Coffee as Existential Statement: A Crisis in Every Cup on Valencia Street




GETTING A MORNING COFFEE on Valencia Street, San Francisco’s high hipster avenue, is not merely buying a drink: it is making an existential statement. Drinking your way down Valencia’s coffee shops offers an unofficial tour of the city’s newly ascendant 21st-century lifestyles. The names of the cafes glisten with the sheen of carefully cultivated style. Ritual Roasters. Four Barrel. The Blue Fig. Craftsman and Wolves. Glazed with polished alliterations and alluring adjectives, the names leave an iron aftertaste of brand awareness and search engine optimization on the palate. The fashionable formula seems to involve taking a familiar item and injecting it with a slightly unusual accent — a blue hue or the fourth barrel — to lift the tediously literal into the intriguingly suggestive. Throwing in a pack of wolves saves the dreary craftsman from cliché and raises him from cheap to chic. These premeditated permutations are marketing code, a semiotic wink telling a certain class of affluent trend-conscious consumers, Come on in. We built this place just for you.

Cup One: Borderlands Cafe

Borderlands Cafe is attached to a science-fiction bookstore and attracts the sort of unsmiling patrons who identity as a “writer” with the utmost solemnity. Laminated announcements on cell-phone noise policies stud the tidy white walls, and the back table hosts a number of aggressively self-serious writing groups. One meet-up called Shut Up & Write (“a one hour session of focused, productive writing”) warns participants, “[T]he Café has been noisy lately so please bring your headphones/ear buds if you need to shut out sound distraction.” San Francisco may have been a writer’s city in the past, but in the dawn of the tech era to be a “writer” — rather than a “content creator” or a “storyteller” — is a curious, curmudgeonly vocation that attracts an obstinate breed of outsiders. In Los Angeles, the title “writer” rings bohemian, yet in the Bay Area the word strikes an unpleasing antiquarian chord to the local ear.

A militant silence reigns over Borderlands, indicting all those who deign to talk above a whisper. As I stand in line scanning the floor for a seat, a string of lone tables occupied by solitary people scribbling feverishly fills the space with a nervous energy. The heavy, humid air drips with the psychic weight of writer’s block.

In amusing contrast to the dour patrons, there are two zany, upbeat baristas at Borderlands: a blond, bandana’d hipster who approaches each order with a head-nodding sense of purpose, and a hippie Gandalf whose dangling gray beard clashes with his eye-popping pink ponytail.

Today Gandalf’s at the register. Garbed in a neatly folded apron, he narrates each order with a game-show announcer’s booming cheerful voice that seems comically ill-suited to the shop’s atmosphere of scribbling silence: “A coffee. Pure coffee. Real coffee, unadulterated and filled with that wonder drug we call caffeine.” When it’s my turn, I order a bottle of water, the minimum purchase required to inhabit a table.

“We got a bottle of water,” Gandalf announces. “H-Two-Oh. And can I get you a glass of ice to make it nice and fancy?” I agree.

“Here’s the empty glass portion of this morning’s entertainment. That’s going to be $2.99.” I hand him a bill.

“Out of a fiver! Here’s two dollars and one penny back.”

I find a seat at a shared table and try to write. Then the performance starts again. “A small coffee. With room for cream? Right away.” I pull myself together and put pen to paper. “Here you are. Your rockin’ raisin roll. Your small coffee with extra room for cream. Your change: One. Two. Three dollars! Eleven cents. And, of course, a side of my best wishes.” I look down. Nothing appears on my page except the three terrible words rockin’ raisin roll; and the only thought I can find in my head is, “Why do raisins rock?” as Gandalf begins in the background, “Who’s up next?”

Cup Two: Javalencia Cafe

I breathe easier in messier milieus. So I usually take my morning coffee at Javalencia Cafe, a faded spot filled with a haphazard accumulation of thrift-store furniture that feels less selected than accidentally collected. A range of random tables sprawl through the space, paired with mismatched chairs: a gray slab is flanked by a leather booth, a wire patio seat, and a white wooden kitchen chair propped at the end as if hoping a third person will join the already empty table. It is an odd assortment of furniture — and the people of Javalencia are an equally odd assortment, a collection of outcasts and misfits who don’t seem to have a stable place in the city’s changing landscape.

