Marco's Blog

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Coffee places in SoMa

2008-03-21 5 min read marco

I’ve been living here for about two months, and I have now visited my share of coffee places in SoMa. The following is a brief summary of my recollections – constantly updated as I find new places.

First of all, there is no dearth of choices here South of Market. The neighbourhood caters to two classical coffee addicts and is crowded with caffeine spigots. Yuppies need the jolt to get their head spinning all the time, and time wasters just have time to hang out, and coffee is just the excuse.

The quality of the coffee is steadily improving and getting more and more to a constant level. That’s good: you don’t have to fear terribly bad coffee anywhere. At the same time, things are getting strangely uniform and corporate.

Of the chain places, the two most prominent are Peet’s Coffee and Tea and Starbucks. For some reason, Peet’s has two stores in SoMa, one on Mission and 3rd, the other on Brannan and 9th (inside the Trader Joe’s complex). Starbucks has a strong presence in the North, towards yuppietown, but seems to have absolutely no stores at all in the Southern part of the area.

As of this writing, the Peet’s in the shopping center is the best choice: it is the newest store, and that means it gets the most corporate attention. In case you didn’t know, whenever a new store is opened (the chain doesn’t matter), it is seeded with the best people of the old store, which in turn gets a bunch of newbies. At some point in the history of the two companies, they forgot to train their baristas right, and what you get now is a total lack of quality control: I order a drink on one and, and get a random different drink on the other end.

By the way – this is the most troubling problem the chains face: if they are not able to give you a standardized product (that is, if you ask for the same thing in two different places you get the same thing), then there really is no reason to go there, and you really should go for the smaller places.

Of those, the standout is Brainwash Cafe. It’s located on Folsom, half-way between 7th and 8th streets (on the North side, left from the viewpoint of traffic flowing). Brainwash has a good menu, good choice of foods (I love their surf and turf salad, but the French fries look ravenousing, too), and the exact same baked goods that Peet’s carries.

The quality of the service, like in all non-corporate places, varies with the person you talk to. One of the girls is just the sweetest thing – very friendly, attentive, and always on top of things; one of the dudes is the exact opposite – treats you like dirt, cranks the music up loud whenever he likes a song, and constantly forgets what you ordered.

Their coffee is good. The old Italian tour guide had three categories for towns: worth a trip; worth a side-trip; worth a visit. Brainwash is worth a side-trip. Make sure you order “for here”: they have tall glasses in which they serve your drink, and a real cappuccino in a transparent glass is worth an extra look.

An interesting venue is the Harvest Urban Market on 8th and Howard. It’s an urban supermarket (prices of a deli, but bigger selection) with an outlandishly good selection of foods. Great place for a quick lunch, it gets afternoon sun aplenty. It harbors a coffee bar, too. The coffee is entirely unspectacular (worth a visit), but the selection of pastries and cookies makes up for it. I mean, you can choose not only the usual scones and muffins, but real desserts, too! Sometimes, they will have a peach-raspberry cobbler pie they will heat up in the microwave – mamma mia!

The reason I am writing this down now is that I just came from MotoJava, a unique San Francisco combination of a motorcycle parts and service store that has a coffee shop attached to it. I was curious about it, but somehow never made it in on time. Today I finally got there when it was open (nominally it opens at 7:30, but I’ve tried a couple of times and it was closed around 8a).

Service was really nice, with a personal touch. It felt like you’d sooner or later know everybody in there, and there was this strange feeling of being in somebody’s living room more than in a coffee shop. I got my cappuccino (2% milk, they don’t serve nonfat), and I confess it was the most Italian cappuccino I’ve had in San Francisco, bar none. It was served in a flat, round cup (with saucer), had a little foam cap on it (flat, not mounded) and she had swirled the espresso into it just like a real barista would.

The selection of pastries was paltry, and I settled on a packaged poppyseed vegan lifecake. Skip, unless you have a gallon of fluid to wash that down. Two incredibly sweet dogs roamed around – it was unclear whether they belonged in there, or if they were with the other customer. For all you allergic people, though: be warned!

The Soma Inn Cafe is the place closest to my loft. It looks very much like the stereotype of a New York Italian restaurant: down a few steps, paper table cloth. When I got there, there was a group of Italian-looking middle-aged guys that looked at me as if I had been the dumb dude that walks into a Mafia “family” reunion.

The lady behind the counter made up for the uncomfortable feeling and treated me really well. Their menu is standard cafe fare, and the coffee was not particularly good. On the scale above, they wouldn’t be worth mentioning at all.