Charquipunk street art

Chile: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Sandwiches

Did you know Santiago was famous for its gourmet sandwiches? No, us neither. But these are no ordinary sarnies. They’re at least three inches thick and packed with fabulous meat, veggies, sauces, pickles and preserves. The classic is the chacarero, a pile of thinly sliced, churrasco steak, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, mayo, green beans and – because this is Latin America, baby – a good helping of aji verde chilli.

To my mind, there is not yet a satisfying round-up of all the best places to get sandwiches in Santiago (though I’m happy to volunteer!) but these blogs are worth a look if you’re heading that way.

On the Chacarero Trail: Where to Eat Santiago’s Favorite Sandwich

Chile Restaurant Guide by Nathan Lustig

We were only in town for a couple of days so didn’t manage to get round them all but we really liked Bar Liguria – both for its sarnies and its decor.

Bar Liguria Santiago

Drink: Pisco

Pisco is so beloved in this part of the world that Chile and Peru have actually fought courtroom battles over who can lay claim to it.

It’s a brandy, invented by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The really premium stuff can be drunk neat but for the most part, the best way to enjoy it is in a Pisco Sour. It’s a simple cocktail of Pisco, sugar syrup and lime. In Peru they add whipped egg white and Angostura bitters, in my view the superior version. But never say that to a Chilean, they’ll go spare.

The best way to learn about Pisco is by doing a tour of the Elqui Valley near Pisco Elqui, covered, as you might expect, in the latest Booze of the World post.

Pisco tasting in the Elqui valley

Try: Your luck at whale watching

You can book a trip to see the tiny Humboldt penguins – residents of the Islas Damas – from the seaside town of La Serena, five hours north of Santiago. We almost didn’t because the price of the tour was out entire day’s budget and then some. But we can confidently say that it was money well spent.

Islas Damas tour

Don’t be put off by the weather… or the size of the boats. You’re guaranteed to see the cute little pinguinos (among the smallest in the world) alongside seals and a host of rare birdlife. If you’re lucky you might also get to see bottlenose dolphins and if you’re REALLY lucky you might even spy a humpback whale, flummoxing around in the chilly Pacific water.

We, as it turned out, were really lucky. We christened our whale Humpberto… because he’s Chilean and he’s a humpback whale. YES, we are that creative.

Buy: A Chilean phrasebook

OK, you probably don’t need a phrasebook but it is worth noting that Spanish speakers visiting Chile might be surprised by how different espanol chileno sounds compared to the accents and dialects used in other parts of South America.

It’s not just the pronunciation, either. Like Argentina, they frequently drop the esses (so desculpe becomes “de-culpe”) and both the (as in mayo) and the double ll (as in Guillermo) becomes a “sh” or even a soft “g” sound (so mayo becomes “masho” and Guillermo becomes “Guishermo”). In addition Chileans use a lot of words that derive not from castellano (“casteshano!”) but from the indigenous Mapuche language as well as chilenismos, their own idiosyncratic slang. Oh, and they talk really fast. Brilliant.

Mercado Central Santiago

Good luck in the market

Given that this was our last stop in South America, we were arrogant enough to think it’d be a breeze. Rob’s Spanish had skyrocketed from conversational to pretty proficient and even Franki, who spoke no Spanish at all before arriving was starting to be able to hold her own in basic conversations. So being sent straight back to square one in Chile was a bit of a shock! Luckily the Chileans are a pretty cool bunch and will do their best to help you out if you come to a comprehension impasse.

Do: A walking tour

We didn’t really consider ourselves walking tour people (perhaps due to the lack of gigantic trainers, khaki zip off shorts and bum bags?) but Chile really changed that. We booked onto the Where’s Wally tours in both Santiago and Valparaiso and found them excellent, both in terms of the information shared and the general ethos of trying to incorporate culture, history and a little bit of “real life”. The tours are “free” but you are expected to tip, and a suggested donation is around $10 per person.

Where's Wally tour Santiago

Can you spot him?