Cafes like Javalencia are an endangered breed in the city’s restaurant ecosystem. Across the Bay Area, the coffee house is being replaced by the craft coffee bar. The distinction is subtle: the coffee house provides a space for individuals to lead their own life, while the coffee bar imposes a surface lifestyle on all its visitors. Comfort is the coffee house’s key attribute: it is a place built for lingering, a haven from the daily pressures of an over-crowded city. But the craft coffee bar recreates, even aggravates, this population pressure — throws open the door and invites all the bustling sidewalk anxieties of urban life to come inside. It is Darwinian interior design dramatizing the struggle of over-demand and shrinking supply, where the line often occupies over half the floor. Within these congested bars, the layout leaves little space for patrons to linger — there’s only room to wait. If you’re lucky enough to find a seat, you’ll sip your coffee surrounded by swarms of over-caffeinated customers, circling like vultures, waiting to pounce on your spot the moment you start to stand.

Thus the craft coffee bar suffocates the intimacy of the private life with the fanfare of the public lifestyle. Historically, the coffee house was a center of learning and knowledge, the birthplace of the newspaper and the encyclopedia. “A sort of democratic club,” mused author Stefan Zweig about the Viennese kaffeehaus, “open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering.” The death of the cafe signals a larger shift in values; the contemporary consumer does not seek space for their inner life but their outer persona. So through the gradual tides of gentrification, neighborhoods slowly evict the old-fashioned cafe and renovate the democratic club as a playground for plutocrats.

Javalencia is one of the few cafes clinging to the egalitarian days of coffee shop yore. I find a seat easily, and settle in with an indistinguishable coffee, a mediocre pastry, and the psychic breathing room to be myself. Most mornings at Javalencia, I see an intense man who looks like a balding Jonathan Franzen staring at his oversized laptop. Today our Frustrated Franzen sits in the corner booth. His fingers perform an acrobatics of anxiety across his brow. He clutches his hands over his cheeks, framing his face in the aspect of a frowning fountain gargoyle. Now his fingers burst into frenetic life. Ten writhing tentacles pound his hollow cheek like a crazed percussion section at the end of the 1812 Overture. Then they take turns: beating one by one, finger by finger, in a demonic drum roll across his cheeks sweeping as an angry wave from one side of his face to the other. Suddenly, Franzen finds a third pose. Clumping his hands together, he pushes his palms like plows up from his jawline through his tangled scruff to his temples where, abruptly, his fingertips explode into a fit of furious rubbing — some violent attempt at a brain massage. But, alas, nothing.

Slamming down his screen, Franzen jumps up. In a whirl, he throws the laptop into a bulky box, uproots his industrial charger from the floor, wraps its thick cord into a hulking coil, and forces both items into his already overstuffed backpack. Fixing his unblinking eyes on the exit, he’s out. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Cup Three: Craftsman and Wolves

The stark style of Craftsman and Wolves is engineered to evoke that fashionable “edgy” feel, where the actual edge has been tastefully removed. Punk-rock pastries come with names such as “The Rebel Within” for those who want to make their morning muffin an anti-authoritarian statement. The interior decor might be dubbed Bauhaus Boutique as the patisserie is housed in a faux-industrial warehouse with begrimed brick walls, gray concrete floors, and a minimalist color palette that banishes all hues brighter than brown. Employees wear heavy denim aprons commissioned for the staff to imitate a mechanic’s uniform, and all furnishings are made from theatrically “gritty” materials of discolored wood and metal. Below the exposed wooden rafters, lines of perfect pastries, croissants, and cookies are stacked on a bare black counter, while the expensive specialty desserts lie beneath glass, protected like gems in a jeweler’s window. As it happens, the jeweler may be a better model than the baker for the austere ethos of Craftsman and Wolves, which has garnered a national reputation as a beacon of “contemporary patisserie” since it was founded in 2012 by celebrated pastry chef William Werner, who defended the shop’s name as “a nod to the craftsman and the numerous challenges that one faces when pursuing their craft.”

