Fuck the flat white: An espresso-drinker’s guide to San Francisco coffee

Hi, and welcome to the internet’s billionth blog post about coffee in San Francisco (trust me, I’ve read at least half of them myself so I am aware that this is well-trodden ground). So why am I bothering? Well, I like  coffee. And I like drinking it in nice places. And any city that caters so extensively to that surely bears some further examination.

I wouldn’t by any means call myself a coffee connoisseur. I’m not geeky about it. I just want it to taste good. And to me that means strong. I don’t add milk, water or – heaven forbid – any manner of syrup, sugar, or flavouring.

At a push I will drink cafetiere coffee but I will usually need a ‘proper’ coffee afterwards. I was recently introduced to the Chemex method and although I admit the thing looks sexy, I just can’t get on board with the weak taste. A hazelnut macchiato to me seems more like a pudding than a coffee. Flat whites? Give me a break (actually I didn’t really see an awful of lot white-flatting going on, the trendy coffee here seems to be the “drip” coffee but the title worked better).

That’s not to say, I’m not interested in knowing where the coffee comes from, how it’s farmed, blended and processed. But offering 36 different blends of coffee is wasted on me because if you only do one type of espresso, that’s all I’m going to end up sampling.

So rather than focus too much on what bean blends and vile “coffee creations” a place offers, I’ve endeavoured simply to tell you which places I rated and which I didn’t. I was only in the city for a week so this is by no means an exhaustive report but I hope I’ve covered some decent ground.

So with all that in mind, here is my guide to San Francisco’s coffee scene…

Ritual, 1026 Valencia St

Ritual coffee San Francisco

The look: Airport-chic.

The staff: Cool and aloof.

The espresso: Bitter as hell.

The WiFi: I was too scared to ask.

I know it’s fashionable but I find these big-open-space cafes a bit soulless. I also don’t like it when the bar area takes up most of the room. I know you want to show off your science lab-style brewing and grinding devices but to be honest I’m not all that interested. A few more tables would make this place more buzzing and I wish places would stop thinking long communal tables are the way we want to be seated. I’m from England, I like cosy corners and nooks. And, more crucially, I’m from London so I hate other people. On the plus side, there is a mini garden at the back with cacti in which is the kind of quirky detail I enjoy.

Coffee in San Francisco Rob enjoying the cacti. The coffee, not so much.

 

The Mill, 736 Divisadero St

The Mill San Francisco

The look: So fresh and so clean.

The staff: Effortlessly trendy.

The espresso: Photo-worthy. Otherwise ok.

The WiFi: You’re kidding, right?

I’ll say one thing. It’s lovely and bright in here – all white tiles and sanded wood. As a European I would instinctively call this ‘Scandi’ style but I am assured this is pure San Francisco. Gorgeous but in a slightly intimidating way (as in: I feel like you also have to be gorgeous to go in and I fall quite drastically below par). Another whopping great bar area but it’s at the rear of the shop so doesn’t dominate in the same way. Plus they make bread here so you have to assume they genuinely need the space. Not enough tables for my liking and the airiness wouldn’t inspire you to hunker down for long but perhaps that’s the point.

If I was staying nearby (which I was) I would quite happily swing by this place of a morning. I would probably get take-away though so as not to sully the place.

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The Mill coffee San Francisco

 

 

Matching Half, 1799 McAllister St

Matching Half San Francisco

The look: Eclectic botanical (is that a thing?)

The staff: The first to actually talk to us in a way that extended beyond “what can I get you?”

The espresso: Great. Plus I had a mini-rant about how much disrespect I felt there was in other places for the humble espresso and the barista had the good manners to laugh.

The WiFi: I want to say yes but I actually can’t remember. And I didn’t make notes. I’m the worst blogger ever. It’s ok, you can say it.

Alright, I don’t know what ‘eclectic botanical’ is either but they do have plants in here and outside which instantly gives it more of a ‘local community’ vibe rather than the ‘caffeine warehouse’ look channelled by so many others. It’s small, which I like, there are tables outside, and the staff were super friendly. It was also a bit more cluttered, with an array of artwork and decorations on the walls, countertop cake stands (unusual – see below for more on the subject of cake), and it just generally felt like a place with a bit more character. Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it: this was my favourite. Kind of ruined the suspense, haven’t I? If you’re still interested in hearing about the others, then do by all means read on.

Matching Half coffee shop

 

The Grind, 783 Haight St

The Grind San Francisco

The look: Friendly neighbourhood cafe.

The staff: Friendly (obvs).

The espresso: Good. I was absolutely gagging for one by the time we got here so I pretty much just knocked it back.

The WiFi: Available on weekdays. We sat with our laptops for a good hour without anyone minding (or seeming to mind).

The outside looks trendy but inside it’s just a standard cafe, really. They do quite a lot of food as well as coffee so you don’t get that wonderful coffee-smell as you walk in the way you do with some of the others but there are plenty of tables and the veranda area at the front is quite a pleasant spot to sit in and people-watch.

 

Wicked Grounds, 289 8th St

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The look: Student-flat-meets-kinky-boudoir.

The staff: Underwear-clad but not very friendly.

