Remembering Java, a Smoke-Filled Coffee House for Creative Misfits

Java Coffeehouse | Photo courtesy Rick May

The ever-evolving Restaurant Graveyard series looks back at the many long-gone establishments that helped to propel Victoria’s food and drink forward. Explore the ever-growing A-Z with maps and photos here. If you have photos/stories to share, send to andrew [at] islandist.ca.

Java was an influential coffee house and cultural hub on Victoria’s Lower Johnson Street in the 1990s. It first began as La Boehme in the autumn of 1988. It was owned by Lisa Boehme and Rick May, who rebranded it as Java in 1992.

The high-ceilinged, brick-walled, big windowed-space was located in the old Wille’s Bakery building. which was purpose-built in 1887 by Swiss-born baker and businessman Louis Franz Wille, whose family owned and operated the site until 1976. (To my knowledge, no baking was done here during the Java years, their sandwich breads and bagels coming from C’est Bon and Mount Royal bakeries.)

Java during the Blizzard of ’96 | Photo courtesy Rick May

Java had a distinctly bohemian feel to it that made it especially magnetic to literate young people with creative aspirations and pretensions. The building’s Victorian bones gave Java the patina of a bygone era (albeit through clouds of Dunhill and Gauloises cigarette smoke). Walls lined with eclectic works of art, tables topped with cracked mirrors, familial staffers and a tolerant, open-minded cast of regulars all made it an ideal environment for intimate live music shows and open mic poetry nights that ran the gamut from the horribly pretentious and completely deranged to the heartfelt and hilarious. By the time Rick May (a musician) became the sole owner in 1995, its customer base was already a motley amalgam of those who didn’t quite fit in to Victoria’s clearly defined subcultures.

Java – ‘open from 10am ’til late, 7 days a week’ – was at the forefront of coffee’s “Second Wave” in Victoria, which is to say it helped to normalize and popularize the pleasures of good beans (their main brew was Canterbury’s ‘Saigon Dark’). This was especially the case with espresso drinks, of which it could boast many years before the proliferation of Starbucks on Vancouver Island. One of its many mottos was “Coffee so good, you’ll shake violently!” It was where many Victorians enjoyed their first latte, including yours truly.  Java was also an early adopter of the World Wide Web, providing its customers with an internet station as early as 1994. (If you want to do some time travelling you can browse Java’s original “islandnet” website here.)

Java was sold in June, 1997 to Yonni Bettson and Greg Nord. It closed in 1999, the space once again becoming a bakery called Willie’s (no relation to the original). The address is currently home to Trees, a restaurant that is awaiting provincial permissions to infuse their food and drink with cannabis.

  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Edd Macdonald
    Image courtesy: Edd Macdonald
  • Image courtesy: Edd Macdonald
    Image courtesy: Edd Macdonald
  • Image courtesy: Rick May
    Image courtesy: Rick May
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Rick May
    Image courtesy: Rick May
  • Image courtesy: Rick May
    Image courtesy: Rick May
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams
  • Image courtesy: Megan Adams
    Image courtesy: Megan Adams

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