Editor's note: Tin Cup Coffee was reviewed before the latest state order halting dine-in service in Kern County. It is currently offering takeout.

We did not know until recently what a special place Tin Cup Coffee in Shafter is, possibly because we’ve never been to the Ford Theater.

There on Lerdo Highway sit both those places in the same building, and a reader had told me about Tin Cup, a very upscale but reasonably priced breakfast and lunch coffee shop on Lerdo Highway, about a half-hour north of Bakersfield. It has a small-town feel, small-town prices but quality on a par with big-city cousins like Smitten, a place it reminds me of in many positive ways.

I have come to learn that the man behind the whole operation is Larry Starrh, a giant in the almond business who took an old Ford dealership and converted it into the art/music/food center it is. We snuck into the dark theater and saw pictures on the wall of musicals that have been performed there as well as a lot of Christian musicians such as Jars of Clay and Danny Gilkey. Now that we’ve been living through this COVID nightmare, here’s hoping that someday we can scrap the social distancing and go to concerts again.

In the meantime, the staff had Christian music playing overhead, and the dining room was large enough that social distancing was not difficult. I particularly appreciated the stools at the bar made from old John Deere farm equipment (I’d label myself as a city slicker if I tried to describe it further) and the hip-but-not-trying-too-hard decorations on the walls. Industrial chic, you might say. There’s also a covered patio out front.

Until human entertainment is possible in person, we can visit Tin Cup, which has some salads, sandwiches, healthy and less healthy breakfast options, and a lot of surprises. For one, they do have something called a “One Buck Cup.” Yeah, coffee used to be cheap before certain Seattle-based companies began adjusting our expectations, but if you want the basics, you can get that. I, of course, had to have a mocha ($4.25), which wasn’t on the menu board, but just ask. They’ll make it. My companion found a drink on the internet that also wasn’t on the menu board, a golden turmeric lemonade ($3.75) that was just amazing, and this is what I might call the “Smitten” effect. Turmeric is getting a lot of buzz in recent years as a healthy anti-inflammatory substance, but I would venture to guess most small-town places aren’t offering anything like this drink, which tasted both appealing and startlingly different. There are so many other drinks — strawberry lemonade, a breve latte, dairy-free milk options — that it’s hard to stand out but this is something I’ll be buying on my next visit.

The food was just as impressive. I chose a smokin’ ham panini ($8.75) while my companion went for the Santa Fe salad ($12). Both were as solid as the drinks. I appreciated that the panini was an actual panini, grilled in a press till crunchy on the outside, but the ingredients were also a symphony of smokiness: ham, bacon, smoked Gouda, a few spinach leaves, not too much chipotle sauce and the bread a solid ciabatta, served with kettle chips or a fruit cup. Another panini, the easy cheesy ($8.75), is served on sourdough with mozzarella, Parmesan, provolone and smoked Gouda, and you can add turkey, chicken or ham if you wish. Another future order.

There are decent vegetarian choices too like the pesto caprese panini or the vegetarian burrito. The avocado toast has Espelette peppers, which my companion researched and noted that it’s a Basque-region pepper. Whoever put this menu together didn’t make all the obvious choices. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness.

My companion’s salad was made with romaine lettuce (points right there), a fan of avocado slices on top, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, tortilla strips, a mix of cheeses, purple onions and decent grilled chicken breast cubes. It’s always so nice since we live in such a rich agricultural area to get decent farm-fresh produce, all in a simple metal bowl. The ranch chipotle dressing is best served on the side so you can taste these marvelous vegetables, which were exceedingly fresh.

I should mention that they use Covenant Coffee, a local charitable-based operation that we’ve written about in the past. And the staff is super friendly and accommodating, and the place is clean. They were all wearing masks, though most customers weren’t when we visited last month.

Tin Cup Coffee can be recommended for a fine dining experience, and as the Michelin folks would say, it’s worth a special journey.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter: @pftittl.

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