This French bakery and café resides across the street of a parking garage in a roadside “strip mall” of sorts. It’s in a very odd part of the city that consists of modern-yet-plain software company office buildings clustered together. Imagine if SF opened a theme park based on downtown San Jose, and you get the idea. (Can a downtown-San-Jose-themed Las Vegas casino be far behind?)
Chef and namesake co-proprietor of Pâtisserie Philippe, Philippe Delarue, of Le Mans, France, makes some serious French pastries here — including macarons and many meringues of pastel colors. (As a French bakery, they do a great job.) They also serve salads, croissants, and cookies.
The walls are covered with color photos of pastries and framed mirrors. Along a long, windowed storefront, they’ve laid out a few nice wood and black marble café tables. There are (faux) flowers and, of course, the obligatory large café au lait bowls to be found about.
Using a two-group E-91 Ambassador Faema supplied by Mr. Espresso (they also use their beans), they produce a rather delicate espresso with a thinner layer of darker brown crema. It has a sweet aroma, a good body from its appropriate size, and there’s a little bite at the end of the finish from a cup that has a robust spice and herbal pungency to its flavor. They serve it in a short, cylindrical demitasse.
Read the review of Pâtisserie Philippe.
We’ve long made it a policy to not cover superfluous news stories on Starbucks here because, well, they’ve long been irrelevant to quality coffee. But here’s one from Down Under today that is: Starbucks to close 61 Australian stores, cut 685 jobs | The Daily Telegraph.
Now we like looking for the hidden story behind the story. For example, a month ago when newspapers plastered their pages with news of Starbucks’ plans to close 600 U.S. locations (a story we considered irrelevant to quality coffee), we wondered why most ignored their plans to open some 200 new cafés next year. (Not to mention how the mass extinction event that affected hundreds of frozen yogurt chain stores in the 1990s never elicited this kind of “death watch” media attention and public mourning in the press.)
Starbucks has notably fizzled and failed in countries where there were good quality coffeehouses before they came along — nearby New Zealand, for example. With Starbucks closing some 70% of their Australian cafés over the next few days, it appears that Starbucks is finally listening to what Australian consumers have been telling them all along: “you lower the standards here.”
What is surprising is that Starbucks is bothering to leave any cafés open in the country at all. Looking at Starbucks’ Web site (Starbucks Coffee Company – Announcement to Customers 29th July 2008), we learn that they are consolidating their remaining Australian cafés in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney — Australia’s major metropolitan centers. In other words, Starbucks’ Australian strategy is to focus on tourists, business travellers and expatriates who are brand-loyal (read: brand-blind) enough to not realize that you need only swing a dead cat to find better espresso elsewhere in the country.
Sure enough, look no further than the 69-percent quarterly profit rise posted by competitor Peet’s Coffee & Tea last night: Peet’s shares soar after 2Q report – Forbes.com. Curious that Starbucks’ new line of smoothies, introduced last month, are branded Vivanno. The word “Vivanno” looks curiously derivative of the Italian word vivranno, meaning “they will live”. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Foodie rag gone online, Saveur.com, recently published a series of coffee-themed articles in conjunction with the SCAA. One of the articles lamented American restaurants’ continued one-dimensional treatment of coffee: Nothing ‘Regular’ About It – Saveur.com.
“‘Regular’ coffee?! The appetizer alone rated five adjectives,” writes reporter Jim Munson. We’ve expressed this very same lament here a couple years ago. It’s preposterous to think of “wine” or “cheese” as singular, indiscriminate, sufficiently self-described substances on restaurant menus.
Given that American coffee palates have now had two whole decades to evolve beyond Maxwell House, and given that it has been almost 10 years since we first walked into a restaurant in Santa Barbara (unfortunately now closed) and were offered five different coffee varietals in French presses, what is the hold up?
And it’s not just coffee snobbery either. You can’t even walk into a supermarket today and buy basic “orange juice” without having to navigate 47 different options. Even something as straightforward as V8 juice now comes in a ridiculously confusing array of Low Sodium, Spicy Hot, High Fiber, Essential Antioxidants, and Calcium Enriched … not to mention V8 Splash, V8 Splash Smoothies, V8 V-Fusion and V-Fusion Light. (Please kill me now.)
