What a difference four years makes. One scalability challenge with an effort as large as CoffeeRatings.com is the attempt to cover the sheer number of places serving espresso in San Francisco while maintaining a common yardstick of consistency (to produce useful comparative reviews). But another challenge is keeping up with the changes; cafés open and close all the time. And some cafés, like Café Abir, can progress in quality from quite poor to quite good while you weren’t looking.

This is a popular independent café with a fiercely loyal, local following. Because of its the vocal loyalists, this café has long been held in high regard — even when there were many, less vocal detractors who didn’t find anything special here (this site included).

For years we attributed much of its loyal following to its atmosphere and status as a lone place of suitable refuge in an otherwise — shall we say — “delicate” neighborhood. (Hanging out at Church’s Chicken just doesn’t cut it, unless you want to pass the time waiting to be a witness at a crime scene.) Because any raving certainly couldn’t be over their sub-standard espresso — which ranked in CoffeeRatings.com‘s bottom 30th percentile. And yet Café Abir won the 2003 SF Bay Guardian readers’ award for Best Independent Coffeehouse.

Cafe Abir's entrance Café Abir's newly remodeled interior

But a lot has changed over the past four years — particularly with its Summer 2007 remodel. And almost all its changes have been for the better. They still retain a sort of Middle East theme out of the silent movie era. But the adjoining grocer and newsstand is long gone — now being replaced with a sake and wine shop. There’s long been a bar in the back for happy hour, and today they seem to have doubled down on their sake theme. Inside, they’ve polished the premises: red upholstered bench seating, nicer tables and chairs, more light. Even the sidewalk seating along Fulton St. looks a little more inviting.

The staff and some patrons here once seemed a bit “damaged,” as can be the norm in this neighborhood. But that seems to have improved along with the other changes. Though on my visit this week, no fewer than two different people came right up to me on the sidewalk, each talking to me as if they were continuing a conversation they started with my evil twin who passed through just minutes ago (“…and another thing!”). Some things haven’t changed in the Western Addition.

(For the record, I used to live along Golden Gate Ave. just a couple of blocks from here.)

New elevated seating for that Julius Ceasar feel with your laptop inside Café Abir Café Abir's back bar for happy hour

But most surprisingly, the coffee quality has noticeably improved here. They still roast their own beans in a backroom. Four years ago their baristas had no idea where their beans came from; today they all seem to know the story.

They now serve espresso with a more solid, richer layer of medium brown crema (it used to be very thin and pale). The weak and watery body is now much more robust — and served in a large shotglass/Gibraltar. It still has a medicinal flavor, but with a stronger tobacco smokiness that almost borders on ashiness — it will seem bitter to many, and it remains my biggest complaint about their coffee service. However, they’ve clearly put a lot more effort into their coffee. They are one of the most improved examples in the city over the past few years.

Read the updated review of Café Abir.

The Café Abir espresso - now served in glass