Coffee Towns: Seattle and San Francisco

Love a cup of joe? Then there's no better place to wake up and smell the coffee than Seattle. Except possibly San Francisco.

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Seattle, San Francisco. These two jewels of the Pacific Coast have much in common: high-tech economies, dreadful traffic, beautiful settings frequently forsaken by the sun. Both also have reputations as the coffee lover's utopia, the Nirvana Nervosa, if you will. But which place deserves that title more?

It is a complex question that calls for a lot of stimulant sampling as well as a bit of history. Though the cities' caffeine societies are distinct, their pasts are intertwined. San Francisco has a tradition of good coffee that goes back at least as far as the 1899 opening of Freed, Teller & Freed, the oldest specialty bean roaster west of New York. (The former Polk Street retailer, which now has a mail-order-only business in South San Francisco, still maintains a Rolodex that lists the special blends preferred by notables such as Tina Turner and the late Imogen Cunningham and Harvey Milk.) John Graffeo started peddling his light and dark roasts from a North Beach storefront in 1935, and the Giotta family opened Caffe Trieste, the first espresso house on the West Coast, in North Beach in 1956. But it was Dutchman Alfred Peet's modest little roastery, opened in 1966 on Walnut and Vine in Berkeley, that became the real epicenter of the gourmet coffee boom that has engulfed the Bay Area, Seattle, and, mercifully, many former Maxwell House strongholds beyond.

Peet's original shop is located, appropriately enough, across the street from two other houses of worship, a Mormon chapel and a Quaker meetinghouse. It's a bit bigger than it was when Peet started selling his sublimely addictive dark roasts there 36 years ago, but it looks much the same. There is a large counter for selling beans, a smaller counter for beverages, and one small bench for seating. (Peet didn't want to encourage the sometimes- odoriferous hippies who started flocking to his shop in the late 1960s, so he got rid of his bar stools. Customers, known as "Peetniks," were forced to sit on the sidewalk outside, as they still do.) It may be purely coincidental that many of San Francisco's independent coffeehouses have a similarly well-worn, low-tech atmosphere. But it is no accident that the first Starbucks, located at 1912 Pike Place in Seattle (the very first was actually half a block north, in a building that has since been torn down), looks and feels an awful lot like the first Peet's.

Starbucks founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker spent the 1970 Christmas season at Peet's learning from the master before starting their own coffee bean business in Seattle in 1971. They used Peet's beans for the first 21 months. "Peet was absolutely uncompromising, and he became the conscience of the West Coast coffee trade," says Siegl, who is now a consultant in marketing and development for small businesses.

Seattle's coffee scene at the time was as dreary as its weather. Most people were drinking canned coffee, and though Baldwin can remember two espresso machines in town, "More often than not, they weren't working," he says. By 1984, Starbucks had expanded to four Seattle stores. That year, Baldwin and Bowker (Siegl had left in 1980) bought Peet's, and in 1987, they sold Starbucks to a group led by Howard Schultz, the company's former marketing director. Since then, Bowker has moved on and Baldwin has grown Peet's into a 60-store company that still maintains uncompromising bean selection and roasting standards.

In the meantime, Starbucks under Schultz has mushroomed and mutated into an operation of 2,000-plus stores that has on the one hand created a new paradigm for the coffee-drinking experience, and on the other become, unfairly or not, a symbol of both yuppie blandness and corporate predation. As a purveyor of consumables, it is frequently compared to McDonald's, but it is beginning to better resemble Dairy Queen. Though Starbucks still professes to be about quality coffee, that message is slowly disappearing under mounds of whipped cream, swirls of caramel, and gallons of steamed milk. But all that garnish is sometimes welcome, even to the pickiest of coffee consumers. "If I'm in town and have a choice in coffee places, I probably wouldn't go to Starbucks," says Seattle-based organizational consultant Lisa Maki. "But when I'm in some town that doesn't have a lot of coffee options, I am very happy to see that mermaid logo"

The chain has had an enormous influence on its hometown culture. Thanks to Starbucks, the caffeinated beverage of choice in Seattle is espresso based, though rarely just espresso. (Many independents don't even offer drip coffee.) Barista—the person operating the espresso machine—is such a familiar job title that it has its own listing in the Seattle Times classifieds.