The article goes on:
With the vast array of origins, blends and roasts now available, settling for a “regular” coffee is a little like asking for a generic bottle of “red” wine. Or, for your main course, maybe you’d like a nice plate of “meat”?
Meanwhile, earlier this week in Australia’s The Sydney Morning Herald, we noticed an opinion piece that lamented Australian restaurants’ paltry tea options in the face of many coffee choices: Coffee has spoiled the tea party – Heckler – Opinion – smh.com.au.
Yet most cafes and restaurants have menus with endless variations of coffee. You know the usual trendy drinks such as lattes, mugacino, cappuccino, espresso macchiato and cafe con leche. But where’s the tea? If you are lucky there will be one or two types listed at the bottom of the blackboard – usually English breakfast or Earl Grey.
The writer even goes on to offer “10 simple rules for eateries,” where #1 is: “Offer the same number of teas as you offer coffees. A minimum of 10 is acceptable.”
At first glance, I wondered if this reflected a level of coffee savviness in Australia that’s lacking in the U.S. However, I would hardly consider the writer’s list of “the usual trendy drinks” as anything more than variations in preparation methods, or simple variations of steamed milk, than coffee varietals per se.
This likely reflects a bit of coffee ignorance by the writer that may not be all that different from what we experience in the U.S. (Especially given that Australia’s coffee culture is almost exclusively focused on espresso.) Meanwhile, we’ve had more than our fill of ten-teas/one-kind-of-coffee restaurants here in S.F.
But whether Australia or the U.S., it’s not rocket science for a restaurant to offer interesting coffee varieties that adequately finish a memorable meal. Four months later, and I still think back to one of my favorite coffee experiences of a simple French press of Harens Old Tree Estate at Merriman’s on Hawaii’s Big Island. No $11,000 Clover required. No special staff training. Just a fresh supply of good coffee.
Merriman’s is a great restaurant, and yet I don’t remember the food nearly as much as the coffee. And at a $10 price tag, that French press was far more memorable than bottles of wine I’ve had at restaurants for five times the price.
Owner Fabrice Moschetti moved here from Nice, France some 20 years ago. These roots show in some of the machine lines his company distributes to Bay Area restaurants, including Monaco-based Conti and Essika.
This café sits on the south side of Geary Blvd.’s viaduct/quasi-freeway exit, west of Masonic Ave. There’s a Denny’s-esque wall of curved glass that creates an almost greenhouse-like front enclosure, but you need to enter this small space by walking down the narrow passageway just past it.
Inside there’s a colorful interior with several café tables and color photos from world travels on the walls. They offer panini, free Wi-Fi, and friendly neighborhood staff — and a loyal neighborhood following.
Using a two-group Mr. Espresso Rancilio machine, they pull espresso shots with an even, slightly thin layer of medium brown crema. It tastes smoky and pungent — generally pleasant, though it is not altogether very potent. Served in classic thick-walled brown ACF cups.
Read the review of Nani’s Coffee.
Because there are only about three or four people who write any original content anymore — and millions of others who just copy them and each other (see: us) — the Washington Post joined in on the San Fransisco Chronicle‘s act (ROAST WITH THE MOST / A new generation of Bay Area coffee roasters pushes the perfect cup to the next level) and published a similar story today about Washington D.C.’s own area roasters: Roasting Raises the Coffee Bar – washingtonpost.com.
Here the article was penned by Michaele Weissman, who has been out on a book tour promoting her new book, God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. Which, curiously enough, closely mirrors the title of Instaurator’s The Espresso Quest recently released book (which itself was to be titled God In My Espresso Cup).
Ms. Weissman, a reporter by trade, is a good layman storyteller — something the coffee industry severely lacks. We recently let our subscription to Barista Magazine expire — mostly because the writing was so poor. (Sorry, Matt Milletto — you seem like a nice guy and all, but you really ought to stick to coffee. That droning laundry list of a coffee travelog in the Feb/Mar issue probably put us over the edge.)
But unlike Instaurator in his book, Ms. Weissman unfortunately takes on the rather gullible stance of a coffee outsider who buys hook, line, and sinker into the Third Wave myth. (Not surprising, given her Counter Culture Coffee loyalties.) But despite that, we still might still check it out at the S.F. Public Library someday.
