Even close to closing time, the tables at the Red Elm Cafe are nearly full of patrons. Enjoying an al fresco coffee beneath the half-umbrellas out front or unwinding inside on a comfy club chair or couch, visitors to this Hilltop coffee shop don’t seem to be in any kind of hurry to leave. The word “bustling” does not apply; lounging latte-lovers here seem content on taking it easy. And that is entirely by design, according to owner Jennifer Richardson.
Well, co-owner Jennifer Richardson. The cafe, which opened its doors in March of 2017, is a joint venture managed by Richardson and her sisters, Adina and Sarah Joslyn, Hilltop residents for roughly ten years apiece. They like to get together from time to time, as sisters are wont to do. But, according to Richardson, they often found themselves driving out of their way to meet up for coffee. There wasn’t a place near their Hilltop homes to which they could simply walk, idle away an hour or two, sip a cappuccino and catch up.
“Which was a big problem for us!” Richardson half-jokes with a laugh. “Our community needed that, so we set out to kind of solve that problem. We know that the community needed a gathering place, a place where we could just meet and be together in our own neighborhood.” And so the Red Elm was born.
And the community, she says, has shown up. “The reception has been really positive. It was the right time – the right time and the right place.”
When you sip or sup at this Hilltop hub, your barista or cook just may well be the proprietor, too. The sisters are very much involved in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, and they also each contribute something special, something extra to the team. The cafe’s intriguing logo, for instance, was designed by youngest sister Sarah. Look for all three sisters’ faces hidden inside the silhouette and the negative space of the illustration. The trio came up with the name “Red Elm” to reflect the roots they’ve put down collectively in the special neighborhood they each call home.
To park on the street and peek in, it would be hard to guess at how much space there is inside. A dining area longer than it is wide stretches far back past the kitchen and main seating area. Beyond the booths and tables that seat two to four, there is a bright and private meeting room set up to seat 12. Not far from that, espresso lovers with little ones will be delighted to see a play area complete with toys, a chalk wall, books and games.
Exposed brick runs the length of the cafe, creating an industrial-chic element that’s softened with blonde wood and furniture in earthy tones. Laminate flooring, contemporary art prints and bright track lighting update the aesthetic of the space but preserve the room’s texture and character.
For early risers with little time to spare, there’s a grab-and-go cooler and pastry display to the right of the counter. Here you’ll find juices and refreshing drinks, quick-fix oatmeal and yogurt, and an assortment of fresh-baked pastries. The assortment changes daily, and it’s worth noting that all of the muffins and cookies are prepped and baked on site. (Note: the chocolate banana muffins are everything you’ve ever wanted a chocolate banana muffin to be.)
A chalkboard high above the counter displays the distinctive breakfast and lunch offerings that Red Elm offers all day. The menu is modest, but very reasonably priced, and offers plenty of gluten-free (and low-carb) options for those with dietary restrictions. A complete menu of espresso drinks, including chai lattes, drip coffee and tea, is listed on the left. If you’re a fan of latte art, be sure to ask if the barista on duty will flex their artistic muscle for you.
The rest of the menu is reserved for light and tasty fare. Waffles and waffle hybrids figure prominently into the offerings. For breakfast, there’s a classic Belgian waffle topped with whipped cream or a heartier version that features bacon and cheddar cooked right into the batter. For lunch, start your meal with a side of waffle mozzarella sticks served with a side of marinara. Then sample the waffle hot dog served with syrup or mustard. These dishes are exactly what they sound like: a cheese stick or hot dog dipped in batter and cooked up in a waffle iron.
Other offerings are a little more traditional, like the breakfast sandwiches that offer a choice of veggie or meat toppings and are served on a choice of wheat or sourdough bread. The spinach salad is a modest helping of greens and chicken served with pesto croutons, tomatoes and pesto dressing. Sandwiches like the ham and cheese or classic grilled cheese taste just like Mom used to make, while the chicken and avocado or tomato and mozzarella sandwich are a light and refreshing main dish with just-right portion appeal.
While Red Elm might bear the look of your modern coffee spot, it shirks industry standards where pricing is concerned. The most expensive dish here will run you $5.75, and everything is served a la carte to cut down on waste and keep prices reasonable. The music is an upbeat mix of family-friendly R&B and alternative hip-hop. The staff is genuine; not saccharin-sweet and not given to canned phraseology, but down-to-earth and welcoming. And the offerings are simple and wholesome, not stuffy or uber-trendy. Richardson said it best: this cafe is truly the right place for Hilltop at just the right time.
There’s also a departure from tradition in terms of atmosphere. Anyone familiar with Hilltop—with the neighborhood’s unique history and struggles—might worry how a contemporary cafe might play here. The sisters took this into account. As long-time residents of Hilltop themselves, they weren’t trying to force trends. Sarah put it beautifully when she said, “We’re trying to be in our neighborhood, not fix it or change it.”
For more information about Red Elm Café or to check out their full menu, visit them in person or online.
Red Elm Café
1114 M.L.K. Jr Way
Tacoma, WA 98405
Monday – Saturday: 7:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m.
Sunday: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m