The punishing craft credo extends to many embattled baristas of the Bay Area. These stern disciples of the coffee vocation seem to feel besieged by countless challenges — but mainly unappreciative customers. “Someone who just gets a large iced latte in a to-go cup and sits in front of the computer doesn’t seem like they care much about the craft,” explained Caitlin Freeman, wife of the founder of Blue Bottle, the pioneer of third-wave craft coffee in the Bay Area, where applying baristas must pass an exam in front of a jury before being hired. Indeed, condescension is a key ingredient in the mystique of craft coffee, which reverses the traditional customer service hierarchy: the customer compromises for the craftsman’s needs rather than the craftsman capitulating to the customer’s craven iced-coffee whims.

The symbol of a barista’s artistry is foam. The practice of shaping foam into patterns (like a tulip or a fern) on the surface of a drink is now termed “latte art.” While latte art has existed for over 30 years, its popularity has spiked since 2010 with the rapid expansion of high-end coffee shops across the city, which is statistically correlated with increasing rent prices (making foam per capita an excellent metric of a neighborhood’s gentrification). Foam is a barometer for how much craft went into the cafe — not sweaty unskilled labor but expert workmanship acquired through hours of rigorous training. Craft means the maker will take the two extra minutes required to create faultless foam, no matter how long the line of customers.

Excellent foam has no bubbles (which are a sign of a rushed, agitated attempt to steam the milk), and it should float on the top of your drink as a custom-order cloud, airy yet firm enough to resist the weight of a sugar grain. Mediocre foam is a weak and watery spray, a thin film that could dissolve at any moment like saliva on a steaming sidewalk. The difference between topping your latte with an angelic cloud or sidewalk spit embodies the symbolic divide between upper-class and lower-class coffee cultures.

My standard morning order is a plain latte, which lasts just long enough for me to write a paragraph. Yet today when I order my latte at Craftsman and Wolves, the ethereal concoction that arrives is almost too perfect to touch, much less drink. After watching the barista painstakingly labor for my foam and gently pour it in a heart-shaped swirl, I feel guilty corrupting such an immaculate creation — raining down rough sugar stones that rip through the innocent ivory froth to reveal the dirty brown liquid beneath. Mixing in my murderous sugar, shame washes over me as I watch as my milky heart sink into the murky depths below.

Cup Four: Philz Coffee

I arrive at Philz to meet a man named Eric for coffee. The coffee meeting has come to serve a significant social purpose in the increasingly stratified social ecosystem of San Francisco. Coffee has replaced drinks, lunch, and dinner as the dominant excuse for face-to-face meetings. In a society with little common ground among its alienated sectors, coffee provides ground that, if not exactly common, is at least neutral. It provides a pragmatic setting for anything from professional networking to first dates since it momentarily disguises the visible markers of class division. Both the intern and the CEO find a common price bracket at the espresso bar — because there’s only one price bracket, with even the most brazen menus not daring to venture above $7 a cup. So in a pleasing deception, coffee meetings create a willing illusion of equality between its unequal participants. But the veil of parity can be torn away at any time, because having coffee is a no-stakes commitment with a flexible time limit that can be expanded or condensed at will, and always has the built-in easy escape option of: “Sorry, got to get back to work.”

I arrive at Philz early hoping to stake out a quiet corner to answer some email before I meet Eric, who was introduced to me over email by a mutual friend. But I find myself sucked into an informal line with a dozen cheery professionals in pink button-down shirts and Patagonia fleece vests. The room is bright, spacious, and sterile — an open space that feels somehow uninhabitable.

Philz Coffee was founded by a San Francisco grocer in 2002 and has expanded from its original store in the Mission to become a celebrated local chain known for eccentric blends. “The best coffee is the coffee that comes to your own personal taste,” declares their motto, yet I enter Philz simply craving something hot and caffeinated, unaware of the imperative to discover my “own personal taste.” I wait for 10 minutes. When it is my turn, I walk up and order a latte.

“We don’t do that here.”

“No lattes?”

“No.”

“Okay. A small coffee then.”

“Which one? Light, Medium, or Dark Roast?”

I look up. My eyes behold a looming blackboard populated with a roster of colorfully nicknamed blends scrawled in chunky, white-chalk lettering — the type of perfectly imperfect handwriting that is impossible to tell whether is human or artificial.

