffee and Wine, 3 Oxford Road, Altrincham WA14 2DY Tel: 0161 928 8800

Read again - 'Cracking modern British food' - Herd NQ, Dale Street, reviewed

2020 10 06 California Coffee Receipt

The scores:

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself

  • Food 7/10

    Grande California 7.5, smoked salmon bagel 6, Salad 5, Route 66 Burrito 8, chilaquilas 6

  • Service 4.5/5

    Importing the kind of service with a sparkling smile California is famous for

  • Atmosphere 3.5/5

    Cosy joint but missing some light