Many cafes take a great deal of pride in supporting local art. Sometimes the art is good, but often times it’s not. While the correlation isn’t perfect, I think its safe to say that the quality of a cafe’s art is suggestive of the coffee you might find. Cafes with consistently bad art are most likely not reliable sources of good coffee. If this is true, then what am I to take away from Blue Bottle’s second newest cafe which opened back in May? (Some day soon, I’ll get to Blue Bottle’s newest cafe, located in the new Jack London Square Roastery.)
It turns out that this paragon of novel cafe thinking has upped the ante once again, completely eschewing local, amateur art for nothing short of the single greatest modern art collection I’ve seen displayed in a cafe, ever. We’re talking paintings by Kandinsky and Frida Kahlo, photographs by Richard Avedon, sculptures by Alexander Calder and other pieces by world-class artists from across the globe and the last century.
To house this mighty collection, Blue Bottle has located their cafe in a 5 story building just South of Market, not too far from the Blue Bottle Cafe. Owner James Freeman has modestly placed the coffee kiosk towards the back of the 5th floor, amidst a sculpture garden so that you can take your time in finding your way to the coffee. Once there, you’re treated in style to not only a high caliber coffee experience and amazing sculpture garden, but pastries, as created by Caitlin Williams Freeman, capable of inspiring even some of the world’s greatest, long-since-dead artists, to model works of art after them. You can, for instance, eat the cakes that lead Wayne Thiebaud and Piet Mondrian to some of their famous creations.
The cafe is not without its flaws. Mostly, I was concerned with finding the coffee bar. Located this far back at the top of the building is nice if the primary reason you are there is for the art and not the coffee. And the $15 entrance fee, more if you want to attend a special exhibit, makes the cost of a cup of a daily cup of coffee nearly prohibitive (Maybe that’s a reason to consider the membership pricing they offer).
Fortunately, the coffee doesn’t suffer from any substantial shortcomings. Espresso is pulled with one of Blue Bottle’s two three-group, lever-driven La Marzocco Mirage Triplettes. The other is located in the permanent SF Ferry Plaza kiosk. This machine, the barista assured me was a bit nicer than its near twin. This one has chrome, not plastic, caps on the groupheads and one or two other features I forget. My shot, pulled into a Heath ceramic demitasse was version of the Hayes Valley espresso with a different Ethiopia in the blend. It was a slight bit ashy, but otherwise a nice, full-bodied shot that was bright with white-sugar sweetness.
The drip coffee is Blue Bottle’s standard pour over – Giant Steps the day I was there. But in the spirit of making each cafe unique, this location also serves three choices of single-origin beans brewed via Chemex. I didn’t order a drip coffee on my visit. I’ve had Giant Steps enough to know that it’s a good gateway coffee but generally too dark for my personal tastes. I should have pursued the Chemex option – the Yemen seemed tasty – but you have to come either thirsty and depleted of caffeine or with one or more other people since the only option is to brew a whole 16 oz Chemex carafe. I regret not trying it now, but at the time, it was late afternoon and I was by myself.
Overall, this Blue Bottle location isn’t going to disappoint. It has enough unique elements to keep intrigued even those people now tired of Blue Bottle coffee. Then again, you’re not likely to wander in here just for a cup of coffee. If you’re there for the art, it’s hard to argue with a cup of this coffee. I think it’s safe to say that this Blue Bottle location supports my half-baked theory about the correlation between art and coffee. Good art does seem to go hand in hand with good coffee.