Most people have their favorite local getaways. Mine, among many other Bay Area locals, happens to be the Monterey Peninsula — i.e., the Pacific Grove/Carmel/Monterey region. It’s a great place to kick back for a relaxing weekend, along the sea, away from the S.F. crowds, near the natural splendor of Big Sur and the protected Pacific coastline…and yet with a healthy number of “big city” amenities (important for those rainy winter days).

One of the necessary amenities, of course, is a good espresso. While the Monterey Peninsula manages to have a few halfway decent options, despite not being overrun with Starbucks yet, you don’t go for the espresso. And that’s particularly true for the quaint and touristy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Name Address Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Bouchée Mission St. @ Ocean Ave. 4.60 5.20 4.900
Buon Giorno Bakery Cafe Mission St. @ Ocean Ave. 6.20 7.20 6.700
Caffe Cardinale Coffee Roasting Company Ocean Ave. @ San Carlos Ave. 2.80 4.00 3.400
Cantinetta Luca Dolores St. @ Ocean Ave. 6.70 6.00 6.350
Carmel Coffee & Cocoa Bar Ocean Ave. @ Junipero Ave. 3.60 5.50 4.550
Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company Ocean Ave. @ Lincoln St. 4.40 6.20 5.300
Il Fornaio (café) Ocean Ave. @ Monte Verde St. 7.00 7.20 7.100
Il Fornaio (restaurant) Ocean Ave. @ Monte Verde St. 6.60 6.80 6.700
L’Auberge Carmel Monte Verde St. @ 7th Ave. 5.20 6.00 5.600
Patisserie Boissiere Mission St. @ Ocean Ave. 5.80 6.50 6.150

Carmel-by-the-Sea, aka “Carmel”, conjures up images of aging, bejeweled locals driving around in their luxury cars from art dealer to art dealer — that is, when they’re not putting in nine holes at Pebble Beach. Clint Eastwood may no longer be mayor, but Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt still own homes here. The hardest work in Carmel, however, seems focused on keeping its small town feel amist the corporate commercialization of downtowns everywhere — which includes zoning the exclusion of cancerous chains like Starbucks. This has created a commercial/social experiment of sorts: what happens to local espresso when insulated from the influence of a big chain like Starbucks?

The patio outside Caffe Cardinale - with its coffee fit for dog bowls The San Franciscan roaster inside Caffe Cardinale

The results of this experiment are generally poor. For one, the local boutique roasters and cafés — the very thing Carmel’s zoning model intends to support — are of inferior quality and seem to flounder, not thrive, in the absence of a large corporate competitor to raise their standards.

Case and point: take Caffe Cardinale Coffee Roasting Company, just off Ocean Ave., which has long professed a claim to the best coffee in Carmel. On the surface, they have a few of the makings of a good coffee shop: on-site roasting, a popular location, a good flow of customers, and many marketing relationships with nearby hotels (including some luxury hotels) and B&Bs. But the execution here has gone horribly wrong.

Of the thousands of cafés I’ve reviewed all over the world, their espresso drinks are among the most overextracted I’ve experienced (i.e., bitter, watered down, and of immense size). And up until a couple years ago, their menu offered something they literally called “the two-hour mug” — basically, coffee that was sold in such obscenely copious volumes that they sold it by the amount of time it took you to drink it all (regardless of how good a two-hour-old pot of coffee tastes). Two-hour steak, anyone?

The dual old school La San Marco machines at Caffe Cardinale The Caffe Cardinale espresso - overflowing with watery bitterness

Another phenomenon in Carmel is the mock Starbucks (Starmocks?) — a classic example being Ocean Ave.’s Carmel Bakery. Carmel’s commercial zoning laws prevent both large chains and large signage. Carmel Bakery, while a decent bakery in its own right, takes advantage of these exclusions by placing “We proudly serve Starbucks coffee” signs in its display window alongside Starbucks-branded coffee mugs. The effect oddly comes off like a medical marijuana shop, beckoning tourists with a contraband fix of their Starbucks’ double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato.

But go inside to try a shot, and you will be wishing for even the most offensively branded Starbucks chain outlet down on the corner of downtown Carmel. If nothing else, at least to hold up the low end of the local standards bar.

If there is a coffee chain that’s allowed to exist here, it’s the small, family-owned, Carmel-based roaster, Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company. With five cafés in Carmel-by-the-Sea and the surrounding Carmel area (including one in a mall under the name of the Carmel Coffee & Cocoa Bar), the chain has earned something of a loyal following among the locals. However, the espresso is rather lackluster, and they frequently default to paper cups in some of its outlets.

The espresso bar at Il Fornaio of Carmel The Il Fornaio of Carmel espresso

So where are some of the best options in town? The Buon Giorno Bakery Cafe, on Junipero Ave. between 5th & 6th Aves., for one. It has expanded its business operations to include more of a traditional restaurant service for dinner. Which brings me to another interesting observation of espresso in Carmel-by-the-Sea: unlike most of the country, the restaurants here actually serve some of the best espresso available in town. Il Fornaio, and its separate café in particular, is case and point. Oddly, the espresso at the Carmel Il Fornaio is even better than at its S.F. counterpart.

While the restaurant espresso in Carmel is encouraging, this is clearly a town where the espresso standards are languishing without a Starbucks around to raise the bar. As the general manager of a major coffee roasting equipment and sales operation told me recently, “We don’t go into an area unless there’s a Starbucks within a mile or so. We like the ‘Pepsi Challenge’.” Starbucks’ presence provides competitors with validation of an area’s coffee market potential while leaving plenty of profit room for their operations to exceed Starbucks’ modest standards. But in Carmel, the biggest challenger to the local espresso is often the option to skip it altogether.

The busy bar Fiorenzato machine at Cattinetta Luca The Catinetta Luca espresso