As most anyone in San Diego’s coffeehouse scene knows, Twiggs had two locations; the original was established in 1992 by composer Michael Roth and his wife, artist Jill Moon, which was later sold to Dan Stringfield and Bernie Horan. The later addition, the bakery/coffeehouse, was located at the corner of Adams and Idaho Streets. For a short while, Twiggs ran a small commercial bakery near the Park Boulevard location that it swiftly outgrew, thanks to the acumen and talents of Dan and Bernie, who built a sizeable catering business that supplied cookies, pastries, and especially fine cakes to the public as well as many hotels, restaurants, and corporate clients everywhere in San Diego County. The new bakery on Adams Avenue opened in 2008.
Twiggs wasn’t just a legend in fine baking, as if that isn’t enough to be proud of over a 31-year life. The coffeehouse on Park and Madison was home to legions of bon vivants, creative characters, and the base of operations for no end of musicians, poets, writers, artists, and others busy reinventing themselves, creating their futures over coffee and pastry and, in some cases, literally finding themselves and putting themselves back together again. The next door lounge, known as the Green Room, became the site of comedy nights, AA meetings, spiritual happenings, political rallies, poetry, and lit readings and God knows what else that drew people from everywhere in the county to it in search of meaning, healing, camaraderie, and wholeness. For many, the Green Room was a cocoon of rehabilitation from what was before to a beauty to follow. The musicians who began or performed there defy number or even accurate history; the Espresso newspaper gave up tallying them all long ago, but a few stand out in memory, among them Happy Ron Hill, who always seemed to ignite the Green Room with joie de vivre at his telling songs.
And what a music scene it was, especially in the late ’90s and ’00s, where legendary open mics took place. Loads of people flocked to Twiggs during that time. There was a scene inside as well as outside, where musicians would gather to wait their turn and get to know each other in the process. Here are some thoughts from two local musicians.
Once, back in the early days, the very great Dave Howard and I were a double bill. No one came. We just sat on stage together and song swapped to an empty room. Sure, it hurt—but it’s nights like that that sharpen your steel. We were fucking great by the way. We went on to work together in many ways, co-writing, playing on each other’s albums, and doing a million shows in front of lots of actual people. Had many other awesome shows there through the years, including the one with a singer-songwriter from LA named Grant Langston. We’ve been friends ever since. I became his lap steel player for a few of his albums and many great shows at The Mint and Hotel Cafe in LA as well as a few tours out to Austin and back and up the West Coast. Places like Twiggs build careers. —Peter Bolland
As many did, I became acquainted with Twiggs in 1999 through its Wednesday night open mic in the adjoining Green Room. Those were the days of Carlos Olmeda, Prince Mishkins, Scott’s Front Row Hecklers, and the occasional drop-in by Mr. A-Z. John Ciccolella would sit by the door with the air of a beatnik mob boss surveying his disheveled racket, mulling over the next caper. Fresh off the plane from England, I was overwhelmed by the energy and excitement that centered here each week. There was never any agenda on my part to host an open mic. Still, through a series of coincidences and unplanned events, I found myself corralling those weekly performances during the spring of 2004. Each Wednesday, I could count on observing some combination of weekly rituals such as Aaron Bowen sparring with Josh Damigo on the sidewalk, Rob Deez signing up before going home to watch Lost (then, of course, coming back for his set), Hugh Gaskins quietly walking in, then losing his goddamn mind in a haze of freight train acoustic blues, or Dawn Mitshele creating “pin-drop” moments in the quiet power of her voice and acoustic guitar. And who could forget the Wolf’s Misfits boombox karaoke? There are dozens of other regulars I’m not mentioning because to do so would take up my entire word count. But, safe to say, every Green Room performer I encountered during those years contributed to the vibrant quilt of memories I still treasure. It’s hard to articulate how impactful those three years of Wednesday night open mics in The Green Room were to my development as a performer, public speaker, and person. The weekly opportunity to come to terms with my crippling stage fright while finding empathy and compassion with all performers, from all walks of life, across the entire spectrum of talent was a gift. I feel privileged to have so many wild stories and wonderful memories from those days, none of which would have been possible without the nurturing space provided by Dan and Bernie nor the laissez-faire hustle of Johnny. The sudden closing of the Green Room space in early 2007 was jarring, and I knew then it would be hard to recreate. The sputter that followed at Hillcrest’s Brass Rail, then the oddball match of a pop-up venue in a massage school, called Across the Street, served a need but wasn’t the same. I’ve yet to encounter that magic in my journey since. I was similarly surprised by the news of Twiggs’ sudden closure last month—a spooky echo of that disbelief I felt 16 years ago. I want to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to all those who contributed to Twiggs’ former success. Short of some flowery prose to avoid the cliché, the legacy of the place and its people will live on in my mind and heart forever. —Tim Mudd
Eventually, Dan and Bernie sold the business to Adrian Arancibia and his wife, Delia. Adrian had a long history with Twiggs, first as a rising poet back in the day at readings there before writing his dissertation in the coffeehouse. When the chance came, he took it with both hands and embraced Twiggs as a new and exciting kind of mistress. At first, all seemed well for the coffeehouses. The realities of Covid and blunt force trauma to the economy changed that picture soon. Read about the latest owner’s efforts here: https://sandiegotroubadour.com/a-new-era-for-twiggs-coffeehouse-and-bakery/
Twiggs’ backbone was the baking operation; everything from the unforgettable simple and delicious biscuits to the magnificent cakes kept the coffeehouses on a sound footing no matter the season, vagaries of problems incident to a century-old building, or issues with rising homelessness in the area that sometimes threatened the clientele. The pandemic rearranged the demand for baked goods. No longer did the San Diego Union-Tribune buy 150 cookies every Friday to be delivered by 11 a.m. Hornblower stopped buying. Resorts in Carlsbad and Torrey Pines cut their orders, too, since they were feeling the agony of lockdown and the follow-up lack of consumer money as first, the price of eggs shot up suddenly to more than four times their earlier costs, followed by dairy, sugar, and everything else. Orders dried up and couldn’t be replaced. Even the Green Room suffered from too many sponsors of things like AA meetings and other groups that couldn’t pay rents for the room. Adrian approached other eateries with samples of pastries, enticing places that didn’t emphasize their own baking, but to no avail.
The end of Twiggs is as much an indicator of San Diego’s economic barometer as anything else. Prices rose and incomes didn’t; money got tight everywhere and cash reserves were too few. Gas spiked over six dollars a gallon, up two dollars in two months. All of which makes people re-think their buying choices and whether a long drive to a favored spot is permissible. Twiggs clients didn’t have the demand anymore as their businesses trailed off and they stopped buying, suddenly. There are many small businesses of all kinds—and no end of cafes—grappling with those realities now.
However, even in the darkest gloom, there may be reason to hope for Twiggs. That’s because Adrian applied for a beer and wine license, type 41, which in the trade is known as a license to print money, especially on weekends when crowds can be counted on. Another bright spot is that even on Twiggs’ last day, an interested fellow looking to buy the operation came forward to collar Adrian Arancibia into discussion over coffee and those wonderful biscuits. At press time, there are no solid details emerging about where those discussions may go, but Twiggs is still a valuable and respected property: $559,000 for both, to be more or less exact, and one with a cache bred of three decades as a flagship coffeehouse here, known and respected by the trade and public alike. The Espresso hopes that some smart character is smart enough to make a go of it there; spruce it a bit—perhaps a lot—promote the bakery end and wine along with coffee and make the Green Room buzz again. Other places have done as much with far less space and prestige available. We hope for the best. We always do.