InsideBayArea.com published an article today by a self-employed writer (and cooking class instructor) who named some of her favorite coffeehouses around the country: Inside Bay Area – It’s more than just coffee — it’s a bowl for the soul. Yes, she unimaginatively resorted to the ever-popular, ever-tedious caffeine riff (calling coffeehouses “caffeine dens”). But she claims to have sampled a lot of coffee drinks.

Among her listed favorites is SF’s own Tartine Bakery & Café, which, given their marginal espresso quality, seems like a Martha Stewart-inspired cop out. However, it’s clear from her stated criteria that she defines a “coffee drink” as something that requires a recipe. And the “vibe” and ambiance of the place counts as least as much as what is in the cup. She identifies her all-around favorite as Java on Fourth in Ketchum, Idaho — and primarily for the “buttery scones”; a custom drink consisting of coffee, hot chocolate, and cream (the “Bowl of Soup” … unless you’re a cat, beware of coffee served in bowls); and “tacky-but-cool patchwork leather easy chairs”.

It’s enough to drive an espresso nazi insane. I’m reminded of Tony Shalhoub in the brilliant art-versus-business foodie movie, The Big Night, where his character, a chef artiste named Primo, rants in outrage against the philistine tastes of the customers at a popular rival restaurant, “Do you know what happens in that restaurant every night? Rape! Rape! …The rape of cuisine.”

Of course, the brutal truth of the movie is that without attempting to cater to those philistine tastes, Primo’s restaurant would be a commercial failure. Any espresso shop owner who plans to stay in business also knows this. Could you imagine the equivalent of Primo as a barista? “What? You want a latte after 11am? And with caramel on top? In Italy, this is blasphemy!”

The fact is that mainstream America loves Starbucks and wouldn’t have it any other way, despite all their obvious shortcomings. I feel fortunate that the economic coffee ecosystem allows the occasional stellar café to survive just on the merits of its exceptional espresso; they will ultimately develop a loyal following that mass appeal cafés could only dream of. Now what to do about those nightmares of peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes