Why is Restaurant Coffee an Afterthought?Photo of French Laundry espresso courtesy of Matthew Kang
You start with a meal with bread, preferably warm, and end it with coffee. A great restaurant almost always punctuates a meal at the end by a cup of hot coffee or perhaps an espresso-based drink. At restaurants all over San Francisco, you can expect to see some kind of specialty coffee served via batch brew or espresso, most of the time featuring local roasters. In Los Angeles, there’s probably less presence of specialty coffee served in top restaurants, with some notable exceptions such as ink., which serves Portland’s Stumptown Coffee and Red Medicine, which serves Intelligentsia and Handsome Coffee. Even if these restaurants serve coffee that’s been roasted locally and use single origin beans, there’s often a very steep loss in quality. I still remember an incredibly mediocre demitasse of espresso served at The French Laundry, leaving a bitter taste after a fantastic meal.
Still, there’s a place for top quality restaurant coffee. New York’s Eleven Madison Park has tableside siphon coffee service, and Canlis in Seattle serves Intelligentsia and other nationally recognized roasters via Chemex. One of the comments made by a crew of Portland coffee experts asserted that restaurant coffee needed to improve in Portland’s restaurant scene. For a city that boasts perhaps the most coffee roasting companies per capita, it seems odd that this be one of their requests.
Whether there are batch coffee brews that wait for hours in airpots or stale espresso beans in hoppers that are served without the attention to detail attributed to high-quality coffee shops, restaurant coffee needs a little bit of reformation. First off, coffee served in restaurants is both memorable and meaningful. Coffee makes an ideal digestif and happens to work almost universally well with the dessert course. It reduces potential food coma and the overall experience of coffee provides an ideal finish to the meal.
What turns restaurants off is that they seem to de-value this part of the restaurant’s experience. Without a superb approach to coffee service, you can’t expect customers to place value (and therefore time/money). It’s a vicious cycle. I feel more certainty about diners who are willing to pay slightly more for better product, fresher roasts, more crafted brews. The relative price inelasticity of diners at the end of the meal also makes me feel comfortable with offering these coffees at a premium.
There are a few good solutions. First of all, I think a restaurant needs to determine the exact program they would like to present. It’s probably unfeasible for most restaurants to serve both drip coffee and espresso without having a dedicated barista. Espresso tends to require more expensive equipment, though the potential benefit of having a full espresso program might pan out for certain restaurants. I believe single-serving drip coffee is the best solution. There’s minimal equipment (just a grinder, water boiler, and multiple brewing devices), and the program is fairly digestible for service staff to apply. I recently experienced a wonderful pot of French press coffee at Fundamental LA that served Wrecking Ball Coffee with their brunch. They measured the coffee and water precisely to reflect a thoughtful brewing method and output. I do believe that certain high volume restaurants can accomplish a level of success with a more complete program, as I observed in Portland’s Nostrana or LA’s Milo & Olive, both of which use top quality beans. You can see Chef Gary Menes’ enthusiasm for coffee at his perma-pop-up Le Comptoir at Tiara Cafe, where he serves hand-drip coffee and espresso using great beans from Handsome Coffee, which is roasted nearby in downtown’s Arts District. After a top-notch tasting menu featuring some of the best produce available in America, you get to end your meal with a cafe-worthy shot of espresso or drip coffee.
I could also see tableside Chemex and Hario V60 service, brewed at a service station and then brought out to diners with dessert. There’s even more sophisticated devices such as Curtis’ Gold Cup single coffee brewer that might be applicable in fine dining restaurants. I do believe there’s a place for restaurants to offer an extraordinary coffee experience, especially since most good coffee shops close much earlier than most people end their dinners. In the end, it comes down to servers making clear to consumers that it’s worth their time and money to experience great coffee at the end of the meal.