Aside from espresso, the main hallmark of the Seattle coffee scene is access. Beyond the usual outlets, art stores sell it, design stores sell it, Vietnamese groceries sell it, and at least one dentist offers it to patients as a way to get buzzed before getting drilled. A few years ago, writer Carol Brown started counting the commercial espresso machines within a two-block radius of her home at the edge of Pike Place Market. "I stopped at 60," she says.

A good place to view the sheer ubiquity of the city's caffeine delivery opportunities is from the front door of See's Candies in Westlake Park on Fourth Avenue. Step outside and you are in view of three different Seattle's Best Coffee (SBC) stores. At least two buildings downtown have two Starbucks each. And anytime you see a Starbucks, there is sure to be a remora-like Tully's nearby. (When it was founded nine years ago, Tully's, now a 118-store chain of Starbucks-clone coffeehouses that are located mostly in Seattle, the Bay Area, and Tokyo, announced that its mission was to open a store across from every Starbucks.) But as pervasive as the big chains are—all together, Starbucks, Tully's, and SBC have 136 stores in Seattle—they don't necessarily have their finger on the city's rapidly beating pulse.

"There are two ways to look at Seattle's civic soul," says Seattle Weekly restaurant reviewer Kathryn Robinson. "There is the old Seattle, which is very provincial, homegrown, and self-effacing. Then there is the new Seattle that says, 'Hey! We got Tully's. We got Starbucks. We got Microsoft.' You can almost date people's tenure in Seattle by what they think of Starbucks."

As it is now, Seattle has a colorful collection of neighborhood independents with good coffee and fiercely loyal customers. One such place is Espresso Vivace on Capitol Hill. Vivace bills itself as "the espresso roasting and preparation specialists." Baristas get about six months of training before they are allowed behind the counter, and one of the things they learn, besides making every pull a ristretto, or half pull, to limit the coffee's bitterness, is to craft little leaf designs in the foam. Vivace customers who want to linger sit at four sidewalk tables under gold-and-green umbrellas, rain or shine. "People are very loyal to their coffee places in Seattle," says Vivace fan Matt Erceg, a 28-year-old graphic designer. "They think theirs is the best and everyone else's sucks. Someone dared to come up here with an SBC cup the other day. Boy, did he get a lot of grief."

Says Siegl, "In Seattle, drinking espresso-based drinks has become important. And where you buy them and what drink you order say a lot about you."

To San Franciscans, the coffee-as-image attitude is evidence that Seattleites aren't as discriminating about good coffee as they are. "People don't go to Trieste because they want to make a statement," says Fabio Giotta, who runs Caffe Trieste on Vallejo Street in North Beach. "They go because the coffee is always good."

And though Trieste is an espresso bar, much of the best coffee served in the Bay Area is still the drip variety. "Today's 'espresso culture'—I have to put that in quotations—has a lot more to do with milk than it does with coffee, which is something you don't find in Italy and you definitely didn't find in the Bay Area at any time up until the '90s," says Baldwin. "To the extent that I had any influence over it, if I had known that American adults would drink so much milk, I would have taken caffe latte off the menu. I'm in the coffee business. Call me a zealot, but I'm a lot less interested in expanding the business than I am in converting people to our point of view, which is about the taste and quality of coffee."

According to longtime green-bean importer Erna Knutsen, who has a cup of coffee at a different San Francisco coffee shop every day, coffee enjoyment is still predicated on taste in the Bay Area. "Besides one large chain I won't name, the rest are pretty damn fussy," she says. "If the coffee's lousy, people know it."

