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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

San Francisco's Top Five Coffee Shops

Posted By on Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 11:25 AM

  • Photos by W. Blake Gray

Coffee is such a personal thing. If I like cappuccino, you like drip coffee black, and Bill Cosby likes a triple-tall nonfat extrahot no-foam latte (apparently true), we're not going to agree on what the best coffee shop is.

But I'm the guy with the pen keyboard soapbox. So before I tell you what I think are San Francisco's Top Five Coffee Shops, I'd better tell you my criteria.

Foremost is coffee quality. But with coffee shops, atmosphere matters; it won't excuse bad coffee, but it elevates a good cup. I'm not counting food items' quality much toward the Top Five (sorry, farm:table), but not having any food is a negative.

Most important: What kind of coffee? I drink drip and French press in restaurants and at home, but almost never in coffee shops (sorry, Philz). If I go to a specialist it's for espresso drinks, which I can't do well at home, or iced coffee. Cappuccino is my favorite, and don't pester me that Italians would call me a girlyman for drinking it in the afternoon, because this is San Francisco, and girlymen are cool.

Also, what kind of atmosphere? Many folks like to go to a coffee shop, plug in headphones, and stare at their laptops. But to me, good atmosphere is friendlier than that (sorry, the Summit).

One last thing before I launch into the list (and return to SFoodie's preferred royal "we"). The most important factor in a good coffee shop is location. In a city with more than 200 coffee shops, a good one next to your office is better than a great one across town. I have favorites in practically every neighborhood, and just because I like these five best doesn't mean I don't patronize plenty of others -- indeed, some more than these.

But that said, these five are worth a special visit. Enough talk -- let's have some coffee.


5. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Ritual has a lot going on for the coffee lover.

Ritual is one of the leaders in single-finca bean sourcing. If you love terroir in wine, it's great to taste its equivalent in coffees produced by a single farmer from a single plot of land. Ritual's excellent website even shows you pictures of the farmers.

We like that you can get espresso drinks or single-cup drip made from Ritual's regular blended beans, which are already quite good, or from a variety of other specifically sourced beans.

The atmosphere is a decent mix of locked-in computer users in the back, while sofas in the front occasionally draw people who don't recoil from opening salvos about the weather. The baked goods are locally sourced and usually include a few interesting things.

If we ding Ritual for anything, it's that the beans are among the priciest in town, and the shop does sometimes host a little more cooler-than-thou attitude than we like. But to be fair, unless thou art pretty darn cool, it's accurate.

Nabeel Silmi makes a cappuccino while Bianca Solorzano tidies up
  • Nabeel Silmi makes a cappuccino while Bianca Solorzano tidies up

4. Grand Coffee.

Nabeel Silmi hits all our buttons with his tiny shop on Mission Street.

His cappuccino is creamy-smooth, with no bitterness. Silmi credits the Four Barrel Friendo Blendo beans and the Clover organic milk. "Organic milk has a sweetness to it," he says. "It doesn't have as much shelf life, but it has much more flavor."

We love that he serves coffees with a small shot of seltzer on the side, which Silmi, a San Francisco native, said he learned on a vacation in Argentina. He also uses the seltzer to make Brooklyn egg creams and other housemade sodas.

He sells a few baked goods from nearby microbakery Knead Patisserie. When we visited, he incongruously had one jar each of pickled beets and pickled asparagus spears from a Yuba City purveyor. Why, we asked? "I like to feature different artisanal producers," he says. "They came in here with those beets, and they were rockin'." We like rockin' beets.

And we love sitting at one of the four counter seats or the two tables outside on busy Mission Street. This is not a place where you sit all afternoon, as you could do at any of the other top picks. But it is a great place to chill for the time it takes you to drink a cup, and a little more.

Silmi worked his way inside from the restaurant business; he started as a valet parking attendant at the Black Cat, moved to being a barback at Rose Pistola, and eventually spent 3 1/2 years behind the bar at nearby Foreign Cinema.

"My frustration with a lot of coffee shops is that they're too slow," Silmi says. "You shouldn't have to wait 25 minutes for a cup of coffee."

