I’m a little slow this time around, but not long ago Citysearch.com announced their 2006 readers’ poll winners for the best coffee in San Francisco: Best of Citysearch San Francisco – Best San Francisco Coffee. This is something of an annual tradition, as we reviewed Citysearch’s 2005 coffee winners. (When you think of it, naming anything “first annual” is rather non-sensical.)

So here, in summary, are their 2006 readers’ poll winners — along with their corresponding 2005 ranks and their current ranks on CoffeeRatings.com (many of which are tied with others for the same ranking, btw).

Name 2006 Citysearch rank 2005 Citysearch rank 2007 CoffeeRatings.com rank
Caffé Trieste 1 7 41 †
Café Abir 2 4 440
Peet’s Coffee & Tea 3 2 9 †
Dolores Park Cafe 4 1 89
Farley’s Coffeehouse 5 3 52
Blue Bottle Coffee ‡ 6 2 †
Caffe Greco 7 9 66
Blue Danube 8 8 204
Caffe Roma 9 31 †
Cafe Lo Cubano 10 31

† — Highest-rated of multiple cafés in the chain chosen for ranking
‡ — 2006 Citysearch Editorial Winner

Dropping off Citysearch’s “Best of” list in 2006 were:

  • Tartine Bakery (formerly #5) — Maybe readers finally saw through the Martha Stewart smokescreen?
  • Mr. Espresso (formerly #6) — A deserving candidate. But I’m shocked that they even listed last year, given that they don’t sell prepared coffee to the retail public.
  • The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (formerly #10) — More outlets in S.F., and around the world, and perhaps not enough votes from L.A. transplants this time around.

Perhaps the most surprising omission in all of this is Ritual Coffee Roasters, the reigning #1 on CoffeeRatings.com for almost a year now. And while I may be just one vote, hopefully that means something — because I seriously doubt any of these readers made their top picks by comparing their choices with 526 other places they’ve tried in S.F. (And I’m not even getting into the use of objective criteria and standardized comparisons.)

And thus lies the major problem with popularity polls like this. Just how many people voted for Café Abir as having the best S.F. coffee after making a serious, objective comparison with one or two dozen other places in the city — let alone finding them ranking just below 439 others on their “Best of” list? (Though I am long overdue for a revisit there.) This is why I find Citysearch’s Editorial Winner choice as the most credible piece of information about the whole exercise.

If you have ever witnessed a Battle-of-the-Bands-like popularity contest, popularity polls like Citysearch’s “Best of” or open popularity contest (“review”) sites like Yelp are no different. While there’s a chance that some trendlines emerge with multiple votes, the truth is that there is no baseline… no control set… no standards upon which to judge. As a result, all these polls do is end up re-enforcing what we collectively already know — and not exploring what we collectively don’t know, but probably should know. We learn only about ourselves and nothing about good coffee. Because unfortunately, popularity rarely equates with quality.