Highlights for us included the weird and wonderful stories told at the Cementerio General in Santiago and the fascinating history behind some of the street art in Valpariso (which was so impressive, we’ve dedicated an entire post to it!).

It also enabled us to find the best place to buy fresh fish at the Mercado Central in Santiago and discover the most delicious alfajores  made by this chap and sold from his front door just off a flight of stone steps in an alleyway in Valparaiso.

Alfajores Valparaiso

Don’t: Take your eyes off the pavement in Valparaiso

This quirky costal city is a joy to behold… except when it comes to the roads and pavements which is festooned with dog shit. It’s almost as though the neighbourhood canines have gone out of their way to liberally cover the place with crap in order that your every step be laced with hazard. By all means enjoy Valpo’s stunning street art and higgedly-piggedly UNESCO-protected buildings but never ever forget to keep an eye on your feet.

Valaparaiso Chile

Beautiful but treacherous

And not forgetting…

…the greatest ever name for a piece of art (and what, by the way, I am totally going to call my next band), discovered in the wacky Palacio Barburizza, Valparaiso:

Sex Eclair

The house – which is well worth a visit for the outlandish design, both inside and out – was formerly owned by Croatian Pascual Baburizza who had an eccentric flair for architecture and surprisingly conservative taste in art. The rest of the collection is dull as ditch water. In sum: Approximately 200 paintings of the ocean and two dozen dreary landscapes. It’s safe to say Sex Eclair is the highlight in more ways than one.

Want to know what it looks like? Well, you’ll have to visit and find out…

 

Adios Chile. Adios Sudamérica. A continuación… Nueva Zelanda!

Valparaiso Chile

Valparaiso: Where cafes come with toy monsters for you to play with

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Booze of the World 5: Argentina

It’s finally here! After three long months of wine-free gloom, we arrive in Argentina, home of the world’s best Malbec and plenty more Bacchanalian delights besides.

Wine: We’ve been greedily awaiting this moment like vultures circling a wounded wildebeest. Argentina’s wines are many and marvellous. They are also inexpensive as long as you’re changing your money on the blue market (read about how to do that in our upcoming blog Argentina: The Debrief).

Malbec

The Malbec grape was brought to Argentina in the 19th century at the request of Argentine statesman Domingo Sarmiento. They’re still naming streets after the guy in Mendoza, where wine is such a big part of the culture that they even have fountains of the stuff.

Wine fountain

Disclaimer: Didn’t actually try it but i’m pretty sure this isn’t actual wine.

The city of Mendoza is the beating red heart of wine country and its dry, hot and mountainous terrain makes for some incredible Malbecs. From here you can tour the traditional wine-making valleys of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu, or the Uco Valley, which is globally renowned for the art of high-altitude wine-making. Check out our post on Mendoza wine tours here.

Alta Vista winery Argentina

It would take a whole separate blog to go into the glory of Argentinian Malbecs but here are some of our faves, either from tastings (in which case potentially unaffordable to buy by the bottle!) or meals out:-

Alta Vista Premium (any year)

Domaine Bousquet Gran Reserva 2011

Pulmary’s Donaria Reserva 2008

Gimenez Riili Gran Familia 2014

Altos Las Hormigas 2011

Domaine Bousquet

Visit Domaine Bousquet on the Ampora Wine Tour

Not Malbec

Malbec isn’t the only red wine in town. You can find good Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Bonarda. And while red wine is dominant here, we fell in love with Torrontes, Argentina’s only native grape. It makes a delicious white wine, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Liar’ because it is very sweet and fruity on the nose (reminiscent of Gewurztraminers or Muscat) but crisp on the palate.

I was partial to Sol Fa Sol and the Sylvestra (pictured below), but Alta Vista also do a nice Torrontes.

Sylvestra Torrontes

Goes beautifully with the fish at Maria Antonieta in the city

Remember, if you’re in Mendoza, you mustn’t miss out on the fantastic wine tours, which you can do by bus or by bike, visiting beautiful wineries set in stunning scenery. Tastings are cheap and generous, while there are also great places to have lunch along the way too. We did no fewer than three tours while we were in town – read about them here.