As we mentioned in our last post a couple days ago, being popular and being good can be two very things. There are few places where this is more apparent than on Web sites that thrive on aggregate public user ratings and reviews. We had intended this article to be about Yelp’s top SF coffee picks — much like our annual round-up on the Best of CitySearch. However, our analysis of Yelp’s rankings became so absurdist so quickly, our story changed dramatically from what we originally intended.
Yelp not only failed at the fundamental task of telling us what other San Franciscans thought was the best coffee in town, in aggregate, but it took us down a dark and strange path into the social motivators behind the site. In essence, we found that Yelp’s rankings are a better measure of a social game among its users than as a measure of the establishments its users supposedly rate.
It’s been a good year since we last poked Yelp in the eye over its major flaws. So this time around we will take a critical look at Yelp’s actual rankings for top coffee in San Francisco based on their rather mad methods.
Many of you probably know that Internet users were TIME magazine’s choice for the 2006 Person of the Year. You might even be familiar with James Surowiecki’s book, Wisdom of the Crowds, which illustrates many ways in which the collective intelligence of large groups of people is greater than that of individuals. All of this is certainly wishful thinking in an election year. However, any “wisdom of crowds” has also provided us with mob behavior, witch hunts, and mass hysteria.
Fortunately, poorly biased coffee ratings should not inflict any bodily harm on espresso lovers who have been lead astray. Or at least in theory — as there have been times we’ve sampled some pretty awful espresso and still wonder about the long-term health effects. But sites such as Yelp are often utterly useless to us because the rating criteria are often completely arbitrary.
To help illustrate this point, we present a summary of Yelp’s Top 20 SF Coffee & Tea establishments as of June 5, 2008, as determined by Yelp users. (Given that the review rankings are dynamically affected by new user ratings, and that we had something of a Web hosting meltdown since the time we started penning this post, the ranks have changed a little since last month. They are also likely to change after this article is published.)
Next to each ranked establishment, we’ve listed their equivalent rank on CoffeeRatings.com (many of which are tied with others for the same ranking), real quotes from reviewers who gave the establishment a maximum rating of five stars, and our associated thoughts on the reviewers and/or the reviewed. It’s the kind of stuff that makes us think they should change their name from “Yelp” to “Wince”.
|Name||Yelp’s 2008 rank||Our 2008 rank||Yes, a 5-star Yelp reviewer really wrote this||Our thoughts|
|Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company||1||N/A||N/A||Good local roaster. But they don’t do retail coffee.|
|Bernie’s||2||18||“I personally don’t drink coffee and generally don’t like the smell of it, but I love the aromas emanating from Bernie’s coffee shop.”||Amazing how much money you can save when you don’t actually drink any of the stuff.|
|Trouble Coffee Company||3||7||“Blue Bottle is delicious but I don’t own the appropriate attire to hang out there.”||Ball gowns, white gloves, and tiaras are so hard to come by at thrift stores these days.|
|Double Team Coffee||4||396||“What more could you ask for than a cute little asian dude yelling ‘strooooooong coooofffe’ while he’s completely jacked out his head on his product.”||Well, you could ask for coffee that doesn’t rate in the bottom third of the entire city.|
|L’s Caffé||5||453||“It depends on how YOU like your coffee, but personally I drink coffee because it’s warm and it’s a vehicle for milk.”||Which is why personally we drink beer because it’s foamy and it’s a vehicle for drunken, anonymous sex.|
|Leland Tea Company||6||N/A||N/A||It was the great President Lincoln who once said, “If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”|
|MotoJava||7||294||“I haven’t tried the coffee yet, but the sandwich I had was excellent, as was the service.”||The French Laundry: five stars. We didn’t try any of the food, but the coat check was fantastic.|
|Cafe Murano||8||240||“They serve great food (Sorry i don’t know about coffee, i don’t drink it)”||And we love the softness of their toilet tissue.|
