Opening this past Thursday (April 2, 2009) after a long wait for Blue Bottle to expand the production of their roasting operations, this café technically marks the third and fourth Blue Bottle stations in operation at the Ferry Building Marketplace on a busy weekend. But this is the first with more permanent (i.e., no cart) space. They have dedicated a bit of shelf space to a variety of coffee-making accessories, from Mazzer Mini grinders ($700) through tiny French presses — plus a lot of retail roasted coffee.
Unlike the two carts outside during farmer’s market days, inside here they offer two service stations around the corner from each other. One uses a three-group La Marzocco Linea, the other a fully manual Mirage Triplette three-group lever machine (the latter rated here). While you can find Kees Van Der Westen-designed espresso machines at Four Barrel, we were a little surprised to find Blue Bottle sporting one here. It’s a little out of character, though not as hot-rod flashy as Four Barrel’s setup. (Though they did omit the Mirage branding and chose a classic lever machine: very much the classicist’s touches for a very modern machine.)
Both espresso stations also offer made-to-order filter drip coffee. There is limited stool seating along the Mirage espresso bar in front and a corner counter on wheels nearby: sparse by most standards, but ample for the Ferry Building. And on weekends with all four Blue Bottle stations running full-throttle, service speeds are still glacial — with modest-sized lines still taking an inordinate amount of time to process. Waits of 15-25 minutes from line-to-serving are typical.
On the one hand, we appreciate that you cannot rush good coffee. For Blue Bottle to be running four, count ‘em, four coffee stations simultaneously at the Ferry Building Marketplace is almost unheard of. And yet they still cannot keep up with demand; customers put up with a lot to get their coffee. Perhaps that’s just the bizarre nature of the San Francisco resident: we oddly always seem happy to spend countless hours in line on weekend mornings for our favorite coffee and brunch spots. In any case, Blue Bottle is proving that they have an elastic demand similar to Internet bandwidth and freeway construction: the greater the supply, the higher the demand.
They serve espresso shots with a mottled dark and medium brown crema — it’s rich with a just-as-rich aroma. There’s a real potency in the cup: a cloves-like edge and a robust sweetness that rounds out the bottom of the smoky cup. Worth the wait? For many of us, certainly.
For the few customers who order their coffee “for here”, they use brown Heath ceramic cups — revered among the Bay Area’s food-obsessed (e.g., standard at restaurants such as Coi and Chez Panisse), but they don’t seem as functional for espresso as a classic brown ACF of Nuova Point cup. But it sure beats paper. Why so many people would be offended to drink a $6 serving of wine out of a paper cup, but not their $4 latte, is still beyond our comprehension.
In addition to offering Heath ceramics, of course, the warming tops of Blue Bottle’s espresso machines are also decorated with 4.5-oz Gibraltar glasses — for those unfamiliar with the regulation cappuccino and the (far preferable) regulation 4.75-oz ceramic cup it is served in. But we’ll save our “contempt” for the Gibraltar in another post.
Since we visited a few notable Peninsula cafés at the beginning of the year, some locals mentioned this neighborhood café. Il Piccolo Caffé has been in operation since 1990, and it has survived in the suburbs despite a Starbucks moving across the street in 2004.
It adds a bit of local character as an Italian-themed coffee hang out, with outdoor sidewalk seating in front and some bench seating at the separate entrance along the side of the building. The front windows are large and let in a lot of light — in contrast with the darker interior of darker wood tables and chairs, classic art posters of Italian villages, stained glass, and faux wood stove in the back. Despite jazz music on the radio, it’s a relatively quiet place.
They get their beans from the little-known Peter James Coffee, which offers dozens of different roasts. This can be a bit problematic for a small operation, as they must support an extensive product line with few resources. Not only does Peter James offer far too many flavored coffees, but this café offers custom blends from them as well — selling their coffee retail on site.
Using an old, three-group La San Marco, they do not grind to order — pulling shots with a swirling, relatively thin, medium brown crema. The flavor is rather flat: a plain mix of mild spices and little much else to note. This is a little surprising given that it is a modestly short shot in a classic brown ACF cup for doppio shots.
Sorry, Burlingame residents. While this location has garnered a lot of local support, sad to say, the espresso here isn’t all that much better than the Starbucks across the street. While we’re all for supporting local, independent cafés, they have to make espresso that at least looks better than that.
Read the review of Il Piccolo Caffé in Burlingame.