Boulder City’s Coffee Cup earns place in hearts of diners

The customer at Coffee Cup Cafe has had a bad night. Sandy Nelson’s left hip hurts, putting him back in his wheelchair. That’s after a stroke left the 1960s rock drummer with a bit less command of his sticks.

“Hey, Terry,” he calls out from his counter stool. “You were a paramedic. Can I ask you a question?”

Just as Terry Stevens, co-owner of the venerable downtown Boulder City breakfast fixture, leans in for another customer consultation, a group shows up to solicit a donation for a local baseball team.

Of course, Stevens handles it all — along with a quick refill of their coffee.

For nearly a quarter-century, the Coffee Cup has been synonymous with good eating and a sense of community. California transplants Al and Carri Stevens first fired up the grill in 1994, and decades later, in a new location five storefronts down, they’re still at it — now with the help of their grown children, son, Terry, and daughter, Lindsay.

More than a restaurant, the Coffee Cup, open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week, offers a little slice of western culinary Americana. Al’s pork chili-verde omelet, which celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured on his Food Network series, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” and the tall-glass bloody marys served with a thick wedge of bacon as a stir-stick, have earned the Coffee Cup a national reputation as a stopover for RVs and SUVs en route to nearby Hoover Dam.

The family is recognized almost everyplace they go — from the local DMV office to the bike paths of Southern California — where people stop them and say “Wait, aren’t you the owner of the Coffee Cup? Great bloody marys!”

Community fixture

Al’s occasional grouchiness and Carri’s motherly demeanor are part of the diner’s draw, and the couple works hard to preserve the Coffee Cup’s local touch. Customers and waitresses know one another by their first name. Local conservative politicians stump for votes come election season, especially among the morning coffee klatch of old geezers who call themselves the Circle of Knowledge.

The eatery is so popular the family doesn’t need to advertise, so they earmark that money for community donations — sponsoring youth events or purchasing uniforms for kids who couldn’t otherwise afford them.

When Nelson lost his keys, Coffee Cup waitresses tore the place apart on a fruitless hunt to return them. Now the drummer’s gold record hangs over the counter. Carri keeps a chalkboard list of cherished daily regulars near the kitchen — if they don’t show up by noon, she calls them at home to make sure they’re OK.

At the Coffee Cup, customers are considered family.

The restaurant and its familial bond have wielded its own gravitational pull on Terry and Lindsay — who in their youth wandered from the fold. But it was Al’s two dramatic bouts with throat and blood cancer that have most helped the Stevens children and the entire Boulder City community to better appreciate the little diner gem at 512 Nevada Highway as a precious, irreplaceable thing.

“This restaurant means so much to Boulder City — the whole family does,” said longtime regular Bill Burke, a retired National Park Service ranger. “When Al got sick, it was hard on everyone. We pulled for him. And we all pulled for Carri to stay strong.”

The concern over her husband’s health has made Carri emotional. Even crusty old Al is impressed. “I’m not the world’s friendliest person — I haven’t always played well with others,” the 67-year-old said. “But this restaurant allowed me to meet some special people. They’re here because they want to be, not because they have to.”

Nelson can’t stay away from the place.

“The food is damned good, but I really come to flirt with the waitresses,” said Nelson, one of the best-known rock drummers from the early 1960s. “It’s not fair; they’re all in their 20s and I’m almost 80. Good thing I have a sense of humor.”

Family affair

Al Stevens came to the desert as a way to get away from the politics of the ocean; he got into a fist fight over a surfing run off Huntington Beach and retired his longboard — which now hangs on the wall of his signature diner.

He landed in Boulder City in 1977 and later met Carri Ham, a native of Norwalk, California, who bagged groceries at the supermarket where he worked as a meat cutter. They dated six months and got married.

After the couple took out a home loan to buy the first Coffee Cup in 1994, Al, the cook, sometimes wandered around in his white chef’s cap and apron to inquire about the food. Delighted customers wanted to know more about this sphinx from the kitchen.

But Carri shooed him back to his post for insubordination. She fired him, he quipped.

Once Al told a customer to shut up so he could hear the TV. “Oh my God, Al,” Carri remembers telling him. “You just cannot do that!”

If a group wanted their bill split, Al suggested they pay the check and then go outside and figure it out for themselves.

He’d never heard of Guy Fieri when the chef called about visiting the restaurant for his show.

“I don’t want any,” Al said and almost hung up.

The couple put their teenage kids to work. Lindsay was hostess, and when the place needed waitresses, she’d bring friends from the local high school, starting a Coffee Cup tradition. Terry, too shy to greet the public, stayed in the kitchen. He soon tired of the all-consuming restaurant life — how even at home his parents would rehash the day’s events, the thing the customers at Table Two had said, and how they had to bail a dishwasher out of jail.

In 2004, the owners moved the restaurant down the block to its present location. The local newspaper featured a front-page photograph of the family rolling refrigerators down the sidewalk. Al and Carri relived that day over dinner, for sure.

Four years later, the Stevens kids had left the Coffee Cup. Lindsay was attending college in San Diego, and Terry was racing boats and studying to get his EMT license as a local firefighter.

Then disaster struck: Al was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Terry went to visit his father, who couldn’t speak. He asked how he could help, and Al wrote down some chores that needed doing: cleaning the bathrooms, repairing the roof, making stock runs in the family Suburban.