|Cento||9||6||Two-fer: “Hooray for yet another coffee shop serving good drinks out of a loading bay!” and “I haven’t even been there yet, but am certain it will be fabulous”||If we actually stepped over the heroin-addled hookers to get to their loading bay and taste their coffee, we’re certain it would be some of the best in the city.|
|Danilo Bakery’s BaoNecci||10||159||“A very handsome young man behind the counter flirted with me (as only a European man can do!) and I found they are making the delicious corn bread loaves on Saturday again!”||And I’ll give you six stars if you give me your phone number in an accent of whatever language they must speak in Italy.|
And the next 10…
|Name||Yelp’s 2008 rank||Our 2008 rank||Yes, a 5-star Yelp reviewer really wrote this||Our thoughts|
|Spike’s Coffees & Teas||11||13||“I just started drinking coffee, so maybe I’m not an expert, but I think their coffee is one big cup of awesome!”||As long as it’s not one big cup of ashy, watery, over-extracted dreck like most places pull.|
|Imperial Tea Court – CLOSED||12||N/A||N/A||Some places are worth more dead than alive.|
|Philz Coffee @ Castro, 4023 18th St.||13||N/A||“Have you ever tasted coffee that didn’t taste like coffee at all?”||Philz Coffee: for when you want to pretend you’re drinking coffee when you really aren’t.|
|Java Detour||14||140||“I wouldn’t say it’s the best coffee but dammit it is convenient to the 101 and the people who work there are so friendly.”||When I’m fleeing the scene after committing a felony downtown, I prefer the fast, friendly service of Java Detour.|
|Lupicia Fresh Tea||15||N/A||N/A||No retail beverages and proud of it.|
|Coffee Adventures||16||301||“In all honesty, their ‘regular coffee’ is horrid lol BUT BUT BUT everything else I have had is great.”||Speaking of Honest Abe Lincoln, “Our American Cousin” was an awesome play.|
|Faye’s Video & Espresso Bar||17||301||Two-fer: “THE best place to me in the City, to get great expresso [sic]. They also are always quite generous in their servings as well. [sick]” and “I love stopping by and getting my own movie. I get to look and not be so overwhelmed with technology. plus the cute boy behind the counter, i think it is Mike is cute!”||THE best place in the city to go for over-extracted expresso while fawning over Mike, or whatever his name is. At least I think it’s a “he”.|
|Mamá Art Cafe||18||331||Two-fer: “Best chai I’ve ever had. Don’t know how authentic it is, but it’s spicy creamy goodness in a big, fat over-sized cup.” and “there are never any ‘surprises’ showing up in my food or drink which is always a major bonus.”||Any place that doesn’t put live scorpions in my coffee gets five stars!|
|Jackson Place Cafe||19||65||“Two words: Secret Hideout”||Two words: Honeycomb Hideout|
|Ritual Gardens||20||3||“the lines are much shorter here than on Valencia st, the hipsters not so hip and the coffee and espresso concoctions are just as tasty. I’d rather share my coffee with a cactus any day.”||And as soon as I off this *$% barista and silence these voices in my head, I can have my frigging espresso in peace!|
While the above covers the excitable, five-star reviews that contribute to sometimes puzzling accolades for otherwise weak espresso purveyors, there are equally puzzling criteria reviewers use to depress the rankings of otherwise great espresso options. Below are a few more of the more bizarre rankings on the list — optionally accompanied by some classic excerpts from the Yelpers themselves who gave the places one-star reviews (with a couple two-star reviews thrown in for good prose):
I don’t know what kind of parallel, warped universe some Yelpers are living in. But one that ranks Theater Too Cafe at the 92nd percentile — well above Blue Bottle Cafe, Coffee Bar, and Ritual Roasters in the Mission — must contend with questions such as, “Mommy, why do you have three heads?”
To be sure, there are a few ratings on Yelp that we’d actually agree with. But take Cento, for example. It was only open one month when it was ranked #9 on Yelp — and it had a ways to go before it left the “honeymoon” stage of the Yelp rating lifecycle.
What is the Yelp rating lifecycle, you ask? Typical for a place like Cento, wannabe hipsters race to be the first to review a place they like and pump it up — particularly if it’s obscure or relatively out of the way in some back alley. Apparently, from what we observed, they believe this behavior somehow bestows upon them some form of social currency among other Yelp posters. It’s the “I’m cool because I am an insider and I found it before any of you” badge.
