Most anyone can take a few trips to Italy and return with an espresso love affair. But the truly incurable take this obsession to roasting their own beans at home, losing half their kitchen counter space to various espresso-making devices, and walking the aisles of a county auto show, surveying the gauges and thermocouples to “trick out” their home espresso machine.
About the Reviewer: Greg Sherwin
A Bay Area resident since 1989 and a San Francisco resident since 1996, I also made it my personal quest to walk just about every San Francisco city block to find, taste, and review every noteworthy espresso I could find. This, the online version of San Francisco Espresso: A Pocket Guide, is the result of this quest.
There are also many helpful friends in the industry who have helped educate me over the years about the many variables and quality factors that go into making a superior espresso. I’d especially like to thank Sammy Piccolo of Royal Coffee in Oakland, Roberto Ricci of Coffee Geek, alt.coffee, and on Nonino), and il calcio (or soccer, where I still make no apologies for being an avid Juventus fan).
I can be reached at: [email protected]
About This Web Site: Coffee Ratings
Rivaled perhaps only by Seattle, San Francisco is considered one of the most coffee-obsessed cities in America. Despite its strong coffee culture and a myriad places that serve espresso, finding a great espresso in the city has long been a hit-or-miss proposition. Through standardized reviews of the espresso at over 600 locations, we designed San Francisco Espresso: A Pocket Guide to help readers navigate through San Francisco’s many cafés, coffee houses, and restaurants to find a quality espresso. This Web site, CoffeeRatings.com, is the online version of these efforts.
An Introduction: San Francisco and Coffee
In 1822, the French invented the first espresso machine, and the Italians have since perfected the modern espresso over the past century or so. However, only in the past two decades have most Americans become acquainted and enthralled with the exquisite qualities of coffee when pressurized water is passed through its finely compacted grounds.
In fact, America is so new to espresso that preparation and consumer tasting standards simply do not exist, and the sophistication of consumer tastes is just starting to develop. As a result, the quality of espresso in America is terribly inconsistent – and San Francisco is no exception. It’s no wonder that so many coffee lovers do not explore beyond the safe and predictable confines of the nearest Starbucks. (And you will discover here that even the espresso at Starbucks can be very inconsistent between different locations.)
The San Francisco Bay Area has a long history of coffee: from the foundation of both Hills Bros. and Folgers Coffee in the 1800s, to Alfred Peet (founder of Peet’s Coffee & Tea) whose coffee expertise was central to the genesis of Starbucks, to Oakland’s current role as the #1 specialty coffee import port in America. There’s even a namesake coffee roaster, the San Franciscan, that’s still in popular use by coffee roasters throughout the world.
However, finding a good espresso in San Francisco can be a risky business fraught with an overwhelming array of options. In the process of using this guide, readers will not only be directed to some of the finest espresso in the city, they will also better educate their own espresso “palates” and develop a greater sense of their own preferences.
Where Can I Find San Francisco’s Best Coffee?
As a fourth-generation native of Chicago, I grew up knowing the best places across town to go to for the best pizza, the best hot dog, or the best goat-meat taco. Unfortunately, coffee has long been thought of as a commodity as indistinguishable as regular unleaded gas. So of all places to recognize the best espresso in town, why not San Francisco?
If you go to Rome, you might hear local debates over who makes the best espresso in the city: Sant’Eustachio, Tazza d’Oro, etc. Similarly, if you asked someone in Seattle where to find the best espresso, you’ll often hear Espresso Vivace or Zoka. In Chicago, you’ll hear Intelligentsia. In Vancouver, Canada, you’d likely hear Caffe Artigiano or 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters.
So what’s the answer for San Francisco, given its long coffee history and latte-sipping culture? In recent years (since about 2004, after this site was first published), we’ve finally started to identify a few strong contenders. But even today, and even more so earlier, asking a Bay Area resident about the best espresso in town will give you responses that vary all over the map: from a couple North Beach cafés, to Starbucks, to Peet’s, to local hangouts, to “there isn’t excellent espresso in San Francisco.”
With hundreds of establishments serving espresso in the City and over 600 reviewed for this guide/Web site, the good news is that San Francisco does have great espresso. The bad news is that many places serve espresso in name only.
Separating the good from the not so good espresso is what this guide is all about. As a side benefit, we also hope to raise awareness and promote better standards for quality espresso in the area – among both baristas and consumers.
While this guide does make reference to the ambiance of San Francisco’s many places to drink espresso, it is about the coffee – plain and simple. If you’re looking for a guide to poetry readings, charming café tables, and where to pick up that Nietzsche-reading dreamboat, you might want to look elsewhere.