The blend names read like an encyclopedia of vetoed indie band names: Anesthesia to the Upside, Jacob’s Wonderbar, Code 33, Dancing Water. The menu takes the reader across the globe sampling flavors not only from around the world but beyond it: such exotic luxuries as Silken Splendor, Tantalizing Turkish, Aromatic Arabic stand beside the divine brews Philtered Soul, Canopy of Heaven, and Ambrosia Coffee of God.

Each option is followed by three flavor tones that read like a starving vegetarian’s haiku. Herbs, citrus, and strawberry are the ethereal materials that construct the Canopy of Heaven, while cashew, cocoa, and pineapple are the fearsome threesome that lend the blend Greater Alarm its extra urgency. And in case you’re curious how the Lord likes his coffee, the menu offers this terse description, “Ambrosia Coffee of God: Blackberry | Grape | Toast.”

“What’s most popular?” I ask the barista, unprepared to make a respectable choice.

“There is no most popular.”

“The Philharmonic is a good starter blend,” Eric interjects, joining me in line.

I let Eric order. He pauses for a moment, apparently torn by internal debate, before announcing his selection: “I’ll take Ambrosia,” which the barista receives with a hush of reverential gravitas. Eventually, I settle on a flavor blend called Sooo Good, which seems more approachable than Greater Alarm and less blasphemous than ordering the “coffee of God” for my mid-afternoon caffeine fix.

“Sweet, not sweet, or in-between sweet — that’s sweet but not so sweet?”

“Umm, anything really. What do you like?”

“Everything.”

“Well, the middle. The middle one’s fine.”

“Do you mean not sweet or in-between sweet?”

“In between. Anything is fine, anything,” I mutter, escaping before she can continue the interrogation.

After waiting in a separate line to pay, we return to the first counter to wait for our coffee. “Small Sooo Good,” the barista announces leaving a cup on the ledge filled exactly to the brim, with the coffee in perfect yet precarious equilibrium — right at the tipping point without actually overflowing.

“How’s the sweetness? Want to take a taste?” the barista asks. I do not answer.

Avoiding eye contact, I hastily grab the cup — upsetting the delicate balance and sending streaks of hot brown liquid rolling over the side onto my hand. “Why don’t you taste?” encourages Eric with the assertive politeness reserved for correcting accidentally rude friends violating local etiquette. “Let her know how it is.”

But I do not respond. Scouting my surroundings, I chart the coordinates of my retreat. Then with hardened ears and scalded hands, I make my move: darting to the side station, I splash a fifth of the overflowing coffee in the compost, sit down at the closest open seat, and drop my bag. Exhausted by this ordeal of small choices, I’m finally ready to “meet” Eric.

Cup Five: Ritual Coffee Roasters

“Forty years ago, a cup of coffee was nothing more than a caffeine delivery vehicle,” begins the Ritual Roasters mission statement. “It didn’t really matter how it tasted, it just had to slap you awake in the morning or prop you up through a long afternoon. But in the last decade or so, things have changed. A lot.” Continuing in this grand style, the statement culminates by crowning the unsurprising leader of this coffee liberation: “Ritual has been a pioneer in this delicious shift in coffee consciousness since we opened our doors on Valencia Street in 2005 and started what some call a coffee revolution in San Francisco.”

As it happens, the notion that coffee shops have mission statements and start revolutions is characteristic of the diffuse political self-image of the Bay Area’s dining elite, whose revolutionary rhetoric elevates marginal improvements in comfort goods to grand idealistic causes. Complex geopolitical quandaries are reduced to neat consumer choices between expensive “ethical” products (buying costly fair-trade coffee is “good”) and cheaper “unethical” products (buying normal coffee is “bad”). San Francisco puts a premium price tag on ethics that few can afford.

Today, I visit Ritual Coffee. A huge red flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle hangs outside the entrance. Ritual has adopted the soviet symbol as their corporate logo plastering the hammer-and-sickle design on their bags, mugs, and all their branded merchandise. “I’m a capitalist, I’ll admit that,” confessed Ritual’s owner Eileen Hassi, unclouded by any sense of irony in appropriating a communist icon as a company logo to sell overpriced coffee to wealthy patrons.

“What would you like?” the barista asks, addressing me as a fellow coffee comrade in the “revolution.”

“I’ll take a light roast,” I posture.

The barista looks at me with suspicion. “All our coffees are light to medium roast.”

“Something sweet then.” I say weakly.

