Yan Khalil, the self-made brewmaster and sole proprietor of Palo Alto’s newest coffee spot, Backyard Brew, is anything but a creature of habit.

“Most people hate routine and monotony,” he says. “Even if they say they don’t, they secretly do deep down. So instead of doing something crazy, I switch things up with flavors of coffee. Which is like, the least dangerous way you can switch up your life.”

Truer words have perhaps never been spoken. As the newest addition to Palo Alto’s bustling California Avenue shopping district, Backyard Brew has already begun to switch things up, from its casual and cozy outdoor cafe setting to its laid-back approach to fostering creativity and imagination in its menu. Khalil, a Palo Alto native, had no experience in the coffee industry prior to opening Backyard in February. He makes up for it with an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit and a sincere desire to create a positive, encouraging space to relax.

“This idea alone is already bootstrapped,” he says between pulling espresso shots and concocting one-of-a-kind drinks. “There’s no Silicon Valley funding behind this at all. It’s literally just my own creation.”

Tucked behind California Avenue in the backyard of an insurance office, Backyard Brew’s charm comes from its ambiance and decor, which was designed entirely by patrons. Khalil encourages BYOB—bring your own brush—so visitors can adorn every solid surface with quotes, affirmations, drawings or even just a signature. Tables, chairs and fountains are covered in writing. One of the cafe’s regulars painted a large, multicolored mural that adorns a concrete wall.

Backyard Brew also hosts trivia nights, poetry slams, musical performances, and encourages any and all sorts of expression, as Khalil aims to “push people out of their bubble to meet new people.” He adds, “I want people to come here and decompress and express themselves, and I’m not the guy who’s going to tell you ‘no.’”

Backyard Brew’s drink menu pulls influences from abroad and features coffee beans from around the world. After roasting beans in small batches in Woodside, Khalil grinds them with spices like cardamom or cloves to give further depth and flavor.

Take, for example, the classic Americano ($3). Instead of pouring plain hot water over the espresso, Backyard uses water that’s infused with fresh sage leaves to bring out the earthy tones. Their Turkish coffee ($5) also packs a punch, with heavy notes of cardamom and clove, and the Bedouin Brew ($2 for a 4-ounce shot) will give even veteran caffeine fiends a jolt. Lightly roasted green coffee beans fuse with cardamom for an intense but tasty drink that’s meant to be sipped.

Some of Backyard Brew’s non-espresso house specialties include Grandma’s Tea ($3), a recipe for black tea passed down in Khalil’s family for nearly 100 years. Flavored with Lebanese sage, cinnamon and mint, then slightly sweetened, it has two very different flavor experiences when ordered hot or cold. The coffee shop’s freshly squeezed lemonade varieties ($4)—lemon mint, hibiscus and ginger peach—are also not to be missed. The last offering is steeped for 18-24 hours before being served, and all three maintain an excellent balance of tangy and sweet.

Despite his lack of experience, Khalil has earned a reputation as a coffee connoisseur in an area rife with cafes aiming to impress with the latest—but not always greatest—methods for brewing beans.

Backyard Brew
444 S. California Ave., Palo Alto
$, Coffee & Tea