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Summer Tour Series: San Francisco's Coffee Houses


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Around the time of the gold rush, two of America's biggest coffee companies, Folgers and Hills Bros., got their start in San Francisco, and that spawned a cafe culture that still thrives today. As part of our ongoing series about unusual tours, reporter Laila McClay went on the Javawalk tour in San Francisco.

LAILA McCLAY reporting:

Every Saturday, Elaine Sosa LaBalme can be found marching half a dozen tourists up and down steep San Francisco streets talking all things coffee.

Ms. ELAINE SOSA LaBALME (Tour Guide, Javawalk): Coffeehouses in San Francisco really mirror the neighborhood that they're in. If you go to a coffeehouse in the Haight-Ashbury, it's going to be very different than one in the North Beach or in the Marina District or ...(unintelligible) or in the south of Market.

McCLAY: The Javawalk winds through city streets as Elaine launches into a bit of Java history.

Ms. LaBALME: So the city's earliest coffeehouses were in the North Beach neighborhood. None of the original coffeehouses remains because of the great earthquake of 1906. The first one to be rebuilt, however, was the Savoy Tivoli, which dates to 1907 and is still in North Beach.

McCLAY: As we approach our first cafe stop, Elaine starts fantasizing about her order. She laments how complicated coffee has gotten in the last few years.

Ms. LaBALME: I mean, I just want simple coffee drinks. I don't know, like caramel macchiato--What is that? I don't even understand it. Caramel triple-bean vanilla fudge, triple latte, too much foam, flat, skinny, M-O-U-S-E.

(Soundbite of laughter)

McCLAY: You won't hear any complicated drink orders at Caffe Trieste, which hasn't changed much since it was founded in 1956 by Italian immigrant Gianni Giotta. This coffeehouse atmosphere is just what Sonja Shelton(ph), a tourist from Houston, came to find.

Ms. SONJA SHELTON (San Francisco Tourist): I don't want to mention names, but they're unique compared to some of the big coffee places. Let's put it that way.

McCLAY: The walls here at Caffe Trieste are loaded with pictures of the Giotta family with Bill Cosby and Luciano Pavarotti. Elaine points to another set of pictures.

Ms. LaBALME: The bearded guy is Francis Ford Coppola. And it is said--and I have no reason to doubt it--that Coppola wrote the script to the original "Godfather" movie in Caffe Trieste, that he had asked Gianni if he could keep a small portable typewriter of his at one of the back tables in the cafe near the piano, and Gianni said, `Sure, no problem.' And Coppola would come in every morning, order his espresso drink and sit down and start typing away. It took him about three months to write the screenplay of what is, you know, arguably his most successful movie ever.

(Soundbite of traffic)

McCLAY: Now sufficiently caffeinated, we're ready to walk to our next coffeehouse, Caffe Greco. But one of San Francisco's trademark hills stands between us and our next cup of coffee.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Ms. LaBALME: OK, we are walking up the Carney Steps(ph), which is one of only nine streets in the city center that has steps cut into the sidewalk. This is the oldest. It's about--I don't know--75, 80 years old. And this is something that the city did if neighborhood residents petitioned for relief.

McCLAY: At the top of the steps we see sweeping views of downtown and are approaching our next cafe stop.

Ms. LaBALME: OK, so Caffe Greco is actually sort of one of the newer ones, too, from the '80s. And they do this fun drink in there--I'll ask them for them--called an affogatto(ph). It is a shot of espresso with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream in it.

Unidentified Woman #2: Whoo!

Ms. LaBALME: And I'll order little affogattos for all of us. Sound good?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah!

Unidentified Woman #3: That sounds wonderful.

Ms. LaBALME: OK, that's great.

Unidentified Woman #4: Yes, yes.

McCLAY: Elaine goes in to order the drinks while the rest of us secure a table outside.

Ms. LaBALME: OK, this is an affogatto. It's the Italian word for `choking,' actually. When the kids would get a hold of these things, they'd drink it up so fast they'd choke on the ice cream. They'd get kind of that freeze in their throat, you know? And that's why they dubbed the drink an affogatto, the choking drink.

McCLAY: The affogattos are a hit. This is usually where the tour wraps up. The tourists, like Houston's Sonja Shelton, all seem happy with their morning of cafe-hopping.

Ms. SHELTON: Lots and lots of walking, sore shin splints, but worth every moment.

McCLAY: For NPR News, I'm Laila McClay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.