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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San Francisco cable car

My San Francisco love story

It took me less than four hours to fall in love with San Francisco.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: four hours isn’t love; it’s barely even a fling. But trust me, I have found The One. When you know, you know. You know?

First things first: the houses. From the grand Victorian architecture complete with gothic lines and details, to the bright colours and often elaborate means of access, these are truly my dream houses.

San Francisco Victorian houses

San Francisco Victorian houses

Parapets! Pediments! Turrets! Frankly, who wouldn’t want to live in one of these? And that’s before I even get to the steps! You see, ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted a house with steps up to the door. Call me whimsical but there’s something about the notion of climbing up to your front door that I find romantic, even a little bit magical (I also wanted bunk beds – maybe I just have a thing about steps?) But in SF they take it to the next level [literally]. You can stand on the pavement and look up at a front door some six feet above your head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAwesome.

But I know, I know. This isn’t love, it’s lust. And I can’t deny that San Francisco is a good-looking city. With the Bay on one side, Pacific on the other, mountains to both the north and south and in between the rolling hills of the city itself, it’s certainly a stunning location. But clean cut has never really been my thing. I like things a bit scruffier, a bit dirtier, a bit edgier. Luckily SF does that very well too.

It’s not a big city but each area manages to convey its own distinct style. There’s the Mission for hispanic architecture, fantastic food and also for any time you want to don your skinny jeans and drink craft ale while playing hangman on the blackboard walls (yup, we did this). There’s Haight-Ashbury for vintage shopping, stocking up on incense sticks or just whenever you need a hit of psychedelia (metaphorically, of course…), Russian Hill for when you want to ride a cable car up a really steep hill (which obviously locals don’t do but still, it’s there if you want it). There’s Castro for partying with your LGBTQ buddies… or eating really good cake (there are loads of bakeries), Fillmore/Alamo Square for when you just need to look at some really awesome houses (see above)… and of course the parks, the marina, the beach, the bridge. Ok, I’m going into raptures. I’m sorry, I’ll rein it in. Here are a few pictures while I collect myself:

Cliff House San Francisco

Haight Ashbury San Francisco

Cathedral San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf San Francisco

For me I think it was the cocktails with brunch at Nopa on Saturday morning, the fantastic shops on Haight Street (special mentions to Fluevog, Shoe Biz, and Piper’s Shoe Parlour), the oysters on the Embarcadero, the coffee (so much coffee), the bike ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, the rainbow streets in Castro, and the mosaic steps over in the Sunset district.

It really is a diverse and exciting place and because it’s small, it’s really easy to get around all these difference areas. The public transport is excellent. Buses run everywhere and yes, you really can hang off the side of a cable car if you want to (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it because it is SO touristy but we did do this. In our defence we’d just had two very strong Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Cafe and there were no seats available so it seemed like a hilariously good idea.).

However, my favourite mode(s) of transport were the vintage streetcars that run up and down Market and round the Embarcadero. The trolleys and trams come from all over the world including Japan, Switzerland, and Italy. There’s even one from Blackpool apparently although I didn’t spot it.

San Francisco tram

NB This is not my photo. I didn’t take any photos of the trams myself because I’m an idiot but here’s one of Rob hanging off a cable car like a boss:

San Francisco cable car

And here’s me being a bit more sedate on the bus:

San Francisco bus(I’m not sure why I felt I had to provide evidence that we took public transport but there it is nonetheless.)

But you don’t have to bother with any of these if you don’t want because contrary to all my expectations, San Francisco is a bike city.

“But the hills?!?” you cry. “How do they do it?”

Honest answer? I don’t know. I do not know. I mean, I cycle in London which is not a flat city and where we live, just north of Camden, is at the foot of the highest hill in the city. It’s not steep but it’s pretty much uphill all the way home from town and the last five minutes gets me every time. But this all becomes meaningless nonsense in the face of SF. We hired bikes and although our route was largely flat I feel like I worked harder in one day than I would in an entire weekend of London cycling.

But now for the surprising part: I actually see this is yet another factor in SF’s favour. I love cycling and I already miss my bike. Yes, it would be hard to get used to but no one ever said relationships were easy now, did they?

Cycling Sasn Francisco The course of true love never did run smooth… much like the city’s cycle lanes.

But of course it’s not all pootling about in quirky shops and knocking back “drip coffee” in white-tile-and-sanded-wood coffee shops (although the latter are a BIG deal – so much so that I’m composing a whole separate blog on the subject). No lover is without their faults and to build a relationship is to understand and accept these faults, and even – where necessary – commit to helping find a way to work through them.

In the case of San Francisco I am referring, of course, to the huge homelessness issue. The traditional glib approximation is that these are people who blew their minds on acid back in the Summer of Love and never left. And while it’s certainly true that a lot of the problems stem from drugs (whether the long-term effects or the short-term dependence), it seemed clear to me that mental illness, learning disabilities and straight up poverty were playing as much of a role in keeping people disenfranchised as anything they might have inflicted upon themselves.

Successive mayors have promised to tackle it, some $1.5billion has been poured into projects designed to get people off the streets, but in 2013 there were still 6,436 homeless people in San Francisco (down from 8,640 in 2002 but up from 6,245 in 2005). This is about the same as the figure for London but bear in mind that London covers an area of around 600 square miles and has a population of some seven million while SF is about 230 square miles and is home to just under a million people.

It’s very difficult to write anything original or insightful on a subject which has, after all, been covered hundreds of times but I don’t feel I can ignore it either. It’s certainly something we were aware of before visiting the city and yet it still came as a shock to see that in a city as wealthy, as innovative, and as progressive as San Francisco, so many people appear to be slipping through the net. Still, if there’s one thing the city is not doing – and which many others around the world do on a regular basis – it’s turning a blind eye to their problems. And that gives me hope.

Painted Ladies San Francisco

Rob talked about feeling inspired by LA’s can-do vibe but San Francisco was where I really felt like anything (uphill cycling notwithstanding) was possible. I’m still reasonably sure if I sat in one of the city’s excellent coffee shops for long enough, I too would come up with a brilliant app or social networking idea. Surrounded by so much inspiration and innovation, I couldn’t fail to, could I?

Whether it’s to do with having Silicon Valley down the road, a long history of firsts for liberal politics, not least where gay and lesbian rights and representatives are concerned, a colourful legacy of arts, music, and creativity more generally, or being the cornerstone of the free love movement, you really do feel like you could do anything or be anyone here. And not in the grubby, covert way that London (the voyeuristic minx) lets you be anything or do anyone, but in an open, breezy, composed kind of way.

Yes, composed. It might be buzzing but there’s something very calm about the SF vibe. It’s a city that knows who it is and is comfortable in its own skin. And I almost feel… I almost feel if I lived here I too could be calm.

And when the initial heady excitement wears off, that, my friends, is the stuff that true love is built on.

Mosaic steps San Francisco No, seriously. This is what I look like when I’m deliriously happy.