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Less Than 'Zero': At Zero Degrees espresso holds court with Armagnac, fusing coffee culture with bar life.

Cafe Nationalism

Confessions of a politicized coffee addict

By David Kissinger

I quit the driving-with-coffee habit when I took a new job in San Francisco. While the Italians stand and slug down a tiny espresso like a vodka shot and the Spaniards sit and savor their café con leche, we slog through heavy traffic with one hand holding the paper cup in its Java Jacket and try to cut off the next car.

Three cafés sit on a three-block strip of Pacific Avenue--a major change from the coffee choices at my old job in the suburbs. But rather than rejoice at my new fortune, I fretted. For my choice of morning coffee is not a matter of just walking into one café, but rather is a political decision, a choice of identity, nothing short of choosing between fascism, predatory capitalism and a new blend of café democracy.

The Fascist

When the desperation of a coffee addiction kicks in, every inch from my desk to the café counts. Zero Degrees is the closest. I often went there for a latte and huge biscotti, or a truly sublime scone with little bits of apricot.

Zero Degrees has a hip, cool, inviting design. One wall is a rich lapis-lazuli blue which contrasts with the white walls. A shelf behind the bar holds not only the best vodkas, wines and Armagnacs but also words like "PASTRIES," "BRANDY," "TEA" and "ESPRESSO" in big, bold letters above the bottles. A flat-screen TV with the sound off smartly runs CNBC market news all day. It hangs on the wall like a Degas painting, a baleful presence trying to be as sophisticated as the delicious blue wall borders. The stylish setting belies the mean, arrogant, even "fascist" attitude worn by some servers behind the counter. Or perhaps not.

"Do you have any cream cheese?" asked a man standing in line behind me one morning. The man behind the bar glanced at him through his thick-framed glasses.

"Yes," he said. "We have cream cheese. And butter. And a toaster."

After an embarrassed pause the man behind me stammered his order for a bagel.

A few days later, I entered with a friend at lunch.

"These cookies are good for eating after lunch," I said to my friend, "but they're not the same as when their old pastry chef was here."

"There's nothing very sophisticated about a cookie," said a server behind the counter, rolling his eyes. "They're all the same, really."

I looked at him as if he'd hit me with a stick. "Oh, no!" I said.

I bought a cookie and ate it glumly. It wasn't the same.


Coffee Walk: A biased tour of where to get your morning slug.


The Predatory Capitalists

Pasqua, two blocks down, brought pleasant memories of morning java from jobs past. When I took a job in Foster City, the suburbs, I worked and dreamed about returning to the City to drink Pasqua again. My only choices in the suburbs were either to drink the toxic corporate coffee or get in my car and drive to Starbucks. My city-dwelling friends laughed at me when I told them this.

At the Foster City Starbucks at 8:26 am, the parking lot is full, and well-dressed office workers stand in long lines at Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Noah's Bagels. Sometimes they race between all three.

After the Starbucks line snaked through the rows of books, coffee beans, candies, mugs, filters, French presses and Italian espresso demitasses for sale, I arrived at the front of the line.

"Small latte, please."

"Is that a tall, a grande or a venti latte?" she asked, pointing to the names of the drink sizes on the menu.

"Just a small latte," I stammered.

"What size is that?" she asked again. Her eyes flashed. A challenge.

"Um, a tall latte and a scone," I said.

"Three fifty," she said triumphantly, ringing the cash register.

Just before I left my job in the suburbs to return to San Francisco, Starbucks announced that it bought the local Pasqua chain. My heart sank. My Pasqua near Pacific closed for the conversion. If Starbucks is really a corporate predator who pushes the little cafés out of business, then what's a progressive coffee drinker to do?

North Beach has fought Starbucks like a wounded cat in order to protect its litter of tiny Italian cafés. Meanwhile, denizens at Gaylord's Café in Oakland glare at the few customers in the new Starbucks across the street, who scowl defensively in plush chaises surrounded by merchandise.

I just can't go to Starbucks, I thought. But I went. I thought that I would feel like a trench-coated man buying porno magazines, but even in downtown San Francisco the line was out the door.

"Hi," I say when I get to the front of the line. "I'd like a small latte, please."

"One small latte," she repeated. I sighed with relief.

I tell myself that I'll go to the local café whenever there is one on the same street.

The New Democrat

There is, in fact, another café on the same street. I cannot go often because the service is slow and I have to get back to work. Often, only one person stands behind the counter to take orders, make coffee, make sandwiches, serve muffins and turn on the Sci-Fi channel on the TV.

But Café Prague is a beautiful café. It has a hip interior with odd signs in Czech, tasteful walls and photos, and tables outside on a narrow street full of furniture designers, boutique law offices, ad agencies, PR firms and publishers. Phone cards for sale sit next to a sign listing rates to Europe: Czech Republic, Poland, Russia.

I went in recently for lunch. After eating a delicious but teensy $4.50 grilled ham and cheese sandwich with Dijon mustard and tomato, I sat back and tapped my feet to the Euro-pop music.

Andrea, a server behind the bar, told me that she left her native Czech Republic in order to find new opportunity and work.

"I'm Democrat. In Czech there are too many Republicans," she said. Did she mean politicians on the right? "Yes," she said, quickly adopting the American style of politics. "There is now an upper class and a lower class. There is no more middle class."

Andrea came looking for a better deal for herself, the way one moves from one country to another or the way one comes to San Francisco from, say, Fresno. I asked if she remembered the previous Socialist system in the old Czechoslovakia.

"Communism? I'm too young to remember it."

Café Prague attracts expatriates from the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Even the Czech Consul in San Francisco, Richard Pivnicka, has stopped by. For all its Old Worldliness, Café Prague feels like a place for a refreshing if pricy pause before heading out into the all-day wait for tomorrow's coffee.

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From the January 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.