I like tables

Table at Ritual Coffee in San Francisco

I go for personality, but that’s a damn fine table.

I believe cafes should make you comfortable. They are centers for relaxing, talking, music, art, and sometimes, work. But work in a cafe is not really ever work, its pleasure. Unless you’re the barista, then it might be work. Sitting in a cafe, especially in the morning or night, can be an experience. The atmosphere and environment play a leading role in shaping that experience.

The theme in San Francisco is natural wood, warm (but plentiful) lighting, interesting design, and space. You see it in Ritual, Four Barrel, Blue Bottle, and the relative newcomer in the Mission, The Summit (disclaimer: I know someone who has a vested interest in The Summit). I am not saying that these are the only good cafes in San Francisco, but they are the leaders. I’m also not saying this theme is unique to San Francisco or good cafes, but it does point to a very clear idea of how they want to make you feel.

drew and shane

drew and shane at Four Barrel Coffee, by tonx

drew and shane

Boars heads at Four Barrel Coffee, by tonx

Vancouver cafes that I’ve visited (Wicked, Elysian Room, Artigiano’s) follow a similar formula. There seems to be a fairly strong correlation between the quality of the coffee and the quality of the overall experience. You can get great coffee from a kiosk, but the kiosk will probably possess some character. Whether it’s whimsical and colorful or neat and organized, when you care to serve good coffee, you care about the details.

This might seem obvious, of course interior design and atmosphere matter! Restaurants have been judged and held to standards for centuries. Cheaper restaurants tend to have a utilitarian atmosphere. Some of the best food is found in hole-in-the-wall places with signs that let you know you can see the health inspection grade, if you really want to. The food is cheap and good.

There are also plenty of fancy restaurants with poor or mediocre food. The food is “overpriced”, but that is partly because the atmosphere and experience are priced in. We don’t normally think of it like that since food is the primary goal and product of a food establishment, as coffee should be for a cafe.

Cafes do not follow this rule. They charge relatively the same amount regardless of quality or atmosphere. I’m not going to get in to whether or not coffee should cost more (it should), but just note the difference and ask yourself why you would pay the same amount for good coffee as you do for terrible coffee.