One last thing to mention… Argentina is the only place we’ve ever been where you can buy wine by the pinguino. This is obviously an opportunity not to be missed.

Pinguino of wine

It might look like this penguin has suffered horrific internal injuries…

Beer: The omnipresent local brew is Quilmes, nothing too special but a cut above the watery pilsners available in neighbouring Brazil.

However, there is a delightful range of craft lagers and ales as well. In Buenos Aires, the Antares restaurant and brewery serves up bar-snack style food with a large range of brews such as Stout, Porter, Koelsch and IPA (pronounced ‘eepa’ here).

But the real highlight for beer-lovers is Patagonia. This wild and beautiful region is home to some amazing small breweries churning out cracking cervezas artesanales.

For the most part, you’re offered a simple choice of rubia (meaning ‘blonde’ but really just a golden ale), roja (red/amber) or negra (bock). The quality varies greatly as some of these places are really small operations out in the middle of nowhere.

El Bolson craft beer

The El Bolson brewery in the hippy town of the same name has an incredible malty red ale that I absolutely fell in love with.

The Berlina cerveceria, in the small village of Colonia Suiza near Bariloche, is another winner.

Berlina beer Patagonia

They also sell it in bars

If you find yourself in the trekking and back-country skiing mecca of El Chalten, way down in the south, there’s a wonderful little bar called La Vineria that has a huge range you should check out.

But I’ll reserve particular praise for the Manush bar and restaurant in Bariloche. Unlike Antares, you won’t find their stuff selling for top dollar in Buenos Aires supermarkets. I didn’t see it anywhere but in the bar itself but my God was it good. Their IPA is rich, powerful and smooth, erring on the right side of uber-hoppy. My favourite though, German lager fanatic that I am, was the Koelsch. Smoky but fresh, it was the best example of the style I’ve sampled outside the Ruhr.

Fernet: Very popular among locals, this is an incredibly bitter spirit usually drunk with full-fat Coke, presumably the only thing sweet enough to render it drinkable. I can see how it might be an acquired taste but when there’s Malbec and craft beer on offer, I can’t fathom why you’d opt for this.

The verdict

Top tipple: It ought to be a Malbec oughtn’t it? But that Manush Koelsch lager won my heart. Name your price Manush, I’ll have that stuff shipped over by the boatload when I get home.

Gourmet’s choice: Alta Vista Reserve Malbec

Bubbling under: Sol Fa Sol Torrontes

What to slur drunkenly: ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. They are literally never going to stop going on about this so you may as well join in.

Colonia Suiza Argentina

Rob enjoying a local brew at a festival in Colonia Suiza

Malbec grapes

Mendoza: A feast for the soul in Argentina’s wine capital

Whether you’ve been scaling mountains in Patagonia or dancing a frenetic tango in Buenos Aires, Mendoza is the place to come and indulge in the less wholesome pleasures of stuffing your face with food and glugging gallons of wine.

To be fair to Mendoza, there’s more to this city than just wine and meat. It is blessed with wide, leafy streets and a large, attractive central square, surrounded by four smaller plazas designed in contrasting styles.

But most people come here to visit one of Mendoza’s hundreds of wineries, so here’s a rundown of how to do it.

Wine tours and tastings

There are plenty of tours to choose from but the best way to check out the local wine hotspots (assuming you’re blessed with moderate levels of fitness) is by bicycle.

Lujan de Cuyo: This valley is a wonderfully green stretch of some of Argentina’s best vineyards, usually known as bodegas, all within a few kilometres of one another.

It’s pretty easy (with the advice of your hostel or a friendly local) to get a local bus for the 45-minute trip out to Chacras de Coria and rent a bike from Baccus.

Bacchus bikes Mendoza

They’ll give you a handy map of local bodegas and some suggestions on where to go.

If you arrive around lunchtime, stop in at Pulmary for utterly delicious Argentinian steak and a tasting tour.

Steaks at Pulmary bodega

This is an organic winery, usually a red flag for me as my experience with European organic wines hasn’t been great. But the reliable climate means they can produce delicious wine without the need for additives.

