At first glance, Guilder may seem like any other coffee shop. When guests enter the cafe in the Alameda-Irvington neighborhood in northeast Portland, they’ll likely first notice the abundant natural light. Green vines cascade over the white subway tile wall behind the counter—a modern bar designed with patterned pink, gray, and cream tiles. To the left, a mural of a towering 7-foot giant extends its arm outward, seemingly poised to embrace anyone standing before it.
But upon closer inspection, fans will recognize the life-sized mural at the entrance is Fezzik from the beloved movie and book “The Princess Bride.” Upon closer inspection of the shop, you’ll find various knickknacks and original paintings scattered throughout the mezzanine-level space, subtly paying homage to the 1987 movie.
For diehard fans, the connections are clear, but you’d be hard pressed to call Guilder a Princess Bride-themed coffee shop. The nods are subtle and blend into the overall decor of the shop—if you’ve never seen the movie, you’d never know there were references you were missing. Rather than going all-in on a theme concept, which can alienate those not in the know, some coffee shops are incorporating clandestine nods to their favorite pop culture icons into their menus, decor, and design. These spaces remain welcoming and inviting for all—but can offer a whimsical wink to the guests who spot the references.
Once Upon a Name
Caryn and Mike Nelson opened the original Guilder Cafe location in 2017 without any intentions of building a Princess Bride-themed cafe. Before Guilder opened, the husband-and-wife team roasted coffee, operating a small brand called Junior’s Roasted Coffee. When they decided to open a coffee shop alongside partners Toby Roberts and Carrie Lind, they discovered there was already an existing breakfast cafe in Portland called Juniors. “We didn’t want to name our cafe Juniors,” says Caryn Nelson, “so we had to brainstorm other ideas.”
During these brainstorming sessions, the name Guilder—which refers to a fictional country in the movie, known as “the sworn enemy to Florin,” a quote you’ll find if you scroll down Guilder’s website—emerged. “The Princess Bride” had been a favorite childhood movie of the Nelsons, who both grew up influenced by 80s culture. “We just really enjoyed it and thought it would make an awesome name for the cafe,” Nelson says. “When we chose the theme, we didn’t want to Disney-fy it where it was in your face—we intentionally wanted it to be subtle.”
The Nelsons partnered with coffee designer Elizabeth Chai to create the cafe’s logo. A big fan of “The Princess Bride,” Chai blended the theme into the design, incorporating references to the story. “Liz had read the book herself and knew all of this information,” Nelson says.
Their first logo features several Princess Bride references: a flame symbolizes the perilous fire swamp, a pivotal movie backdrop. A discreet lightning rod pays homage to the novel, written by William Goldman in 1973, a hidden gem for book aficionados, and a pirate ship refers to Wesley’s high-seas adventures. However, the intricate, fine-lined design proved challenging to transfer onto printed material. In 2021, the Nelsons teamed up with another design firm, opting for a logo featuring buttercup flowers, a nod to the film’s beloved heroine, Princess Buttercup.
Initially, the cafe had no knickknacks referencing the movie—and there was certainly no Andre the Giant mural. “It first showed up with the name and the logo,” says Nelson. “Then we started to incorporate [aspects of the movie] into the space itself.”
“That gum you like is going to come back in style.”
In Chicago, another cafe with a subtle theme began with the name: Damn Fine Coffee Bar, a reference to the TV series “Twin Peaks.” According to co-owner Josh Miller, it all started with brainstorming lists of names for the cafe, but the team couldn’t agree. “I came up with the Black Lodge because another partner and I were both ‘Twin Peaks’ fans,” Miller says, speaking about a “location” in the show, which first aired on ABC in 1990 before getting abruptly canceled and living on in a prequel movie and eventual TV revival in 2017. “But we decided that [name] could get too heavy-handed.”
The partners settled on Damn Fine Coffee Bar, a reference to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, who loudly exclaims, “this is—excuse me—a damn fine cup of coffee,” to a waitress in the show’s second episode (coffee comes up a lot). “We looked at what we could do to give it a nod without going overboard,” Miller says. Ultimately, the goal was to create a neighborhood coffee shop—and choosing the name helped the Damn Fine team hone in on design elements during the cafe’s buildout.
