Coffee, the staff of life; coffee, the fuel of the American economic engine; coffee, the liquid that went from being a cup of brown water sold for a quarter anywhere to being a tarted-up, high-test dose of caffeine sold from fancy, purpose-built shops at prices eight times that of gasoline.
I have a love-hate relationship with coffee shops. They provide me with the drug of my choice, but they're also wildly inconsistent. New coffee shops open up every day, with people who make common errors that move their life's dream firmly into the "meh" category.
5. Refuse to serve dairy.
Some coffeeshops refuse to allow their coffee to be adulterated with things squirted out of a cow's nips. Some coffee shops don't want the expense of providing things such as half-and-half or milk. And some coffeehouses are just run by people with wooden palates who think non-dairy creamer--made of such savory ingredients as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and high-fructose corn syrup--is indistinguishable from real dairy. Riiiiight.
4. Have major attitude--deservedly or not.
Coffee doesn't taste good when it's been turned bitter by some holier-than-thou pedant behind the counter. This doesn't mean good coffee can't be a learning experience--the folks at Portola Coffee aren't stuck-up, yet their customers get lessons just by ordering. The eye rolls from baristas--seen at "third wave" or common coffee chains--ruin a cup of coffee faster than any other means.
3. Have bad coffee.
Jean-Paul, the famously cantankerous (the French would say grincheux) proprietor of Jean-Paul's Goodies in Laguna Beach, is famous for his dismissal of Starbucks. "I make Starbucks every morning when I go to the toilet," he sneers. He's not far off--Starbucks burns its beans and specializes in coffee so bitter it takes three packets of sugar in a 16-ounce cup to make it palatable. They're not alone: Americans seem to have been taught to think coffee isn't coffee unless it can be used as paint solvent.
2. Specialize in bizarre dessert drinks.
The point of a coffee shop is to provide coffee, but it'd be easy to forget when faced with a menu containing 14 variations on sugar-laden, high-calorie frozen concoctions and a litany of flavored gunk. If you're going to specialize in selling blended, icy, cold, sugary milkshakes, call yourself an ice-cream shop, not a coffee shop.
"Wait, you just want . . . espresso?"
1. Have crappy food.
Few people go to a coffee shop for the food, but sometimes the food--muffins, pastries and sandwiches are practically de rigueur in an American coffeehouse--is just gross: cold, flaccid pastry that oozes industrial-strength, butter-flavored grease and cold cuts you could bounce a ball off. The best coffee in the world can't overcome carelessly made snacks.
Extra Bonus: Be slow.
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It'd be nice if this were Paris or Vienna, where people sit down and have a leisurely break from the cares of the world while sipping impossibly dainty cups of coffee and discussing matters of great import. We, however, les Américains incultes, tend to drink coffee as fuel. On a Tuesday morning at 8:15, few people have 20 minutes to wait while coffee is lovingly measured and poured and everyone in line is chatted with at length. Get in, get out, get on with it.