Pulmary bodega Mendoza

Wine and sunshine in Pulmary’s pretty garden

On the larger and slightly more upmarket side, check out Alta Vista.

Alta Vista Premium

The Alta Vista Premium Malbec is among the best we had and we liked the Torrontes (pictured) so much we went back for seconds.

Here’s a quick wine porn pic for you…the personal collection of the owner (who also owns Taittinger champagne and Hungary’s Tokay dessert wine).

Wine collection at Alta Vista

Further down the road there’s Carmelo Patti, a small operation where Senor Patti offers free tastings, partly for the sheer, unadulterated love of wine and partly as cheap publicity. He’s a charming old fella and his wines aren’t bad either. Here’s Franki enjoying his patter and his wine at the same time.

Franki at Carmello Patti

Valle de Uco: This is the place to pair top quality high-altitude wine with stunning scenery. At up to 1200m, this is high by any standard of viticulture but it makes for some amazing wines. It’s far from Mendoza though so a bus tour is the best way to do this (and ensures you can sleep on the way back).

We splashed out with Ampora wine tours but it was certainly worth it. They whisked us around some breathtakingly beautiful wineries and plied us with plenty of tastings.

Gimenez Riili Mendoza

Sampling young wine straight out the the vat

Lunch, one of the best we had in Argentina and included in the price, was at O Fournier, a striking hotel of ultra-modern design set in the grounds of a large vineyard with views of the snow-capped Andes. These were unfortunately hidden from view, as we visited on one of Mendoza’s dozen or so rainy days per year. In the absence of a great Andes shot, here’s the annual harvest getting underway.

Harvest time at O Fournier

Another highlight was Bodega Gimenez Riili, where the tasting was accompanied by some light snacks. One of the elder statesman of the family dropped by and took a liking to me because I spoke some Spanish. He was kind enough to top me up with a bit extra of the most expensive wine on the tasting, so that’s as good a reason as any to speak Spanish.

Rob and winery owner
Me, one of the Gimenez Riili clan and some random Australian bloke.

Maipu: This valley boasts some of Argentina’s oldest vineyards. We got here by public bus and rented bikes from Mr Hugo, a jovial character who has become something of an institution in these parts. There is a fantastic range of wineries here, from historic old places such as Di Tommaso, to snazzy glass and concrete bodegas such as Tempus Alba, where we stayed for an extra glass.

Last glass of the day at Tempus Alba

Despite being one of the best areas for great tastings and tours, Maipu sadly isn’t as easy to get around as Lujan de Cuyo. The road is long, potholed and busy with heavy goods vehicles so cycling can be arduous and hair-raising at times, especially after the first few tastings. I reckon we cycled about 20km on the day, not something that should be accompanied by alcohol. So I’d suggest taking a bus tour for this one.

Mendoza bike tour

Our new Dutch friends were better at cycling while drunk

Back in the city, try the tasting room run by The Vines of Mendoza for a tasting in a more relaxed setting, where you can stagger home on foot rather than having to weave around startled pedestrians on a bike.

Tasting at The Vines

Eating out

In most parts of the world, wine accompanies the meal. In Mendoza, their priorities are reversed. However, there are some mouthwatering meals to be had at the city’s upmarket eateries if you really must have something to go with your wine.

We went above our usual budget here, as a mix-up with currency meant we had a lot of pesos and not much time to spend them before leaving for Chile. As no-one wants Argentinian pesos (the exchange rate on the Chilean border is miserly) we felt we might as well spend the cash on great food rather than lose half of it at the bureau de change.

Here are our highlights. Click on the restaurant name for TripAdvisor reviews:-

Siete Cocinas 10/10

The undisputed king of our Mendoza meals. The ethos of this classic and peaceful establishment is to draw together the cuisine of seven regions in Argentina (hence the name, meaning Seven Cuisines). It was here that we fulfilled our ambition of managing two bottles of wine with dinner, a degustation menu packed with a succession of delights.

