Before I read through the Yelp profile of The Ugly Mug Café, I had never been so intimidated by a page of customer reviews in my life. I stumbled across the site one day, after Googling something like “Orange County coffee places that are definitely not Starbucks,” and was sucked in at first sight by the shop’s scandalous name — and then, by the scandalized patrons.
Most of the reviews weren’t about the quality of the coffee itself, but instead about the proprietor of the tiny, downtown Orange County coffee joint — the enigmatic and apparently cantankerous “Phil,” who runs the place out of his own house. According to Yelp, iced espresso isn’t the only thing at the Ugly Mug that’s bitter and cold.
“The guy behind the counter is an idiot. Very rude, not welcoming to customers,” explains Gisela M. on Yelp. “I asked him the difference between two drinks & [he] cold-heartedly said ‘chocolate.’”
“I think the cafe would be better called, THE UGLY MUG CAFE, OC’s WORST and UGLY CONCIERGE, Guaranteed to Ruin Your Night!” suggests Marvin M. from Anaheim.
“If you can roll with abusive service and think it’s some kind of hipster cool charming, then this is the place for you,” says Guy D.
Finally, The Ugly Mug’s saving grace, Caitlin M., chimes in: “Give it more than one chance, Phil is like mold: he grows on you.”
Naturally, I was sold.
Turns out, The Ugly Mug Café, just down the street from Chapman University, barely passes for a café at all — from the outside, it’s just a plain, quiet house. There’s no Ugly Mug sign, no open entrance, no telltale signs at all of this being a business, only an open iron gate and a set of brick steps leading up to a closed wooden door. I wondered if the reason Phil was so angry with everyone was because they kept barging into his actual house unannounced, asking him for coffee under the misguided impression that he was running a café.
At first, I was almost afraid that my friends and I had the wrong address, but just then, a line of college kids and people with their noses buried in poetry books began to form outside the door of 261 N. Glassell. Each time one of them opened the door, the pungent scent of espresso and the sounds of gruff banter floated down the steps.
This was the place.
After waiting for a bit, we followed the line inside, and I noticed that I was standing in the front hallway of a tiny house. To my left was a bar stocked with vibrant syrups, steaming machines, and chipped coffee cups, along with a sweater-clad man in his mid-50s, who must be Phil. He was taunting the guy in front of me who had just ordered a macchiato.
“You sure you can handle that? It sounds frilly, but it’s not a frappuccino, understand?”
The patron nodded, and Phil set to work measuring foam and pouring dark espresso into a paper cup.
“Four dollars fifty cents,” Phil barked, handing the man his drink. He took it, retreating down the dark, mirrored hallway into the living-room-turned-lounge area we would soon enter. My friends and I each ordered our drinks, and were benignly berated by Phil each in turn. I asked, “Could I get a hot chocolate?”
Phil replied, “God, no, you can’t. You can get coffee, like a person should when they come into a coffee house.” But then, he smiled.
I loved him straight away, along with his coffee house. The lounge — which evidently doubles as his own downstairs living room — was packed with a plethora of mismatched plush couches, mysterious barbershop chairs, dressers adorned with knickknacks and dim lamps, framed Elvis posters, musty bookshelves and a lit Christmas tree with presents underneath it. In the back of the room were rows of dozens of fold-up chairs for The Ugly Mug’s local poetry night, every Wednesday at 8 p.m.
It was surreal at first, sipping cocoa in the middle of what seemed to be a strange, grumpy man’s living room. But soon enough, I got comfortable. Sitting on the couch, reading a book in the semi-dark living room with Phil cleaning the espresso machine in the kitchen next door, listening to Chapman traffic whiz past outside the window — it felt like some twisted version of being right at home. I was content to let the hours pass, as I sat and cherished the home-iest café experience of my life.
Phil is like mold, and he does, in fact, grow on you. He checked up on me from time to time, turning on the lights so I could still read when the sun began to set; asking, “Is Christmas already over?” as he came in to adjust ornaments on the tree, and finally, telling me he was going to start charging rent for the couch if I stayed parked there any longer.
I happen to pay enough rent as it is, so I decided to head back into the world, after Phil walked me out and told me to “have a really, really good day.”
The Ugly Mug doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Orange County coffee scene; it’s more of a home than a coffee shop. However, I would take moldy Phil and his sweet living room — and the best hot cocoa I have ever tasted — over some hectic coffeehouse experience any day. The Ugly Mug has character and, just like everything with true character, it’s just a little bit ugly.