The original North Beach location of Caffe Trieste introduced espresso to the Bay Area back in the 50’s and was the first cafe, as we know them today, to be remembered and revered by the larger public. Certainly, the Bay Area owes this venerable institution of coffee a great deal of gratitude for its contribution to the craft. We probably owe it an even greater deal of gratitude for serving as a catalyst to popular culture. It fueled the writing of the beats in their early heyday and served as muse for Francis Ford Coppola’s writing of The Godfather not to mention making cafes the place to go for local art and culture.
However, that is, as they say, history. It might have been fine if Caffe Trieste had updated its wares with the times – seeking to make its product better. Instead it seems to have embarked on a recent expansion designed only to ride the coattails of its reputation. This isn’t to say that the coffee here is bad – it’s not – but it’s certainly far ninth in the country, an “honor” recently bestowed on it by Digital City, which managed to list Trieste as the only Bay Area establishment (sounds like someone else is stuck in history, too). I should note, that I’m basing my response on my recent visit to the Berkeley branch and not the North Beach location, which I haven’t been to in years.
This shop is nothing noteworthy, but it does enjoy a pleasant and busy corner location right on San Pablo and Dwight. Berkeley’s Trieste is reminiscent of the flagship store when it comes to design – standard, packed-in wooden cafe tables, walls of mostly windows and menus with a small space devoted to kitchy photographs, not of celebrities as in the flagship store, but of local supporters (to me it resembles a much scaled down version of the photo-plastered walls of Geno’s Cheesesteak in Philly). The real highlight in this location is a small supply shop in back. In addition to buying whole beans, you can purchase some well-priced Chemex supplies, moka pots and stove-top steamers as well as a couple over-priced but well-built espresso machines.
The espresso here is fairly old-school, dark-roasted, traditional Italian style espresso, prepared with decent skill but of somewhat sub-par quality. The shots are pulled on a 3-group La San Marco machine and ground fresh on a couple of garish grinders of the same brand. My shot had some brightness, with dark, molasses undertones and a slightly thinner than it should have been body. Decent and drinkable, but it doesn’t inspire me to howl.
When it came to brewed coffee, Trieste is a case of “it’s so old it’s new again.” They brew their coffee in Chemex flasks using a Brazilian bean. I was excited to give this a try since I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen a cafe brewing its coffee via Chemex. Unfortunately, the four Chemex beakers sat baking on a 4-burner hot plate. Not that I expected wonders from the Chemex given the darker roasts of Trieste’s beans, but this observation led me to cut my losses and eat a baked good instead.
I will say that the staff of this place is both efficient and friendly. The line moved quickly and the baristas seemed to posses a decent prowess for making espresso. Furthermore, the espresso machine is positioned so that you can watch them while they work. I peppered one worker with a few questions about the equipment. He not only answered my questions but ran to the back to research something I had asked.
In the end, Trieste is a business with an eye to the past that certainly gets my respect, even if it’s unlikely to get much business from me again in the future.