On a recent foggy morning I parked my rental car at the top of Union Street on Telegraph Hill and walked back down. I was breathing quickly, as if I’d just done a stint on the treadmill at the gym. The morning was cool, but the clouds were breaking and heat would soon come. I was visiting my old neighborhood – North Beach – for a few days. I live in Brooklyn now.
The next order of the day was getting something I’d usually not leave the house without: coffee. At home I make it with a stovetop espresso maker, and it’s a morning ritual: filling the bottom part with water, packing coffee into the middle piece, screwing the top on; waiting several minutes for that gurgling sound followed by the sight of steam; and the pleasant shock of hot black coffee on the taste buds.
I have my first cup at home because buying coffee in New York can be hazardous to your health. The options are slim: the corner bagel and coffee stands that are generally found in midtown and which serve swill of unknown provenance; the delis and bodegas which sell everything from flowers to fruit and whose coffee sometimes tastes as if it had just been on a bad date with something in the gutter; and the ubiquitous chains – which are only nominally better, but which have the benefit of being found near almost any place humans congregate for work, study or play.
San Franciscans have better options, especially in North Beach, which has some of the most amazing cafés to be found this side of Paris. Even people who don’t frequent the neighborhood have probably heard of Caffé Trieste, and the other grand spots are only slightly less well-known: Caffé Puccini, Caffé Greco, Caffé Roma…the list goes on. Each has something unique, and having once been a regular at a small café on Grant Avenue – the now-defunct North End – I can fully understand the draw of these places and why people find something about each that makes them return day after day.
I used to cross the threshold into the muted light of the North End each morning on the way to work. It was a narrow place with a few tables up front and bar in the back, and a stairway along the wall that led to a landing with more tables. The music was never loud, and always fit the mood – or maybe helped create it. There might be conversation, but one could just as easily sit undisturbed with a newspaper or book. The coffee came from Graffeo, one of the finest roasteries in the area, and the lattes were unbeatable. For a long time I used to have a brioche, something the owner – who doubled as an employee – nicknamed the “croissant’s cousin.” A cousin and a cup made for a good start to the day. But the café wasn’t just for morning; I’d pop in after work, and maybe again after dinner to catch up with locals or read.
I have no doubt a similar scenario takes place in every San Francisco neighborhood, since there are excellent coffee shops all over town. I’m sure the chains do well, but unlike New Yorkers, San Franciscans have options when it comes to getting good joe.
They also know how to slow down and enjoy it, a notion that seems mildly offensive to New Yorkers. The evidence is in New York’s overall lack of the very places that make North Beach so wonderful, the independent coffee shops where people read, write, and talk – or just sit and think. Granted, these exist in a few spots in Manhattan such as the East Village or near Columbia University. But Greenwich Village, which used to be the capital of all that was bohemian and beatnik in New York – if not the world – has lost its coffeehouse culture. In other places, such as Little Italy, the cafés are strictly for tourists and have little or no atmosphere worth lingering in. I came the conclusion long ago that New York is more of a drinking town – its bars are open until 4:00 a.m., after all – while San Francisco is a café town.
And I like it that way. I met many wonderful people over the years at the North End; it was almost like going to college again. Some have left San Francisco, others remain in the neighborhood. Whenever I visit I try to see them. Usually that’s as easy as walking into a café, where a few will surely be found reading the papers, talking politics, or just staring out the window in a reverie, dreaming, perhaps, of the next cup of coffee.
Got a great travel story? Send it to us, here.