Far too often, I find myself reviewing espresso because it’s necessary for completeness rather than something to which I look forward. Most Starbucks Coffee retail stores (the emphasis, of course, being on “retail”) elicit the same reptilian brain response in me. Not that most Starbucks have bad espresso at all, mind you. They’re often pretty average. But it’s difficult to be inspired by mediocrity.
Although I credit Starbucks with a lot to be thankful for, given how they’ve raised the public bar on coffee standards in general, their 2005 emaciation and ultimate closure of all Bay Area Torrefazione Italia (TI) outlets is still a major sore point with me. Founded by Umberto Bizzarri in Seattle in 1986, TI once served one of the best espressos in SF — even though it had been on a steady decline for years through multiple changes of corporate owners (the last being Starbucks’ purchase in 2003). But Starbucks’ handling of TI’s final, shameful Bay Area collapse in 2005 was nothing short of cynical.
Starbucks boarded up all the Bay Area TIs, but they recently converted one of its best downtown locations at 295 California Street, at Battery St. This location seems to be one of the main reasons why Starbucks even bothered to buy out the chain here. There’s great people-watching among many patio tables on a busy downtown corner. Starbucks fully moved in with their branding in high gear — even if there’s another Starbucks across the street at 123 Battery (itself a former Oh La La!) .
Walk in, and gone are the great hallmarks of TI: no leather chairs, no classy wooden tables, no decorative ceramic cups. Instead this café feels unmistakably more like a music store (Borders?) — and it sounds that way too, with all the inane Starbucks music for sale played over the sound system. The result is an excessively bland experience that makes you feel that even the toilet paper in the bathroom is for sale. Oh, and did I mention they serve coffee here? Dazed, deer-in-the-headlights employees have that first-day-on-the-job (any job) freshness. If hell made an EPCOT version of the Starbucks of 2009, this is it.
If this café is the Starbucks of the future that it tries to be, their coffee suggests regression into a new Dark Ages. They serve espresso from brain-dead, superautomatic Verismo machines that monkeys could push-button operate — so in turn they hire untrained, low-wage monkey surrogates to operate them. Not surprisingly, they pull espresso with a thin, albino-pale crema filled somewhat high in a Starbucks private label cup. Its heavily watered-down flavor barely suggests any flavor at all, but if you pay close attention you might notice diluted pepper and spice. This is weak even by Starbucks’ standards.
When I visited, there was a streetperson sleeping face flat on their plastic-coated tables — whom the manager had to wake up by rapping his knuckles on the table next to the guy’s head. For a minute, I thought the guy was just weeping over the demise of Torrefazione Italia at this spot. I know I was.
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