Hold that thought -- we'll revisit it soon. In the meantime, we'll revisit Grand Coffee.


3. Caffe Trieste

The coffee world has changed immensely since Giovanni Giotta opened this place in the 1950s. Back then, we imagine it would have been No. 1 with a bullet not only on a list of best coffee shops in San Francisco, but quite possibly west of the Mississippi as well.

Caffe Trieste still roasts its own beans, although the new wave of country-specific coffees has passed it by, not to mention shade-grown, fair-trade, and all that other stuff that nobody talked about in "Papa Gianni's" day. It still delivers a quality cup of cappuccino, but we don't go to its branch outlets when we're just after coffee.

When it comes to atmosphere, however, Caffe Trieste's original North Beach location has accumulated it in layers that no obsessive upstart can hope to duplicate. The wooden walls, with ancient photos covering one; opera on the stereo; old men discussing the world's problems outside with passersby and inside with each other; the ATM in a phone booth -- we love all of it.

You could lunch here on focaccia sandwiches or snack on a variety of cakes. The wine selection is terrible, but at least there is one; there's also fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Mainly, though, it's the steady stream of humanity interacting with the staff and each other that wins us. On a recent visit a group of firefighters trooped in after a long morning, shirts disheveled and slightly sooty. One of them got into a 20-minute discussion about the Giants with us, while behind him neighbors came in to gossip. As we went outside to take a photo, a woman came out from behind the counter to hug a woman on the street. We've never seen that at Ritual.

Caffe Trieste is the outlier on this list, but deserves a place all its own.


2. Blue Bottle Coffee

There were only two real candidates for No. 1 on this list. Blue Bottle is the runner-up, but not because of the coffee.

Using our standards, Blue Bottle's coffee is actually the best. It has the best cappuccino in town -- so creamy and smooth, even with nonfat milk, that it's almost like a low-calorie nonfat dessert. And while we're not a fan of its New Orleans-style iced coffee because we hate chicory (sorry Cajuns), its Kyoto-style iced coffee is also the best in town.

The food options are spartan, but we like the reasonable prices on the not-so-sweet baked goods. The baristas also give us far less attitude than those at any of the other coffee-geek havens; we like that we don't feel challenged to prove that we're cool enough to patronize this place.

So how does Blue Bottle not take No. 1?

Availability. We haven't had a coffee from Blue Bottle's Ferry Plaza booth in ages; we don't have the patience to wait 45 minutes. At least one of every three times that we walk by its Mint Plaza location, we walk away again because the line is too long. Blue Bottle's coffee-obsessed baristas make a consistently great cup, but they don't seem to do it particularly quickly.

We realize it's unfair to ding a company for being so good that it's too popular, but the reality is that if we go out of our way to go to a certain coffee shop, we want to get a cup of coffee without waiting too long for it. That proved the deciding factor, but before we get to what now might be an obvious No. 1, let us add that we're glad to drink coffee in a city where Blue Bottle only gets to be No. 2.


1. Four Barrel

Four Barrel starts its bid for the top spot strongly: It has the best beans in town. We credit this to the roasters, because other shops have equally interesting sources, and we like plenty of them, but Four Barrel comes out ahead.

The atmosphere here is great. There are sturdy wooden tables and a few people laptopping at them, but there's also a socializing area outside in the parklet, and the seats at the window sometimes lend themselves to random conversations.

We forgive the baristas for their cooler-than-us attitude because they play actual record albums with great taste, at least if you define taste as albums we used to own. And they can pull a quality shot: We've never had a cappuccino or macchiato here that was overly bitter.

For a place that's really busy, Four Barrel moves fast. Unless the line is out the door, which is rare, we can wait long enough for a cup. Maybe because it's firing on all barrels?

And Four Barrel seems more in tune with its customers than some coffee-geek places. We first discovered this shop when it was hosting a Phone Other States for Obama event -- with free coffee -- prior to the 2008 election, so maybe McCain supporters will prefer to take their coffee elsewhere. We also wandered in one time when an owner was handing out slices of lemon meringue cake from Tartine -- a fave -- to celebrate the store's birthday. Here's hoping for many more.

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W. Blake Gray

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