But then as a place gets exposed and more people know about it, this is followed by a wave of professional killjoy reviewers that love nothing more than to say, “OVERRATED! — And they’re so arrogant here” as a form of their own social currency among Yelp posters. It’s the “I’m late, but I’m cool because my tastes are way better than this” badge. Mark our words. Give things a few months and Cento’s Yelp ranking will drop like Starbucks‘ stock price.
Interestingly enough, since we originally wrote this paragraph in June, Cento’s Yelp ranking has dropped from #9 and is now currently hovering around #24. While our repeat visits haven’t produced espresso ratings as strong as our first, we sense there’s more going on than just a subtle weakening of their espresso.
So what does any of this have to do with the rating of quality coffee, you ask? Absolutely nothing. But it has everything to do with how Yelp works. Which is precisely our point. Using a site like Yelp only makes us feel dumber than we already are.
This casual café run by Mission locals lives across the street from the slightly newer, and trendier, Sugarlump. That detail alone contributes to an unusual social “halo” surrounding this café — one that forgives the many sins it commits against good coffee.
To be honest, the espresso here is quite dreadful. But this place is notable as one of the greater anomalies (read: failures) of user review Web sites: overwhelming evidence that being popular and being good can be two very different things.
For example, L’s Caffé is currently rated the fourth best coffee spot in all of SF according to Yelp. Meanwhile, CoffeeRatings.com rated its espresso in the bottom 25% of the entire city; it is currently tied for 463rd. (A separate article on the story of this and other vagaries and insanities of Yelp’s Top 20 coffee places in SF is forthcoming.)
But if you’ve come here to do something other than drink espresso, the place offers a bit to like. It’s rather casual, clean, and low-key. There are several indoor tables and chairs with ample space, and it’s rare that you have to fight for them. There’s a lower level in front for seating with a step up to the service level towards the back of the shop.
It’s a true café in that they offer sandwiches, salads, and even mollettes (think crusty bread sandwiches). Then throw in an absence of coffee snobbery — after all, how could they be anything but humble with what shots they’re pulling here? All these factors likely contribute to the locals overlooking the awful espresso when submitting their online reviews.
Using a two-group Elektra Maxi at the rear coffee station, they pull espresso shots that have a thick foam of lighter brown crema — and yet it is featureless and adds little to the cup. The single espresso pour is immense: to the top of the rim. Like the Organic Coffee Co. mothership (who supplies their coffee beans), the flavor is on the ashy side — except here it is even moreso: with the watered-down volume in the cup added to the mix.
We hope they have flood insurance, because there’s a deluge coming out of their Elektra machine.
Read the review of L’s Caffé.
We’ve previously posted about the phenomenon of well-heeled consumers paying for the privilege of performing manual labor in food production that our country could otherwise only get illegal immigrants to do. But here’s a new twist on the continued glamorization of the food service industry — yesterday Microsoft announced a new video game for the Xbox 360 called “Barista Barista Revolution”: Microsoft Unveils Barista Barista Revolution | The Naked Loon.
In case you’ve been hiding out in a cave with Osama Bin Laden for the past decade, the name is a take on an immensely popular video game called Dance Dance Revolution (aka “DDR”). In “BBR”, players apparently take on the roles of highly skilled disco baristas as they “grind, tamp, pull, and steam their way to the perfect espresso, in rhythm to the beat of dozens of today’s top hits.”
The article then goes on to announce:
The game is expected to retail for $120, and thanks to an exclusive partnership with Starbucks, will include a wireless espresso machine game controller—an 80-pound full-scale model of the most common unit found in Starbucks around the world.
“Our driving motivation for BBR was to bring the thrill and excitement of the United States Barista Championship into the living room,” explained [the game's lead developer, John] Parker.
We’ve always thought the specialty drink program of the U.S. Barista Championship (USBC) smacked a little too much of Tom Cruise-inspired Cocktail mixology. And the competition’s deficit of real-life barista skills and emphasis on barista gymnastics have always been a puzzle.
But a video game that sports a game controller modeled after the heinous super-automatic Verismo machine so people can play video barista to the sounds of the disco beat? The USBC had better hope this video game does not catch on, or its integrity is going into the toilet faster than you can say “Frappuccino”.
P.s.: Psyche! Continuing our need for blog comedy, Microsoft has no such plans and the The Naked Loon is, er, well… you get the idea.
