Caffeinated Complaint: Why Is Restaurant Coffee So Bad?

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I'm just going to come out and ask a burning (read: possibly inflammatory) question: Why is restaurant coffee generally so terrible? Seriously, why is it that you can drop a C-note on a beautifully crafted dinner paired with wines recommended by a gifted sommelier, but when the (impressive! delicious!) desserts are presented at the end of the meal they're inevitably accompanied by brown slop that tastes like it was filtered through a gym sock and subsequently microwaved? More importantly, can anything be done about it?

In some cases, the problem's undoubtedly due to eateries relying on cheap coffee to meet demand while cutting costs—a factor only made worse by servers, antsy to turn the table after the main courses have been cleared, who neglect to suggest coffee to go with dessert. If patrons aren't ordering a mug to match their tiramisu, why should the house bother buying higher-quality stuff in the first place? (Because it's the last flavor a diner takes with them at night's end, that's why.)

Another possible contribution to the bad-restaurant-coffee epidemic: Who's responsible for brewing the stuff? An already-harried server trying to cover a dozen packed tables, four of which have simultaneously ordered espresso-based drinks? A busboy who, after a three-minute introduction along the lines of, "Push this button to make coffee come out," has been saddled with the responsibility of cranking out what's essentially a meal's finishing touch? If you wouldn't let a busboy prep a steak because he isn't trained in that line, why let him make coffee unless he is? (And yes, he can probably be trained to make delicious coffee, if someone cares to.)

On the upside, good restaurant coffee is not the impossible dream, and I know that for a fact. For instance, in New York City where I'm based, some of restaurateur Danny Meyer's most respected rooms feature noteworthy beans prepared by—get this!—actual professional baristas. From the snappy cups of Blue Bottle Coffee doled out at casually elegant Gramercy Tavern to the crema-lickin' good Barrington Coffee Roasting Company espresso that's slung at BBQ joint Blue Smoke, the Meyer empire knows how to leave guests happy and caffeinated.

It's not just a New York thing, though: Baltimore's exquisite Woodberry Kitchen also employs dedicated baristas for its coffee service—and they're top-notch, to boot. The restaurant's enthusiastic and dynamic lead barista, Allie Caran, was a finalist in 2009's ubercompetitive Mid-Atlantic Regional Barista Championship. (Full disclosure: Woodberry uses coffee roasted by my employer, Counter Culture Coffee, but I'd love 'em even if they didn't. Honest.)

You see, there's hope yet. As a professional barista trainer, I can tell you that some of the most rewarding and exciting work I've done has been with servers, general managers, busboys, and even prep cooks—but I'll also mention that they usually have something in common: passion. Not passion for having a part-time job while they figure out their next semester or wait for their head shots to come in, but a passion for food, for hospitality, for flavor, and for doing a job well (none of which means that passionate waiters can't also go on auditions in their free time).

The best restaurant baristas are almost always servers who are moved when I tell them to think of this way: Everything else you bring to a table is made by someone else, but when they order coffee, you get to make that. It truly completes the dining experience—for them and for you.

So, chefs and restaurant-owners everywhere, I can't help but ask: If you wouldn't buy your produce at Costco, why go with cut-rate coffee? And if you wouldn't let just anybody cook your steak and sous your vide, why leave your coffee service in untrained hands? It's the last thing your guests taste, why make it bitter?

As for all you restaurant-goers, I'm dying to know: What was the best end-of-meal coffee you've ever had? And what was the worst?

About the author: Erin Meister (just "Meister" to friends and enemies) trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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