Miller found black and white chevron wallpaper, which he used behind the bar to pay homage to the show’s iconic chevron vinyl flooring in the Red Room. Additionally, guests using the restroom at Damn Fine will notice wallpaper featuring national parks in the Pacific Northwest: another nod to the fictional setting of “Twin Peaks.” “We put that up in the bathroom and hallway,” Miller says. However, if you’ve never seen the show, these references go largely unnoticed.
A Gradual Transformation
Guilder and Damn Fine didn’t initially plan to extend their branding themes, but both spaces have organically evolved with the help of fans. “Some people come in specifically because they’re big ‘Twin Peaks’ fans,” Miller says—a fan group even held monthly meetings in the cafe. Gradually, various bits from the show were incorporated into the cafe, such as a large stump in the bathroom. Initially, the stump was a piece of Halloween decoration, but it became a permanent fixture after a guest gifted a print of the Log Lady, which they hung over the stump.
The Nelsons didn’t market the original Guilder location as a Princess Bride cafe. Instead, it all began with conversations at the register. When customers inquired about the cafe’s name, often assuming it was related to the Dutch coin, Nelson would explain that it was inspired by “The Princess Bride.” But there were other covert mentions like “The Miracle Max Sandwich,” inspired by the scene-stealing character—an old miracle healer who lives in a hovel in the woods. And then there was “The Inconceivabowl,” a nod to the iconic catchphrase that Vizzini couldn’t stop exclaiming throughout the film.
As word spread, customers began contributing Princess Bride-themed gifts to the shop, cementing the shop’s identity. “Other than the mural we commissioned,” Nelson says, “it’s come from people giving us things we’ve collected over the years.” Contributions have included mugs, posters, and fan art. “One of our regulars painted [Inigo Montoya and Princess Buttercup], but with a modern twist,” Nelson says. “They’re not wearing their costumes from the movie.” Instead, Inigo is dressed in a flannel shirt and a casual tee, while Princess Buttercup rocks a leather jacket and a tee featuring the legendary musician Prince. It’s a fresh take so subtle that only true fans would catch it.
When a customer shared that three of the actors from the film—Cary Elwes, Wallace Shawn, and Chris Sarandon—were going to appear at Portland’s ComicCon, Mike Nelson attended the event armed with Guilder Cafe gear. A photo from that encounter now hangs in the cafe today.
In 2021, the Nelsons opened a second location inside downtown Portland’s iconic Powell’s Books. They worked with a local designer who created a Princess-Brides-meets-Portland-themed wallpaper, which serves as the main art for the cafe. The wallpaper blends city landmarks with playful illustrations, such as the pirate ship sailing beneath the Steel Bridge. Instead of scaling the Cliffs of Insanity, the characters from the film take on Big Pink—the U.S. Bancorp office tower. And in a twist on the movie’s ending, Westley, Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik set their course toward Mount Hood, the tallest mountain in Oregon.
A Subtle Touch
Cafe owners can tastefully incorporate a pop culture theme without becoming excessively kitschy or overwhelming. In some cases, a touch of pop culture can enhance the cafe’s charm and appeal. “We tried not to go too far in having overt references besides the chevron—and chevron print could go anywhere,” Miller says. “Once the cafe was open and running, we were all a little less concerned about the theme and focused on making it a space people wanted to be in.”
Nelson sees the subtle touches at Guilder more as “Easter eggs” rather than obvious odes. “The lightning bolt in the logo was this Easter egg that only people who have read the book would know about,” she says. “That’s an even smaller part of the population than people who have seen the movie.” Other hidden references include the slogan “As You Wish” on stamped cups, which Westley frequently uses to respond to Princess Buttercup’s requests. While the team has also made merchandise like mugs and t-shirts, Nelson advises other owners to be mindful of copyright laws when directly incorporating themes. “We intentionally don’t have exact replicas of characters,” she says. “We have to tread a little lightly on that.”
Incorporating subtle themes and well-placed references to a particular piece of pop culture in a coffee shop can be a powerful tool for evoking nostalgia and cherished memories among patrons. “Devoted fans are excited to have a place they identify with,” Miller says.
Nostalgia has a unique ability to transport people back to cherished moments, making them feel right at home in your cafe. A glance at a painting featuring one of The Princess Bride’s beloved characters can conjure memories of that first viewing, bringing you back to that unmistakable feeling of a special moment. “When people find out about [the theme], you can see they’re thinking about that memory of however they’re connected,” Nelson says. “Which is usually as a kid watching the movie.”