DDR scene from the movie “Grandma’s Boy”
Sometimes this blogging business can get far too serious. Especially when most blogs are about procrastination, wasting time, and utterly pointless exercises — such as answering the important existential question, “What kind of coffee drink best represents me?” Well today’s post is for you.
First of all, bloggers are a rather self-important, egotistical lot. You get readership of about 30 people, and soon you’re indignant about any challenge to your status as an empowered, unstoppable voice of The Truth. (As told to me once by Technorati founder and former CEO, David Sifry, the typical blog has only about three readers.) Next you’re demanding the corporate communication offices of multi-billion-dollar retailers such as Target to stand at attention and take notice of your beautifully crafted online missives.
A couple years ago, I attended a conference where these so-called power-bloggers produced an insufferable level of this misplaced arrogance. They acted as if they had just adopted the Declaration of Independence in defiance of King George III — when in reality they were just following the decades-old Usenet to its next logical evolutionary step.
Meanwhile, most bloggers don’t understand why anyone would need a journalism degree, let alone what goes into one. And instead of changing the world, most bloggers are posting the equivalent of cat photos and gold-starred, third-grade art projects — things that in an earlier technological era never made it past the kitchen refrigerator door.
One of these classic refrigerator door exercises is the “personality test.” There’s even the coffee personality test, for topical purposes. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you think that the human capacity for self-fascination must be limitless; our species spends untold hours answering random questions just to be able to think, “Wow — I really am a vanilla mocha!”
More than just idiotic quizzes, however, there’s been a recent spate of articles in Australia and the U.S. profiling coffee drinkers by their beverage of choice.
So what are these personality tests like? My morbid curiosity — the same one that lead me to places such as Lee’s Deli to sample their espresso — lead me to a couple such tests to demonstrate. One was the “What Kind of Coffee Are You?” quiz. Another was About.com’s “What Kind of Coffee Drink Are You?” quiz. (They are obviously very clever with naming these things.)
Essentially you answer a handful of ridiculous questions that might include the following:
So how do these quizzes work?… and what the heck does any of this have to do with coffee? Well, let’s first take a look at the results.
For the first quiz, my verdict was as follows:
You are a Black Coffee.
At your best, you are: low maintenance, friendly, and adaptable
At your worst, you are: cheap and angsty
You drink coffee when: you can get your hands on it
Your caffeine addiction level: high
Things only got worse with the second quiz, where I found myself pigeonholed as:
For all I can tell, these quizzes could have told me I was a muskrat and a walnut and they would have been just as relevant. But rather than proudly telling all my friends about these fine mystical revelations, I instead looked into two slightly less useless coffee personality surveys published in the Australian media last month.
The first article was an informal poll of baristas in Darebin, a northern suburb of Melbourne: You are what coffee you drink – Leader News: Melbourne community news. The second was the result of formal research conducted by Australia’s Hudsons Coffee: Classic cappuccino Australia’s drink of choice | Herald Sun. Among their findings, they discovered:
But that’s just the anecdotal. Now we get to their more bizarre findings:
Flat white drinkers:
Long black lovers:
So given that my coffee “sign” is cappuccino, if we believe these stereotypes we can conclude that I am a grandmother of eight with poor circulation, some 500 Facebook friends, and a junkie-like addiction for the latest Australian rules football scores.
It’s like holding up a mirror.
Sure, maybe that flies for cappuccino-drinking stereotypes in Australia. But what about America?
Recently I came across a blog post on SheKnows.com (“one of the top 10 most-visited websites for women“): What your Starbucks drink says about you | Sheknows.com.
But looking at its beverage descriptions and personality matches made me feel more like a grandmother of eight trying to make sense of a teenager’s MySpace page: it’s complete with verbose descriptions of esoteric quirks and pointless trivia vomited in an almost 360-degree radial pattern of adjectives and photos that I could make neither heads nor tails of. I felt like I was trying to read ancient hieroglyphics without a Rosetta Stone, missing all the cultural clues and strange rituals of an alien civilization, and yet all the individual words were somehow in recognizable English.
Just then I realized — just as when I reached my physical limits consuming that lone Lee’s Deli espresso in the name of science — I had to discontinue this personality test experiment to spare myself from certain madness. Perhaps I discovered the real test of all these personality quizzes and surveys.