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Monday, February 26, 2007

What's in a Name?: Anatomy of a Coffee Shop

Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen, and thinking what nobody else has thought.
- Albert Szent-Gyorgi

Before, when I saw coffee shops like the Golden or HRD, I thought nothing of them - except that maybe they were good places to get a cheap and greasy meal. Now that I've had a chance to explore more of these curious culinary landmarks, and sort of mentally tie them all together, I see coffee shops with a new pair of eyes. The more I learned about them, the more I "discovered" them, and a whole new meaning about these places and where they fit into this large and confusing world suddenly became clear to me.

Apart from the "new immigrant experience" as it pertains to Asian American ownership, coffee shops themselves are living, breathing reminders of our not-so-distant past; where we've been and, to a certain extent, where we're going. Even more, they are distinctly Californian and as such, we Californians should pay homage to them – as well as mourn for those who close up shop for whatever reason.

Before coffee shops came on the scene, restaurants in America had a history dating back roughly 150 years – give or take a decade or two. Casual restaurants, which served both women and men, had an even shorter history.

The predecessors to those quirky American institutions we lovingly refer to as dives were the lunch counter and the lunch wagon. From the first lunch counter was born the luncheonette and the drug-store/five-and-dime lunch counters, many of which were made famous (or infamous) during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

Lunch wagons gave birth to that quintessential American classic: the diner. They also gave birth to the less glamorous, but much appreciated, roach coaches (aka mobile catering trucks) and spicier sister, the taco truck; both credited with rising construction worker midsections and skillfully circumventing anti-junk food regulations, much to the frustration of San Franciscan parents.

Somewhere down the tree of this deep-fried, heavy on the mayo, family was born the drive-in, the 24-hour donut shop, the fast food burger chain, and the coffee shop.

Californian coffee shops are unique in that they're not typical diners, lunch counters, or cafes. Even more confusing: many coffee shops serve typical diner food, only have a lunch counter, and/or also serve coffee. The one common denominator is that most trace their history back to the 1950s and 1960s. This two-decade period was the heyday of the coffee shop and its boom was felt large and wide.

Coffee shops in Northern California tend to be situated in heavily foot-trafficked urban areas while coffee shops in Southern California revolve, like most things, around the automobile. SoCal coffee shops are often architectural survivors in a world of suburban sprawl; uniquely astonishing in their design. The design style, commonly called "Googie", began with a coffee shop called Googie's but by the 1960s had permeated much of the commercial architecture built in California – occasionally spreading North and Eastward to other parts of the country. Today, Googie architecture is endangered, with only a handful of passionate people continuing the fight to save these classic restaurants from the developer's bulldozer.

It may surprise you to learn that one of the most successful and longest lasting of these Southern California coffee shops is Denny's.

Photo graciously borrowed from You Are Here.

Although a totally different company today, the Denny's restaurant chain began in 1954 as Danny's Coffee Shop. Apparently, some of the original Googie-style Denny's still in operation were the inspiration for a half-hearted campaign to go retro a few years back – a campaign called "Denny's Diner". This costly exercise not only engaged in historical revisionism – the original Denny's was a coffee shop, not a diner – but it completely turned off Denny's true demographic: the Drunk-at-3AM college student.

In Northern California, coffee shops have a much lower profile. No surprise here - NorCal has always had a rep for being mellow.

NorCal coffee shop facades are often uninteresting and blend into their surroundings, almost to the point of camouflage. If it weren't for an unassuming sign above their door saying "coffee shop", these dives would be practically invisible. In fact, they are the opposite of SoCal flash and seem to take delight just blending in.

Of course, there are exceptions. Places like the Manor Coffee Shop and It's Tops Coffee Shop certainly announce to the neighborhood that they're there. Others, however, like the Taylor Street Coffee Shop, stand like architectural pipsqueaks amongst the towering Goliaths that overshadow them.

Taylor Street Coffee Shop, San Francisco

And yet, a rose by any other name would smell as - ahem - fried; many coffee shops call themselves cafes or go by their own unique name, like The Koffee Pot. However, there exists the opposite phenomenon in the Bay Area - and in San Francisco in particular: the all-greasy-no-spoon coffee shop. In other words, businesses that call themselves "coffee shops" which aren't.

Instead, they seem to be shells of former coffee shops in which the new owners have kept the old name but not the cuisine. Ming's Coffee Shop on Second Street is a good example, as is Little Paris on Stockton - which, while is a great place to grab a cheap bahn mi sandwich, is not a coffee shop.

Little Paris

To Ming's credit, they still serve a traditional American breakfast, but the rest of the day it's straight-up, easy-greasy Chinese food. Oddly enough, they just opened a brand new Chinese restaurant around the corner on Mission but kept the "coffee shop" in their name.

However, don't let Ming's and the rest of the coffee shop imposters fool you. Here's what a coffee shop really is: A small, casual restaurant, often with an open kitchen, and almost always with counter seating. Hours of operation are between early morning (usually 7AM) and late afternoon - in most cases 4PM.

While a lunch counter with swivel stools plays a prominent role in the layout of the restaurant, there is usually table service as well. One pays for their meal at the table or, if seated there, at the counter. A glass of water is usually customary.

Although coffee is often served, it is not the focus of the restaurant. Despite their catchy names, coffee shops have absolutely zippo to do with coffeehouses, Starbucks, or European-style cafes.

The focus for these coffee shops is breakfast and lunch (and very rarely dinner). Breakfasts include standard American food such as waffles, pancakes, omelets, fried eggs, bacon, sausages, hashbrowns, toast, and any combination of the above. In some cases, such as with the "Country Scramble" at the Oakdale Cafe, these combinations border on the bizarre and dangerously calorie-laden.

"Country Scramble": Country sausage gravy on top of scrambled eggs on top of a fried country sausage patty on top of melted cheddar cheese on top of a slice of sourdough bread.

Lunch includes hot and cold sandwiches, as well as burgers, along with the occasional teriyaki chicken or roast turkey and veggies plate thrown in for good measure. French fries and coleslaw are the usual sides and beverages range from ice tea, coffee, sodas, and beer.

Of course, I cannot forget to mention the influence coffee shop owners have had on their own menus. Asian-owned coffee shops, such as Curly's and Golden, have introduced their own lunch standards that, alongside traditional American cuisine, make for a peculiar fusion between the old and the new.

It's these peculiarities that convinced me to pursue this series in the first place, and I'm happy to report to you: I'm not disappointed.

However, if there was one thing I wish I could've done better with this series, it would have been to include a personal perspective from the coffee shop owners themselves. I regret that I haven't included that here, but rest assured that I am not closing the chapter with the end of this current series. I still plan on visiting many of these coffee shops in the future, and hopefully one day I will be able to report back on new and interesting "dives", perhaps even with an interview or two.

By no means am I finished here. But I am moving on for now.

In closing, I hope that I have fairly shone a spotlight on these restaurants and restaurants like them. I've enjoyed visiting these dives and being able to write about them, and I hope you have enjoyed coming along with me.

If so, stay tuned. There's more to come.



At 4:41 AM, Blogger Douglas Cress said...

I've always used coffee shop and diner interchangeably.

I guess I should rethink my naming schema - as a coffeee house and a coffee shop are completely different animals.

This is definately the definitive article on the subject.


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