Meanwhile, word got out about Al’s cancer. Customers offered to drive him to his daily radiation treatment. Carri couldn’t go to the post office without people inquiring about her husband. She was crushed, worrying about losing her lifetime partner in crime, and quietly put the restaurant up for sale.

In San Diego, Lindsay told friend and Navy SEAL Shane Patton about plans to sell the restaurant. “Wait, what?” she remembers him telling her. “You can’t do that! That’s your family business!”

The exchange brought Lindsay to a decision: She had to go home to do what she could to help save the Coffee Cup. Patton was later killed in Afghanistan. His picture now hangs on the restaurant wall.

In Boulder City, Carri had a buyer. But on her way to the real estate agent’s office to sign the papers, she had a change of heart. She arrived with a bouquet of flowers and told the agent the news. “I can’t sell The Coffee Cup. If I ever lost Al, what would I do?”

Balancing act

Al eventually beat his death sentence, returning to the restaurant six months later and counseling customers as a cancer survivor.

But in 2014, Al was diagnosed with a new, more aggressive form of cancer. After a year of blood transfusions, he checked into City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California, and Carri rented an apartment nearby while the grown kids ran the Coffee Cup.

“We’d dreamed of turning over the restaurant to them,” Carri said. “But not like this.”

Al remained in a hospital isolation unit for 172 days. Once, wearing a respirator, he pointed heavenward, making a circle gesture for his family to surround him. He wanted to die. Lindsay slapped away his hand. Her father was going to fight, she insisted.

At the Coffee Cup, customers bought votive candles for Al and bused their own tables to help out. Terry emerged from his shell. After once guarding his privacy, he engaged with customers, showing pictures of his wife, Kristin, and young son, Cruz. He also bonded with Lindsay, who has her own daughter, Kyra.

Al survived, but the cancer convinced him to let the younger generation start pouring the coffee. He rolls in now and then, cleans the bathroom and riffs with customers.

The family has a newfound ethic of balancing work with their personal lives. Al and Carri run the packed restaurant on Saturdays — when an hourlong wait for a table isn’t uncommon — so their grandchildren get some needed bonding time with their parents. Still, they love seeing Kyra, now 7, help her mother swipe customer credit cards at the register or 9-year-old Cruz walk behind the counter to make his own milkshake.

Just ask Al and Carri and they’ll tell you: Cancer has taught them a valuable lesson. “Money doesn’t rule everything,” Carri said. “Family counts.”

Customers, too.

Award-winning journalist John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at

North Las Vegas Water Meters
Randy DeVaul shows off the new water meters that the city is installing.
Project 150 Thanksgiving 2018
About 100 volunteers for Project 150 box Thanksgiving meals for high school students and their families in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 14.
Three Square’s Maurice Johnson Talks About Food Waste
Three Square’s director of operations Maurice Johnson talks about food waste.
Parade preparation nears completion
Downtown Summerlin prepares for its annual holiday parade.
Clark County Wetlands promotes 2019 Wetland Walker Program
This year the park will be celebrating the Northern Flicker. The program is designed to teach about that bird, and encourage people to visit the Wetlands and walk the same distance the bird migrates each year.
Poet’s Walk Henderson introduces storytelling
Residents enjoy a storytelling activity.
Downtown Summerlin hosts its annual Festival of Arts
People crowd to Downtown Summerlin for the 23rd annual Summerlin Festival of Arts in Las Vegas, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County educators debate alternative grading systems
Spring Valley High School principal Tam Larnerd, Spring Valley High School IB coordinator Tony Gebbia and retired high school teacher Joyce O'Day discuss alternative grading systems. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Grandparents on the fire that killed three family members
Charles and Doris Smith talk about the night an apartment fire took the lives of three of their family members. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
New York artist Bobby Jacobs donated a sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden
Bobby Jacobs, an artist from upstate New York, has spent much of the past year creating a sculpture of two separate angel wings. He donated the sculpture to the Las Vegas Healing Garden. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Weather will cool slightly through the end of the week
The weather will cool slightly through the end of the week., but highs are still expected to be slightly above normal for this year. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Mayor announces new public-private partnership
Mayor Carolyn Goodman announced the creation of the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE, a public-private partnership that will allocate money to the city’s neediest.
Fremont9 opens downtown
Fremont9 apartment complex has opened in downtown Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Fall fairytale gets cozy at Bellagio Conservatory
Bellagio Conservatory introduces its fall-themed garden titled "Falling Asleep." (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
What the house that Ted Binion died in looks like today
Casino heir Ted Binion died in this Las Vegas home in 1998. Current home owner Jane Popple spent over $600,000 to restore and modernize the home. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Rescue Mission employees terminated
Don James, a former employee for the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, talks about the day his team was terminated. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders Cupcakes at Freed's Bakery
Freed's Bakery will have Raiders-themed cupcakes available in store and for order during football season. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s fans say goodbye to Cashman Field
Las Vegas 51s fans said goodbye to Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Monday September, 3, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
51s owner Don Logan's last weekend at Cashman Field
Don Logan, owner of the Las Vegas 51s, gives a tour of Cashman Field before the team's final weekend using the field. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like