Vertigo Coffee’s Dmitri Fridman
resets the table in San Juan Bautista
Photos by Philip Geiger
Dmitri Fridman speaks softly and slowly, a hint of his Russian heritage inflecting his words. Nearby, coffee slips down the sculptural blown-glass spiral of a Kyoto slow dripper, one drop at a time, yielding a dark, smooth cup of coffee. Fridman is sipping a glass of his cold-brewed iced coffee and having one of his signature multigrain pizzas, baked in a new wood-fired pizza oven and topped with paper-thin slices of potato and Meyer lemon and dollops of caramelized onion and goat cheese.
Fridman is enjoying the patio of his own Vertigo Coffee, the San Juan Bautista coffee roaster he opened with his wife, Kitty Fridman, just two years ago. The spot has already become a beloved community gathering place for locals and tourists alike who value fresh, delicious food and, especially, a really good cup of coffee. But don’t call it a coffee shop.
“The difference between a coffee shop and a coffee roaster,” says Fridman, “is fresh coffee. It’s hard to believe that a lot of people have never had fresh coffee. They think they have because they have had freshly ground coffee. But they haven’t had fresh roasted. Coffee is quite perishable and is best within the first 10 days of roasting. So it is a curse for us roasters because it has a short shelf life. People compare fine coffee to fine wine, but it is not the same. Wine can improve while it sits on the shelf but not coffee.”
Next to drinking it, Fridman enjoys nothing better than discussing coffee with his customers and explaining the fine art of coffee roasting, brewing and sipping. People always have questions, he says, particularly about freshness. But that is only part of a good cup of coffee. It begins, he believes, with the quality of the bean.
“It starts with the farmers, among the most impoverished people in the process. They farm these steep slopes, harvesting the coffee cherries, knowing that each coffee tree produces just one to two pounds of coffee a year. Anytime I can buy my beans directly from the farmers, I do. This makes a huge difference between average and great coffee in the cup. If there is a little extra price by the time it gets to the cup, it’s worth it. And my customers agree.”
Evidence that Fridman has struck a chord in San Juan Bautista shows up in the neighbor who shares the Meyer lemons from his tree, the time that another neighbor devotes to tending the restaurant’s herb garden and the stream of customers Fridman recognizes by face, if not by name. On any day, you might see local winemakers, cattle ranchers and poultry farmers, as well as visitors who’ve happened in.
“I love the cold-brewed drip coffee. Because it has 70% less acidity, I am able to have coffee,” says Mary Morales, a long-time San Juan Bautista resident who, with her husband Rick Morales, has become a Vertigo regular. “But everything they sell here is fabulous.
And the people here are wonderful—warm and friendly and well-trained. We come down and sit here on a Sunday, to just relax and feel like tourists. We needed something like this in town; we’re happy to see they’re getting the business.”
Fridman’s dream to open the roastery dates back to the 1980s, when he spent time in Italy while emigrating to the United States. In Italy, he tasted his first sip of cappuccino and it was a revelation. At first he thought he would try to recreate the experience; eventually he realized he just wanted to recreate that cup of coffee, and let the revelations come to his customers on their own.
He named the place Vertigo, not because the caffeine will make your head spin but in a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller of the same name, whose most notable scene was filmed in San Juan Bautista.
Located on Fourth Street, one block off the town’s main commercial street, Vertigo resides inside a large, angular white building that used to garage trucks for Culligan Water. Now, the place exudes both warmth and a bit of industrial chic. Simple, honey-colored wood tables and chairs sit atop textured cement floors. Once a shelter for trucks and water tanks, the room now houses a vintage German- made, cast-iron roaster Fridman found on craigslist, two Kyoto slow drippers, dark wooden counters and a glass case for pastries and other freshly made food.
The pastries are baked daily by the artisanal Provence Bakery located in Prunedale and in the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey. The pizzas—a margherita, a pesto chicken with porcini mushrooms, a Cuban calzone, and Fridman’s favorite, goat cheese with Meyer lemon—are all made freshly on site.
“How many people pick basil off the plant and put it on the pizza as it comes out of the oven? And Dmitri makes the dough from scratch every day,” says Bob Smith, a local resident who gets together with friends and family at Vertigo. “If you don’t get here by 4 pm, it might be gone. Whether you live here or you came to get out of the fog, once you have a seat at Vertigo, time slows down. You look at the mission, you see the rooster poking around and you visit with friends over fresh-roasted coffee and an oven-roasted pizza. It’s fantastic.”
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is a freelance writer and an instructor of writing and journalism at California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College.
81 Fourth Street, San Juan Bautista