Santa Barbara is really a gem of a little city to live in. It’s not a big city, so doesn’t have quite the flair and pizazz of San Francisco or London, but it’s got a lot of funk. And the best thing about it is that even though it is a small city (in a gorgeous location with perpetually perfect weather), it has a plethora of good eats, if you know where to go. Amazing sushi, decadent Italian, artful healthnut stops, fabulous tapas and drinks, to-die-for Indian, and quite a few places that have made sandwiches an art. And the list goes on.
But the one thing that Santa Barbara lacks is really, really great coffee. The locals are quite proud of their mom-and-pop varietals like the Daily Grind, the Coffee Cat, or Santa Barbara Roasting Company. And major chains like Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee do very well. (In fact, between the two of them, I think they own a quarter of the real estate on State Street.) But I have yet to find a single place that does really, really fine Italian coffee, the likes of which you get when you are actually in Italy. Most of the coffee here is about mid-range and tastes fine, but some of it verges on bitter and you can actually taste separate layers of weak mediocre coffee flavor, artificial flavor as a pathetic attempt to mask the mediocrity of the coffee, and then oils from the beans.
The Italians have it down to an art: the high quality of the beans, the perfect degree of roasting, the exact grind, the temperature of the steam and press of the grounds. All of this combines to create a rich, smooth level of decadence that is unparalleled. When I first discovered true Italian coffee in a little cafe in Florence, I actually thought I might have found heaven. I even brought some Illy home with me, but alas, could not manage the artistry of the Italian barista.
I looked everywhere for good coffee, and eventually succumbed to my fate, thinking I wouldn’t be able to find such good coffee anywhere but Italy. But then we went to Costa Rica and discovered Costa Rican coffee. I was astounded. Costa Rican coffee does not have the decadence of Italian coffee, but it does have a wild variety of smooth flavors that make for a different, wondorous java experience. I was so surprised since normally developing countries export all their good stuff and the locals have to make do with the dreck. Not so with Costa Rican coffee. They hoard all their delicacies so that even the chain bakeries have coffee superior to that of the States. Apparently, they export all their dreck. Smart.
So I sighed, again wondering why the U.S., which has access to the best of just about everything, continues to have only mediocre coffee (yes, I am spoiled and discerning when it comes to my taste buds). And then I went to New York. Besides the bagels and other baked goods which are divine, Manhattan offers real, true, primo Italian coffee. We popped into a little Italian bistro called Via Quadronno and ordered a couple of cappuccinos to go as we were on a trek across Central Park to the Natural History museum. I took my first sip and practically melted into a little puddle of delight in the middle of Central Park. It was so good I couldn’t decide if it was heavenly or a sin. Still, perhaps that little bistro could have been an aberration. A bright spot; a diamond in the rough, so to speak.
And then we found Joe the Art of Coffee. Well, I can’t exactly claim that we found it as the place was recommended to us by friends who had lived in New York. But they have several locations across Manhattan and they have mastered the art of truly fine coffee. They select the finest beans, and they have a policy of never using any artificial flavors, and when they serve up their coffee, it is an actual artpiece with designs swirled into the foam.
With the offer of places such as these and Employees Only (which has turned cocktail-making into an artform as well), I could almost consider happily trading my sunny apartment in Santa Barbara for an over-priced shoebox in Manhattan.