Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Work-Eat Cafes

I, like many others, have a pretty flexible work situation - work hard, be effective, and go ahead and do it your way. I love it, and so do most in my position. The obvious downside is that the old home office doesn't offer much in the way of socialization and general sensory stimulus (which sounds gross but really just means it's boring and nothing moves unless you move it yourself). For us "poor souls" the Work-Eat Cafe is vital. If you've never worked in this environment, don't read on as you'll just get angry and jealous.

There are quite a few options out there in a city like San Francisco. We practically invented the coffee-laptop spill here. At the very least, we definitely control that market space. For me, the priorities in a Work-Eat cafe are 1) decent coffee, 2) reliable internet access, 3) an adequate food option, and of course 4) decent people watching.

The standard, world-wide option for this is Starbucks. It's time-tested and reliable - you know just what you're getting. My friend Jim, with whom I work, loves Starbucks. He lives somewhere in the South Bay
and works EVERY DAY at the same Starbucks. The people who work there either hate him or love him at this point, but either way I really appreciate Jim's loyalty and simplicity. Of course he doesn't have as many options in the South Bay, but that's not his fault.

Starbucks doesn't quite do it for me. The Internet is T-Mobile and costs $10 a pop, the coffee barely meets the decent quotient (but it does, sadly) and the food options are atrocious. The Starbucks scone must be listed on the Periodic Table somewhere as one of the densest elements. It's inexcusable. The people-watching is the one saving grace of Starbucks because they generally move fast, come in steady droves, and are angry.

Here are the three options in San Francisco that I prefer, starting with the most obvious.

The Grove: Decent coffee, good food, reliable ($5) internet and great poople watching. This place was invented for my ilk. The breakfast food is very good, but literally deadly after a full week of it - they spare no bovine or grease monkey. The noise is a little rough if you get a work call. The fact that they install 6-foot long surge protectors on every wall and bench is pretty much the biggest clue that they're designed around people like me. The biggest problem with the Grove is that "working at the Grove" is now a wry-smile-inducing cliche. I blame this on the Chestnut location, however, which leads me to my only truly opinionated take on this place: The Fillmore Grove is the only real option (wow, stop the presses).

The Chestnut location has a clientele average age 5 years younger than Fillmore. That's fine in some respects (insert sexist joke here), but generally it's a crowd that's considerably more self-aware, is cultivating the casual look, and is usually fake-studying. I would define those last two phrases, but I think you can figure it out if you've been there. I'm not one to insult the Marina for no reason - I really like the place - but when people talk bad about the Marina, this is what they're talking about.

The Fillmore location has a more mature crowd and all the same benefits (even the sexist ones). Plus, I'm convinced that the people who work there are a tad nicer, though I have no proof. Thus, if one has only benefits over the other - this isn't a pro-con argument - why would you pick the lesser Grove?

Ritual Coffee: A friend called this place on Valencia "what you would create for a movie if you were trying to depict a hip, San Francisco coffee house". For this reason, and for the reason that it's in the Mission, if any of the regulars here knew that I mentioned it in the same blog as The Grove, they sneer at me and key my car. But the truth is, this place has the best coffee (french press) of any place I can think of. The coffee is not just fancy and strong, but truly, truly good. Pile onto that a very hip interior, great people watching, free internet, and these pastries called "dirt bombs" and you have a general winner.

The downside of Ritual - the people are mean
and the to-go lids leak. Mission people are definitely an angry sort, and this place has cornered the market on the priveleged/ultra-hip/angry crowd. It doesn't affect you much though because you're in a coffee shop where you can stare at anyone and ignore anyone.

The lids, however, are a major issue.
Peet's (which I love) has the occasionally leaky lid caused by the imperfect lid-cup match. Ritual has habitually leaky lids. I've never had a to-go lid there that HAS worked. I don't know if it's a weird, intentional Mission thing where the owner believes that people should sit and drink coffee and he's punishing the to-go people by staining their clothes, or whether it's just incompetence. I mentioned the lid problem to a girl at the counter the other day saying that I'd heard through friends that it had been fixed. Her hushed response: "I know what you're talking about, and no it hasn't been fixed." This was followed by some nervous glances, lending to my conspiracy theory. The synopsis - Ritual isn't for the to-go coffee drinker.

Nook: I won't spend much time on this little place on Jackson and Hyde, but I like it alot. It has the necessary ingredients I outlined above, and it has a certain nuance that i really like. Perhaps it's the cable cars, or the 8-table seating, or the entrepreneur feel of it, or maybe the fact that it has a good, interesting crowd while not being crowded (a feat rarely pulled off). The only time it got really crowded was right after it was featured in Daily Candy, which brought a whole other element to the place. Generally I like this place a lot.

Two final thoughts:

1) No, the Periodic Table is not a thought that regularly comes to mind.

2) Do grease monkeys actually produce grease?


Jim Yang said...

Regarding Starbucks lunch food, based on my experience, the salads are pretty decent. And the Classic Coffe cake is yummy too. And if you say "Hey that's not lunch food then I say to you, you've never had this coffee cake. While I'm on Starbucks, I love their Cinnamon Dulce Latte and Green Tea Lattes. I relaize this instantly categorizes me as a non-serious coffee drinker but this is a criticism I can take :)

mrs. suckafree said...

Hmmm. I've never encountered that problem with the leaky lids at Ritual?
Are you sure you're putting them on right?
Here's a tip, make sure you don't put the sipping hole right over the seam of the cup. That might help!

Anonymous said...

Here's a tip to prevent leaky lids: try to make sure the drink opening is not lined up with the seam of the cup.
Hope it helps!

Anonymous said...

These are fantastic meal ideas! I'm taking my first-ever trip to SanFran next month and I'll definitely be on the lookout for good places to eat. Thanks for the heads up. Do you have ideas for any vegetarian places? The girl that'll be traveling with me doesn't eat meat. Thanks! - JJ from