It was a couple of years ago, when Royal Coffee (the green coffee importers and a major supplier for roasters in the western half of the US and not to be confused with the local Royal Grounds chain) sold their coffee showroom, Royal Coffee (the cafe), to long time manager, Michael Murphy. Other than changing the name, things have mostly remained the same. Cole Coffee still: uses long-time San Francisco roaster, the McLaughlin Coffee Company; has the same modern design with early 20th century coffee-kitch elements; sells the same terrific pastries from a variety of local bakeries (most notably La Farine); serves the same sandwiches at lunch and same poached eggs and toast at breakfast; and still allows customers to select from 20 or so beans, grinds on the spot and does a pour-over drip to order.
Of course, the before and after similarity only makes the name change all the harder to accept. Royal Cole Coffee makes my top ten list of places that I have trouble calling by their new name. Like (Ronald Reagan) Washington National Airport, the Hoosier RCA Dome, or the Pan Am Met Life Building (from my wife’s list), the new name is either too awful, too commercial or simply just doesn’t roll off the tongue. I often feel like someone learning a new language, using the old name with friends and switching to the new one in public.
I’d suggest, however, that the name change marks a more significant transition in Bay Area coffee. If you had asked me 10 years ago where to find the best coffee in the Bay Area, I would have said it was Royal, hands down. The selection, freshness and meticulous care they put into each cup of coffee really showed. The coffee was slightly more expensive than you might find elsewhere, but the difference in quality was worth it.
Like any “top pick” for food in the bay area, I’m sure my selection would have been contentious, but it certainly wasn’t too far off the mark. Blue Bottle didn’t come along until 2002 and most other Bay Area coffee of any current repute didn’t start until then either (not to ignore the greater coffee revolution that had been going on in the rest of the country since the mid to late 90s). About the time Royal was transitioning to Cole, roughly marks the point when Bay Area coffee began to really hit its stride and the public finally started to sing the death of over-roasted coffee. The attention to detail and fresh preparation you can still find at Cole today no longer seem so novel and certainly don’t fully outweigh the negatives of the coffee.
Cole Coffee has now been off my radar screen for a number of years, and not surprisingly. Cole’s two lightest roasts – a Kenya AA and Flor de Cana – are darker than even the darkest roasts of roasters like Barefoot or Ritual. While I do distinctly remember the amazing bouquet of blueberries I used to savor in Cole’s Ethiopian Harrar and the way I used to revel in the beautiful, earthy qualities of their Sumatra, these days I find them to be only a slightly higher grade of passable than other mainstream, over-roasted coffee. I’m amazed at just how easily our taste buds can adapt.
Staff quality, especially at a cafe that’s been around this long, will certainly ebb and flow, but I’m happy to report that Cole seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance in barista quality, at least based upon my most recent visits. The handful of espressos I’ve had, pulled on their 3-group La Marzocco Linea, were very consistent. They had some hints of char and were a bit harsh around the edge, but managed to be very sweet, rich and syrupy, with hints of molasses and honey. They were about as good as this coffee can get. I finished these shots and I even enjoyed them a little. The cappuccino I ordered was also an improvement over some past orders. It was not a luscious drink composed of velvety microfoam, but it certainly could have been worse.
The tough part about reviewing Royal Cole Coffee is that despite the coffee, it really is a great cafe. It has what is arguably the best cafe location ever. It’s right in the heart of one of the busiest parts of Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, whose upscale culinary options just keep expanding as the years go by. And, its northeastern exposure and corner location mean that it’s never too hot despite getting the perfect morning sunlight. The indoor seating is limited, but the red leather couches and chairs, copious windows, and well-balance modern-antique aesthetic, mean the inside feels both hip and never too crowded. The copious tables and chairs that guard the outside walls are usually packed with an inviting crowd.
There’s also the allure of two stores in one – I’m a sucker for quirky features. The original Royal, has its own separate entrance around the side on 63rd street. That location is the one that now sells beans and merchandise, but they also sell a full selection of pastries, have their own 3-group Linea to make espresso drinks and serve a regular and decaf of the day brewed coffee in a huge heated urn (my experience is that the back shop coffee, especially brewed, is less good even though the lines are often shorter).
I suppose the puzzle, then, is why does a cafe put so much time and attention into making only mediocre coffee? I would blame this largely on demand. Many people simply aren’t aware that better coffee can be found reasonably close to (or at) home. But there’s also no better option if you want to go out. It’s sad to say, but on the College Avenue corridor, Cole is about as good as the coffee gets and this cafe does just about everything else better than the competition, with the one exception that it doesn’t provide internet access. Besides, why should Cole Coffee change its ways as long as people still come in droves.
I suppose the one consolation to people seeking something better is a highly unsubstantiated rumor I heard a while back (please substantiate or refute this rumor below). Apparently, the Royal to Cole transformation required a 3-year continuation of their McLaughlin contract. But whether this is soon or still down the road, I implore Cole Coffee to consider their options when contract renewal time comes around. Geographically speaking, this part of town is dying for a coffee upgrade and someone is going to do it. The spot still soft in in my heart for Royal would really like it to be Cole.
Update: I’ve been thinking about my rating for Cole Coffee long and hard. In trying to better fit Cole into the spectrum of coffees reviewed on this blog, I feel like the variety and spirit they bring to coffee makes them something worthy of checking out even if their coffee does remain way too darkly roasted. With that in mind, I’m nudging them ever so barely into the realm of the 3’s.