Not to be confused with Cento, which is decidedly at the opposite end of the amenity scale, this is a classically pretty café at the rear entrance of the elegant Fairmont Hotel. It caters primarily to hotel tourists — many of whom come from around the globe and get a little homesick for something other than a McStarbucks.
The location overlooks the cable cars intersecting at California & Powell Sts., and there is limited outdoor sidewalk seating at café tables against the building. The café itself seems closely modeled after many of the thematic and modern Illy-branded cafés of Italy: modern red light fixtures over café tables, a polished décor, Italian music, and wait staff with accents.
The tourists seem to go for the “authenticity” here — even if the espresso doesn’t come close to matching what you can get from an Illy café in Italy. They serve the usual Italian-themed light lunch fare, and there’s a merchandising wall of Illy and Ghirardelli products so tourists can return bearing gifts. One nice touch is an old school, decorative brass Gaggia espresso machine on display at the hotel entrance, just inside the hotel hallway leading from the café.
Using a sparkling and shiny, Illy-branded two-group La Cimbali machine, they pull shots of espresso from the giant sealed Illy cans. It’s the typical North American Illy flavor: soft, meek and based on mild pepper and spice. However, it does lack some of the woodiness you often find in Illy. It has a thin layer of lighter brown crema and is served in Illy designer IPA cups with no saucer. All the things you expect from a North American Illy shot, including all the things you expect it to be lacking.
Read the review of Caffè Cento.
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