The espresso: Fine. It’s not really about the coffee here but it’s good to note they can do a decent job of it.

The WiFi: Present and correct although they clearly didn’t like us sitting there using it for as long as we did. Perhaps I should have bought a sex toy to sweeten the deal.

I’ll be honest, we only went here because it bills itself as a “kink cafe” and who wouldn’t be curious about that? However, it does neither kink nor cafe particularly well. The boutique aspect consists of a few whips and paddles in various materials (including REAL raccoon tail – I was tempted) although there are some interesting books. There are (rather poor) portraits of people in varying stages of rope bondage on the walls and a lot of postcards and flyers advertising various erotic and educational services around SF but beyond that it wasn’t very inspiring. Seats are largely faded sofas that look like skip-salvage (perhaps they are) and there was only one item of furniture upholstered in red velvet which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

I genuinely wanted this to be a ground-breaking synergy of sex-positivity and coffee but I found it completely lacklustre. However, I’d be interested to pop in again to see if they’d developed it at all or just when it was a bit busier.

 

 

The Buena Vista Cafe, 2765 Hyde St

I didn’t take a photo but it looks like this:

Buena Vista Cafe

The look: Irish pub crossed with cafe-diner.

The staff: Slightly manic.

The espresso: In a wild deviation from my whole ethos, I am going to make room for a discussion of “other kinds” of coffee because there’s really only one reason you come here and that’s for the Irish coffee.

The WiFi: Found it, logged onto it, used it.

Of course, like so many coffee creations (pumpkin-spiced latte, I’m looking at you!), Irish coffee isn’t coffee at all but a coffee-flavoured pudding (with booze in). I accept that and I only include it in my coffee guide because otherwise there isn’t really anywhere I can get it in. The Buena Vista claims to have been the first place in San Francisco to serve them and I must admit, they are excellent. I even got over my  irrational fear of dairy to consume the full-cream they come topped with. The bar is crammed full of tourists and the staff deal with you as only people who churn out sixty billion Irish coffees a day can: with slightly intense efficiency.

 

Mojo, 639 Divisadero St

Mojo coffee San Francisco

The look: Quirky workshop.

The staff: The barista seemed a little dazed. That’s not necessarily a criticism…

The espresso: Good. Although it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to make. And I was partially distracted by Rob inexplicably ordering an Americano.

The WiFi: Mon-Fri 7am-3pm.

I actually loved it in here. It’s part coffee shop, part bike store and workshop, a bit like Look Mum, No Hands! in London but far, far less pretentious. Also, the bike area is through the back which means if you’re not a bikey person you can still come here and not feel like a 12-year-old who just accidentally wandered into the 6th form common room. Despite the communal tables, it felt quite cosy and there were plenty of smaller tables outside too. The walls are wood-panelled and the industrial-look lamps hang low. So far, so on trend but it all works and doesn’t feel overly contrived. NB they only take cash.

Mojo coffee San Francisco

Other cafes I walked past but didn’t have time to go in:

PhillzSupposedly THE place to go in the Mission, it just looked like a regular cafe to me. Apparently they do really good mint mojito iced coffee though so… *raises judgemental eyebrow*

ReveilleThis looked lovely – all fairy lights and sunny outdoor patio, tucked underneath a big Victorian town house. But we were both starving and it was quite busy so we rushed on by to find somewhere to eat.

Coffee Cantata (see main photo above) – Really liked the slightly dark cluttered look of this place  as well as the genuinely retro tiles and signage. Also, what oh what is Boba tea? I may never have the chance to know.

ONE LAST THING ABOUT COFFEE SHOPS IN SAN FRANCISCO AND THEN I’LL SHUT UP.

Where are the cakes? It’s a serious question. I’m not even a cake person but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of pastries and biscuits on offer. In Europe you walk into a coffee shop and it’s all cream-topped sponge, sugared pastry, glistening tarts, squidgy brownies, strudel, croissants, cornetti, and not to mention the dreaded cupcakes. But in San Francisco a few dried up muffins and the odd stale-looking scone were all we really saw.

It’s probably a good thing. Heaven knows easy access to pastry hasn’t done the UK’s obesity figures any good. But there’s something a bit sad about walking into a coffee shop and seeing only this:

Coffee shop San Francisco

So what do you think? Did I miss anywhere (I obviously did)? Do you agree with my reviews? Do you have any recommendations? I’m heading to Latin America next where good coffee may be hard to come by so any suggestions you have will be very gratefully received.

For more round-ups of San Francisco coffee houses check out Thrillist, Mr Archer, and SFist – all of which I referred to regularly in my hunt for coffee.

Coffee girl

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One thought on “Fuck the flat white: An espresso-drinker’s guide to San Francisco coffee

  1. Hamish says:

    Love it! Some really good, informative reviews! I’m enjoying a “proper” flat white in Matching Half right now (or as close as I could explain a flat white in my generally poorly understood non-American accent to the barista who just seems to be looking forward to closing time).
    I found this blog after being fed up with gigantic paper cups of slosh from far too many of the “best” cafes in SF.
    Now I have a tulip (170ml) cup with a perfectly extracted double shot expresso topped up with flat milk – heavenly!
    Thanks Franki and Matching Half 🙂

    Like

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