The barista pauses before sharply replying, “We have Gachatha from Kenya, Hama Organic or Aramo Sweet Tooth from Ethiopia, and Los Gigantes from Colombia.”

“Ethiopia,” I venture.

Which Ethiopia?”

Silence. I’ve been exposed.

“Hama or Aramo?” the barista repeats tensely, tapping his index finger on the register screen.

“Aramo,” I say. “Let’s do Aramo.”

“A wonderful choice,” beams the barista with a sudden smile. And I smile back.

“Oh, it’s a great blend,” I find myself saying with a baffling degree of confidence, as though I arrived at my verdict after careful comparison between the two farming cooperatives.

Nonetheless, I feel uplifted. The simple fact of having any opinion on East African agriculture fills me with the rush of accidental virtue. I am swept up in the peculiarly addictive euphoria of ethical consumerism. Under that sympathetic spell, I begin to regard my decision not just as a meaningful political statement on responsible spending, but a bold private gesture as well — the first sentence of a new breakthrough chapter in my own life. This curious mix of the personal and the political feeds the messaging of many high-end consumer brands in the Bay Area, which presents buying luxury goods as participating in a sort of double revolution: your $6 coffee becomes a small step in reforming both your personal life and the global economy.

“We don’t do all of this to make coffee more complicated,” the final line of Ritual’s mission statement concludes, “We do it because pretty much everybody who works here has had a moment where a really, really good cup of coffee changed their lives.”

Such are the existential stakes of your daily coffee. Any order could be the one that will change your life — better make the right choice. The next cup could be your Eureka, your Proustian pastry epiphany, or your falling Newtonian apple about to usher in a new universe of personal possibilities. In this inverted individualism, even an ordinary drink selection acquires a metaphysical gravity: the weight of what could be. Likewise, every choice is haunted by the guilty specter of the unseized opportunity, the just-missed aha moment, the light bulb that never turned on — the possible perfect life you might have achieved, if only you had ordered the right Ethiopian blend for your cappuccino.

Choice then, oddly enough, is not a choice but a duty. In our consumer-identity culture — where purchasing habits are conflated with private values — selecting your preferred coffee is not just a pastime but a serious personal responsibility. This mandate for strong opinions on trivial matters misdirects your free will toward modulating minor issues of upper-middle-class taste rather than confronting the larger dilemmas and decisions in making a meaningful life.

Pretty much everybody has had a moment, where a really, really good cup of coffee changed their lives. Such a sentence reflects an odd attitude toward people and toward change. The grammar casts the “really, really good cup of coffee” as the active agent of change, while the people leading these changed lives are reduced to the role of passive players awaiting salvation one cup at a time. It is a way of phrasing that simplifies “change” from the difficult complex process of an individual constantly negotiating their fluctuating identity into a single, cinematic scene of instant transfiguration. Your formerly unfulfilled self blossoms into a Brave New You in a moment of shining self-discovery, conveniently set at your favorite coffee shop.

Cup Six: Javalencia Cafe

Today I’m back at Javalencia, sitting behind our Frustrated Franzen again. I’m working at a broken tabletop that spins upon the slightest touch, which makes writing here a literal balancing act. In front of me, Frustrated Franzen reads a book with white-knuckle focus, holding the cover like he’s defusing a bomb and wielding his phone as a straight-edge fixing his exact place in the text. My table trembles when Franzen turns the page, and I brace myself while I watch the phone slide down the page, sending little seismic shocks through my seat with each new line.

As it turns out, I feel at home with the Frustrated Franzens of this divided city — those who fight invisible battles for doomed causes armed only with lukewarm coffee. I have fought a few invisible battles myself. I feel an ineffable affinity for this rag-tag crowd that can’t be explained away as mere sympathy for fellow writers or romantic nostalgia for doomed causes. It is difficult to lay the feeling out in clear terms — the type of elemental and unspoken bond that lives in silence and dissolves the second it enters the bright realm of speech. One feels it instinctively like the wordless bond of unknown common purpose shared between the last commuters on the last train.

But I do not mention nameless bonds and unspeakable affinities to many people I meet. “Unspoken” is not how most San Franciscans take their affinities.

¤

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco.

¤

Featured image courtesy of San Francisco Planning Department.


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