Azafran 7/10

Meaning ‘saffron’, this place is listed among Mendoza’s top restaurants but we thought it was a touch overrated. They make a big deal of the sommelier’s wine suggestions but by the time he got to us, we were halfway through the meal and it was too late to order a bottle. However, the lamb cutlets were juicy and delicious, which is about as important as anything else in life.

Anna Bistro 8/10

Less pretentious (and cheaper) than the first two but a really nice spot with a beautiful garden. I’d say it’s better as a lunch venue, with a good value Menu Ejecutivo (best translation: ‘working lunch menu’). Try a delicious pasta nicoise and indulge yourselves with the macaroons and other pastries from the bakery a few doors down.

Maria Antonieta 7/10

A great spot to sit outdoors and watch the world go by as you feast. This place seemed very popular with locals and for good reason. I wouldn’t call it haute cuisine exactly but the simple fish dish I had was cooked to perfection, flaky but with substance and bags of flavour.

* A quick word as well for Hostel Lao, one of the best hostels we found in Latin America. Friendly, helpful staff, clean and quiet room, fast WiFi, good kitchen, nice guests and a decent location, all for good value. Stay here if you can.*

La Candelaria Bogota

How to be a hipster in Bogotá

The once dangerous capital is now the trendiest place to hang out in Colombia. Despite a history of violence and conflict, the city is now a hotspot of urban cool that regularly appears in Hip Cities of Latin America lists.

Everywhere in Colombia has seen dark days. The country’s second-largest city, Medellin, has emerged blingy and triumphant with a stereotypically Latin American appetite for tackiness. Meanwhile Bogota has taken the last decade of relative peace and order to nurture its vibrant cultural scene and international outlook. The result is a buzzing, arty city full of alternative places to eat, drink, shop, and party.

In short: Bogotá is hipster. And if you’re in town you’ll no doubt want to try to channel some that Colombian cool. Here’s how:

 Instagram some street art

Like any hipster city worth its salt, Bogota has a thriving street art tradition. You can even do a graffiti tour which takes in some of the best work and provides some introduction to the most prolific artists . If you don’t want to fork out for the 20-30,000 pesos (around $8-12/£5-8) “donation” it’s easy enough simply to walk around and spot your own favourites.

I can't stand the rain… #bogota #streetart #city #stormyweather

A post shared by Franki Cookney (@frankicookney) on

 

(NB Do exercise a little caution before waving your camera or iPhone around. Bogota is not the danger zone it once was but like any big city, there are opportunists who will gladly relieve you of your valuables if you give them a chance.)

Eat quinoa

I’m not sure it still counts as hipster to consume a food in the country of its origin but seeing as quinoa – along with its cousin amaranth – is only recently making a comeback in Colombian agriculture, I think we can include it. Unlike neighbouring Peru which produces and consumes the so-called superfood by the bucketload, quinoa was barely seen in Colombia for decades, doubtless due in part to the vast swathes of farmland and countryside taken over by guerillas.

Quinua y amaranto bogota

Thanks to various farming initiatives, quinoa is back and gaining popularity in Colombia, as in the rest of the world, on account of its high nutritional value and versatility. In Bogotá you can try it at veggie cafe Quinua y Amaranto on Calle 11 #2. It’s open from 8am to 4pm and has a set menu, including a soup, a delicious plate of grains and greens and a pudding for around 14,000 pesos (£3.70/$5.80).

Drink coffee in a cafe housed in decommissioned transport

Taking a piece of public transport and turning it into a coffee shop is apparently THE thing to do in Bogotá. At Cafe de la Estacion on Calle 14 #5-14 you can go for coffee and cake in a charming old-fashioned train carriage.

Cafe de l'Estacion Bogota

And in the Parque El Chico there’s even a converted London Routemaster doubledecker bus. The 159 to Streatham Hill, to be precise – a bus I know well from home! What Tfl fuck-up caused to divert to Colombia? I don’t know. But I do know you can sit on its upper deck and drink coffee.

parque el chico london bus bogota

Wander around La Macarena

The bohemian, arty area of Bogota, this tiny hillside neighbourhood has boutiques, quirky cafes, restaurants and bars as well as some of the most developable property in the city. Forget loft conversions, how do you fancy refurbing one of these:

La Macarena Bogota

Chuck in a patched-up sofa and some salvaged door knobs and you’re away!