Which is not to say everyone in the Bay Area is a purist who will only down perfectly brewed, unadulterated black coffee from ultrapicky boutique roasters. In San Francisco proper, Starbucks has 67 stores to Peet's 10 and local chain Martha & Brothers' five, and all 67 seem to be thriving. "We can both thank them and curse them," says Roberto Bruno, the proprietor of Caffe Malvina in North Beach, about Starbucks. "They've brought a whole new group of people to espresso-style coffee, but they've also changed people's expectation of what an espresso drink is. Tourists come in wanting stuff we've never heard of, like 'a large skinny with one shot.' We've had to learn a whole new language. What's a 'wet cappuccino'? (One with steamed milk.) We had to ask the customer."

One Seattle barista who recently visited San Francisco was appalled by its residents' lack of savvy in ordering espresso drinks. "We thought about opening a store there, but the customers were just too unsophisticated," he sniffs.

This is something of a point of pride around the original Peet's in pretense-averse North Berkeley. "I don't consider myself a connoisseur," says a weather-worn carpenter named Ted. "I always order house coffee, in a plain heavy mug. People don't cater to showiness here, and they don't need to."

So what does the way Seattle obsesses about good coffee and the way the Bay Area takes it for granted say about those two places?

"It's a question of experience and maturity," Baldwin says. "If you put it into human terms, the younger athlete, let's say, is much more aggressive about asserting himself because he has something to prove. In the '70s, there were just a handful of decent restaurants in Seattle, and no one came to Seattle to eat or shop or see what was going on, the way they came to San Francisco. Seattle today has nothing to apologize for in terms of good restaurants or good hotels or architecture or any one of a dozen attributes. But it still doesn't have the generations of confidence that San Francisco has."

America owes a great debt to both towns for forcing coffee vendors all over to serve a better cup of joe. But there is still room for improvement everywhere, according to Baldwin. "Instead of Seattle and San Francisco duking it out for head of the coffee culture," he says, "let's rejoice that the coffee around both places is a hell of a lot better than it is in nearly all the rest of the country."

San Francisco Bay Area

  There's no excuse for drinking bad coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are a few of the region's most beloved java stops.


Peet's Coffee and Tea,

2124 Vine St., Berkeley, (510) 841-0564

The original Peet's is the cradle of the American coffee revolution. There's always a line, but the tangy brew is worth the wait.

Royal Coffee,

6255 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-5458

Royal sells 22 varieties of coffee—including spectacular organic blends from Guatemala and Timor—that it roasts itself. There's a small shop for beans and take-out orders; a large, sunny café for sipping cappuccino.

Caffe Trieste,

609 Vallejo St., San Francisco, (415) 982-2605

A classic. The onetime Beat hangout still serves extraordinary pastries and true Italian-style espresso, complete with crema—a ring of brown foam clinging to the cup.

Java Beach,

1396 La Playa, San Francisco, (415) 665-5282

Terrific coffee, outdoor seating, surfers in wet suits, the Pacific Ocean—hey, what's not to like? A unique spot that has a devoted, largely Irish, clientele.

Seattle

Starbucks is everywhere in Seattle, but so are dozens of thriving independent coffeehouses and local chains. Here are a few of the best.

Torrefazione Italia,

320 Occidental Ave. S., (206) 624-5847

It's a piece of Perugia in Pioneer Square. Torrefazione serves exquisite espresso and coffee in colorful, hand-painted ceramic mugs.

Zoka Coffee Roaster,

2200 N. 56th St., (206) 545-4277

Zoka's beans are roasted on the premises (you can watch) and their explosively rich espresso blend is especially popular. The delectable muffins are baked in-house.

Uptown Espresso,

525 Queen Anne Ave. N., (206) 285-3757

Uptown claims to serve the best lattes in town, and loyalists cite the perfect foam—creamy, fluffy, delicate.

Caffe Ladro,

2205 Queen Anne Ave. N., (206) 282-5313

The Medici—a mocha with fresh orange rind—is exceptional. So is the pumpkin bread.

Zeitgeist,

171 S. Jackson St., (206) 583-0497

Industrial atmosphere—'50s atomica meets post-Wall Berlin. Zeitgeist serves Illy espresso, and it doesn't get much better than that.

Photography by France Ruffenach

This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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