Thursday, December 21, 2006


I heart Ritual Coffee Roasters

After such a long time of NO BLOGGING, one would hope that I would have something sensational to say. I do not. I don't even have any particularly good excuses, except that for the past two months I have been editing my film, so all my cappuccino-related energies have been going into that, I guess.

As for cappuccino-DRINKING, the standout of my life here in San Francisco continues to be Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia. I don't go all that often, as I live way across town, so when I get there, it's like this incredibly special treat. What can I tell you? This place just ROCKS. They get it. They always do it right. They have a large staff of very well-trained baristas and a gorgeous espresso machine that is a pleasure to look at (as well as be served from). Ritual has really become THE place I recommend to anyone visiting San Francisco (or anyone at all, for that matter.) They started out serving espresso from Stumptown in Portland, but within the past few months, they've started roasting their own coffees, and the last time I was there, I got to try one of their first efforts at an espresso blend. To be honest, my untrained palate would never have noticed that it wasn't Stumptown. (I mean, maybe if I tasted them one right after the other. But not a few weeks apart.) It tasted VERY similar to me. But co-owner Eileen tells me that they're not done developing it, so who knows how it'll change. I'll be curious to see...

What's funny to me about all this is that they have only been open for a year and a half(ish). And my other San Francisco fave, the Blue Bottle, is likewise only a couple years old. I've been going to coffee shops in San Francisco for a good 17 or 18 years now, and while I have not always been as serious about cappuccino quality as I am now (yes, I drank mochas with piles of sugar in them back when I was 16), the truth is that I have kind of been scratching my head lately and wondering what I did before Ritual and the Blue Bottle were around.

I mean, there WERE the 7 years in L.A. And the year in Rome. But I always spent time in SF, even when I was living elsewhere. So where did I go? The answer is North Beach. The Italian part of town. My two faves for getting a cappuccino were always The Steps of Rome and Caffe Roma, both on Columbus. I'm sorry to report that the Steps of Rome has just gone completely downhill in this department. I mean, uck. I think it's because they've started focusing more on being a restaurant and attracting tourists instead of locals. Or maybe it's because they stopped playing Pino Daniele all the time. Who knows? But I had a cappuccino there last month and it was a disgrace to the name cappuccino. What a disappointment. (Like, seriously, I'm crushed. There are too few good cappuccino joints around to not mourn when one of them falls. I'm drinking a beer right now, and I almost want to pour some out for my dead homey. Except I'm sitting at my dad's desk, and I don't think he'd like that.) Anyway, Caffe Roma is still around and still employing decently-trained baristas. And there's always the "traditional cappuccino" option at Peet's, where they will actually give you an 8 oz capp in a porcelain cup, made with a single shot. But you have to be careful to ask for really wet foam and hope that you get one of the baristas who's been around for a while, or you're screwed.

Alright, that was a huge aside (blame the beer), but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've been looking back over my coffee-drinking history a lot lately - for purposes related to the editing of my film - and I've realized that there's always been this big dichotomy for me. There were the coffee shops that were awesome for hanging out in, and there were the coffee shops (much fewer in number) that had good cappuccinos, and they were very rarely the same places. The hangout places had a couch or two... some chess sets... plenty of tables... newspapers lying around... And the places with good cappuccinos tended to be places where I didn't feel particularly inclined to linger afterward.

I can further define this dichotomy as Italian vs. American. The good cappuccinos were always served in places that were very ITALIAN. So... not much on the menu besides the basic espresso, cappuccino, caffellatte, etc. No soft furniture. Very small, European cafe tables. None of the really homey, inviting feel of the American coffee shops that are all over San Francisco and are so comfy to sit in but have really crappy cappuccinos. (San Franciscans, you know what I'm talking about! Those places that serve their tea and espresso drinks in tall glasses, for cripes sake. But they're so warm... so inviting... you just want to hang out and shoot the breeze for hours... Bean There, Royal Ground, Crepe 'n' Coffee, The Blue Danube... I could go on.)

But these two types of coffee shop - Italian and American - have really found a meeting place in Ritual. It's got the simple menu and the commitment to quality of an Italian place (in fact, it OUTDOES the Italian places) but it also feels very much like an American place, with its couches and big tables and San Francisco-ey feel. The downside is that it is PACKED at all hours. I've never been there and not had to behave like a bird of prey just to get a seat (in spite of the fact that it's HUGE.) On the one hand, it's great to see them doing such good business. On the other hand, WILL ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE GET THE F OUT OF MY WAY?? Actually, let me rephrase. I don't mind the crowds. I mind the crowds of people who are glued to their laptops. There's a bit of a melancholy air there sometimes, because the people who are interacting with each other and having fun are all behind the counter. The rest of us are in an all-out war for real estate.

But now I'm quibbling. This place truly rocks. It reminds me of my other favorite coffee place (which also has that best-of-both-worlds quality). And I get kind of giddy when I go there because I think of the possibilities of truly exceptional espresso preparation entering an American social idiom. Will more places like Ritual spring up? (I am hoping so - I mean, the hipsters-with-laptops overflow is tremendous. Somebody give these people more places to GO!) Are we entering some kind of golden age? Is the third wave actually a WAVE and not an isolated bunch of people who are nuts about espresso? (And can somebody come up with something better than "third wave" to describe it? Sounds like a bunch of college girls at a Take Back The Night rally...)

I don't know. But I'm excited. Up till now, I worried that the only genuinely American interpretation of Italian espresso started with S and involved TOTAL GLOBAL DOMINATION. But whew. Maybe we are safe.

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