The Staten Island Advance (Staten Island has news?!) published an article today that heralds the arrival of tea as America’s new hot beverage of choice over coffee: Tea time. For all the Oolong Frappucino and Chai Latte lovers out there, hey — more power to you. These are good times with more options. But before I’m ready to believe that the availability of good coffee is just a fad waiting to be replaced with the next beverage fad, it’s worth taking a look at the recent history of high-end restaurant service.
Exquisite teas are nothing new, although, like espresso, their growing availability and accessibility is something new. But for at least a decade now, many high-end restaurants have served up dessert menus laden with variants of rare and exotic teas — the more exotic the better. (The challenge for some was to find a pot of tea that cost more than your valet parking.) Yet while restaurant indulgers have been trying to navigate a dozen choices of tea on their dessert menus, these restaurants still served only two choices of coffee: you either had it, or you didn’t.
Sure, you could have it as an espresso, a cappuccino, a latte, or a straight-up cup of joe. But the pinnacle of cuisine still considered coffee a singular and universal noun — as if served out of an industrial grade, generic-branded tin labelled “coffee”. Reading the restaurant menu, you got eight adjectives and four extra nouns with your salad course — but nothing for the last taste you went home with to remember the meal. And if you did dare order the espresso, it would be served by someone who knew next to nothing about coffee — and as an overextracted, ashy, bitter wash filled high in a fancy china cup.
High-End Dining Still Stuck In Coffee’s Dark Ages
The rude truth is that still is the case today. It was seven years ago that I first encountered a restaurant that actually offered several varietals of coffee in personal French presses (Sage & Onion in Santa Barbara). Yet even today, such a thing is still virtually unheard of in San Francisco. New, Mediterranean-themed restaurants open with elaborate wine and tea lists and yet still have a pathetic coffee service (Vignette, as an example). And with the sad closure of Café Organica this year, you currently have to drive to Palo Alto or Santa Clara to get a choice of beans for your espresso.
Given the perishable inventory and training requirements for coffee, tea is a much lower maintenance option when handling multiple varieties. But before we all go following the trend towards Monkey Picked Tieguanyin Oolong tea like lemmings off a cliff, will somebody please at least humor me with a choice of either Ethiopian or Costa Rican when I order a cup of coffee? I’m not even asking for Jamaican Blue Mountain. Is that really too much to ask? (And please — none of those crappy pod systems either. Even though that would still be an improvement.)
No, coffee has a long, long way to go before these improvements run out of gas. In the meantime, as Abraham Lincoln once wisely said:
“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
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