Finding the perfect cup of coffee in San Francisco falls right below artisan toast and parking spots in the Mission District as an all-consuming local obsession. And local coffee shops rise to the task. Long before Seattle opened its first Starbucks, 19th-century San Franciscans were perking up to coffee pioneers Folger’s and Hills Brothers. By the time Alfred Peet opened the first Peet’s Coffee in 1966, the java revolution was in full brew. Today, as you might expect in this geek-tech capital, the hunt for the latest, greatest, darkest, freshest, most perfectly brewed cup doesn’t just rely on word of mouth. In San Francisco there’s also an app for that. Acceptable Espresso provides connoisseurs with an up-to-the-moment list of cafés serving “espresso worth ordering.” (Their motto: We drank a bunch of crappy espresso, so you don’t have to.) Coffeeratings.com assesses the best coffee spots in San Francisco on a ten-point scale, with ratings based on aroma, body and flavor, as well as ambience and presentation. Happily, caffeine devotees have no shortage of places in which to indulge their obsessive-compulsive habit. From über-hip cafés and roasteries where the freshness sell-by date is an hour from now, to cozy neighborhood coffee shops where your cup of joe is accompanied by Beat poetry or operatic arias, San Francisco is coffee nirvana.
San Francisco's best coffee shops
If San Francisco has an artisan coffee “grounds” zero, it is undoubtedly Blue Bottle. What started as a kiosk in a Hayes Valley alleyway has grown into outlets all around town, with its own café on Mint Plaza, as well as a walk-up stand in the Ferry Plaza Marketplace. The downtown café tempers caffeine highs with light fare for breakfast and lunch (frittatas, soups, salads, sandwiches). The main draw, though, is single-origin small-batch and ridiculously fresh coffee, with nothing more than 48 hours out of the roaster. The fascinatingly complicated coffee-making equipment is part of the appeal: A five-light siphon bar is the first of its kind in the United States; the beakers and flasks that drip Kyoto-style iced-coffee are something out of a mad scientist's lab. Order a Gibraltar (you have to ask; it's not on the menu)—the perfect blend of espresso and foam served in a short glass.
Love it or mock it, this modern minimalist coffeehouse-bakery is perhaps the ultimate SF hipster café, combining expertly sourced, roasted and brewed small-batch coffee with a bakery that turns out loaves of Josey Baker’s (his real name) sumptuous sour wheat, country, rye and Wonder breads. You’ll need the wait in line to ponder what to order from the bearded barista at the counter. But whether you choose pour-over decaf Ethiopia Hunda Oli or Colombia Andino single-origin espresso, accompany it with a thick, chewy slab of toast, slathered with toppings ranging from almond butter with Maldon sea salt to cinnamon sugar and cream cheese with honey.
If drip is your thing, your best cup of coffee is at Philz, where more than 20 different secret blends known only to founder Phil Jaber and his son, Jacob, are individually filter-drip brewed and poured to your exact specifications. The original café on Folsom and 24th Street that opened in 2003 has since been augmented with a half-dozen city locations and a half-dozen more sprinkled throughout the North, East and South Bays. The formula remains the same: Walk up to the bar and the barista will help you choose a blend that they think you'll like, watch it being made, then add milk and sugar to taste. Local favorite blends include nutty Jacob's Wonderbar, rich Mocha Tesora, and the ultra-strong Code 33, crafted for the SFPD.
Brothers Jerad and Justin Morrison are perfectionists who oversee every detail that goes into a cup of their single-origin tiny-production coffee. From sourcing green coffee at farms from Rwanda to Ethiopia and Peru, to painstakingly determining the correct roast for each batch of beans and perfecting the process on their 1969 five-kilo Probat roaster, no bean goes unturned. The love of coffee shines all the way through to the warm woody ambience of their two cafés and the foam hearts on the top of your creamy cappuccino.
Some say Roma serves the strongest coffee in the city—the café is certainly among the most atmospheric, with beans roasted on the premises in the heart of North Beach by three generations of the Azzollini family. Espressos and other coffees, and a range of gelati and Italian pastries (don't miss the tiramisu) are served in a large, airy space, perfect for sipping, thinking and explaining your latest conspiracy theory.
Trieste is one of the city's original Italian coffeehouses, which came of age in North Beach at the center of the 1950s Beat movement. A former hangout for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and their pals, it's also the spot where Francis Ford Coppola is said to have written the screenplay for The Godfather. Trieste still roasts its beans in San Francisco and arguably produces some of the best espresso in town—available packaged for purchase from their shop next door. Inside the café, the dark walls are plastered with photos of opera singers and famous regulars, and on select Saturdays, members of the extended Giotta family continue their longstanding tradition of performing popular Italian songs and operatic arias.
A newcomer that's quickly making a name for itself, Linea features roaster Andrew Barnett's micro-batch coffees and espresso drinks, and also serves as an outlet for promising local food purveyors. Brussels-style waffles from Lt. Waffle range from sweet (Greek yogurt, oranges, marmalade and olive oil) to savory (potato waffle with pastrami and sauerkraut). Accompany your choice with a cortado—espresso kissed with a touch of steamed milk.
Originally the café that first brought Portland's famed Stumptown coffee to San Francisco, Ritual has since garnered a roasting reputation of its own with a meticulous and fanatical approach to production and brewing that borders on the religious. Roast color is precisely calculated using a photo-spectrometer, new espresso blends are brought out each season, and the café hosts regular tasting and brewing-demo events.