Not up for drinking? Prefer good conversation to dancing? Here are three cafés located in or near the Gaslamp that provide an alternative to the clubs and bars surrounding them.
Café Bassam seems a little out of place, sitting directly across the street from Hooters. The contrast between the two validates Bassam (401 Market St.), making it seem that much more authentic. It's Hemingway's Moveable Feast, Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. It's got a little Dostoyevsky and a lot of New York 1950s café society. Inside, everything's just right, from the 100-plus kinds of loose-leaf tea in heavy glass canisters to the sparse, yet adequate, drink menu. The Rose soda is as fancy as the menu gets, but it's highly recommended if you'd like something sweet and non-caffeinated.
Bassam's also one of the few places you can smoke indoors and so sells dozens of brands of cigarettes and cigars, but it's rather rare--at least in my experience--that you'll find a smoker there, let alone be bothered by the smoke (effect of high ceilings, perhaps?) Californian eyes and lungs that have long forgotten what it's like to be in a smoky room can always take a seat outside at one of the five or six tables hugging the café's exterior where you get a front-row seat to the Gaslamp's street theater.
Café Lulu (419 F St.) is like Bassam's older sister (indeed, it's been around longer). The drink menu's more extensive, they serve beer and wine, desserts and gourmet-ish sandwiches (at $9.99 they should be a little more generous with what's in the sandwiches). The music is suave hipster (a little Death Cab for Cutie, a little Bebel Gilberto), the décor's bohemian in the true sense of the word and the lighting's pleasantly dim. Most of the seating is a cushioned bench with pillows that lines one side of the café.
The last pick for most authentic Gaslamp café isn't a place where you can go at night--for now, the latest Café Noir (447 Ninth Ave.) stays open is 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. during the week. But the place is an absolute gem, something you'd expect to find in San Francisco or Portland or Prague--a historic building with a black and gray exterior and lit-up red sign. OK--it's not exactly in the Gaslamp, but it's close enough.
Inside, there's jazz playing and a second level of seating. The outside patio's the perfect place to sip a drink on a Sunday afternoon and is equipped with heat lamps for when it gets chilly.
Café Noir sits poised for success located in the unfinished area around the ballpark. Hopefully it'll have the patience to wait it out and won't change its aesthetic to draw a larger audience.