While you’re in the area, stop in at Tapas Macarena or its sister restaurant, tapas-Indian fusion cafe El Mat where the spicy satay dip with flatbread is delicious and the creations listed on the menu are as vibrant as the cafe’s interior.

El Mat Bogota

Have a drink in a cafe/bar/art space/gig venue/boutique

No hipster day out is complete without a stop at a multi-purpose venue. Step right up A Seis Manos. It has everything you need for the perfect experience: random objects hanging from the ceiling, tables decoupaged with vintage magazines, a chalk board of upcoming music and art events, an area inexplicably lit in red, and an annex with a vintage clothing boutique.

A seis manos bogota

They have a fairly full menu of food (think steak sandwiches), a variety of beers (see below) and their coffee is pretty decent too.

A seis manos bogota

Yes, I did give in to temptation in the vintage shop. Of course I did.

Hang out in Chapinero Alto

If you’re a trendy young thing living in Bogotá, mark my words this is where you’ll be renting an apartment. A residential neighbourhood with pockets of groovy bars, restaurants and clubs, Chapinero also offers plenty to amuse the trendy young visitor.

Salvo Patria Bogota

Bars and restaurants abound, with our favourite being Salvo Patria (have the lamb neck) which serves craft ales and brings you miniature plastic animals with your bill. What’s not to like?

Salvo Patria bogota

LGBTQ-friendly Chapinero is also home to Theatron, the biggest gay club in the city and many nearby hotels market themselves as “gay hotels”.

Day to day you can drink loose-leaf tea at the Taller de Té, watch independent films at In Vitro and realign your chakras at the bikram yoga studio.

Drink craft beer

Chelarte cerveza beer

According to Wikipedia, Colombia is opening microbreweries at a rate that outstrips regional demand. There is no source for this “fact” so I think we can safely assume it’s at least a mild exaggeration. It is, however, true to say that craft beer is on the up in Colombia, as it is in every part of the world that deems itself even remotely ‘with it’. The foremost player is the Bogota Beer Company, founded in 1997, which churns out a reasonable offering of ales, lagers and one porter all named after areas of the capital city. You’ll find them on draft and in bottles.

To be perfectly honest, they aren’t fantastic but they’re a welcome effort. In fact we preferred the  offerings from local cervecerías Chelarte and Moonshine. The American Pale Ale-style Raquel was just about crisp enough for me while Rob liked Moonshine’s Amber Ale.

And they all come with suitably artsy labels.

Get your hair cut by hairdressing assassins

La Peluqueria hair salon, in Bogotá’s historical La Candelaria neighbourhood, describes itself as a “contemporary cultural art center” which offers not just a hair design service but an artistic experience and social event rolled into one.

La Peluqueria Bogota

The concept of the “hairdressing assassin” was created by founder Melissa Paerez who, after a period living in London’s uber-hipster Hackney, decided Bogotá needed a more radical approach to hairdressing. At La Peluqueria both male and female clients put themselves entirely into the hands of the stylist.

A brief chat on the kind of vibe you are going for is all that’s needed before they come at you with their scissors and razors. There are no mirrors and as you sit on your vintage salon stool in the middle of the mosaic floor, metal blades clicking around your ears, all you can do is pray that your requests didn’t accidentally get translated as “a number one all over”.

Never one to pass up on an opportunity to revamp my look, I let the lovely (English-speaking) Julia loose on my barnet. Here’s what she came up with:

Francesca Cookney

I gotta say I’m pretty chuffed and, if I’m honest, rather relieved! Cuts cost 40,000 pesos (£10/$16) and colour starts at 57,000 (£15 /$23) with top tend treatments such as highlights coming in at around 135,000 (£36/$56).

Oh and it’s a cafe and vintage shop as well – obvs.

La Peluqueria Bogota

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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