Some of my most memorable meals came down to the final act: coffee. Did the coffee appear in a stunning cup, perhaps brewed within sight, paired with the suggestion of a melt-in-my-mouth tiramisu—or did the waiter plop down a cup of Joe, leaving it to slosh all over the table?
Lately, it’s more of the former. Fueled by customers’ desire for customization, restaurants are brewing coffee to order, eschewing coffee poured out of a decanter or kept in an urn for hours.
Manual methods include drip coffee (pouring water over roasted, ground beans in a filter) or using a French press, a Chemex (a glass flask with a wood neck), or a siphon (a two-chamber pot that uses vacuum and vapor pressure).
“You feel like somebody’s doing a science project at your table,” says Ellen Seidenstein, coffee guru at fine-dining restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City, which has four dedicated baristas brewing coffee tableside.
Since the program’s launch in 2009, diners at Eleven Madison Park have had their choice of three pour-over methods brewed tableside or coffee brewed in a Hario V60 dripper, a ceramic cone that brews a single cup into a glass pot below. Beans are sourced from Intelligentsia Coffee, a Chicago roaster with a presence in Los Angeles and New York City.
It is a time-consuming process, Seidenstein says, as each cup of coffee is made by hand. The attention to detail dovetails with an exclusive line of creamy-white stoneware cups from ceramics designer Jono Pandolfi.
“It’s an experience. It’s not a cup of coffee,” says Matt Milletto, vice president of the American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Oregon, which trains restaurateurs and baristas. Given that, it’s important to price accordingly. “You have to charge three or four times the cost of a regular cup of coffee for this. People are already spending $50 on food or beverage; it’s in line with that offering.”
He compares the uptick in coffee service to the fancy-burger trend. “If we pay $16 for a burger in a fine-dining restaurant, as opposed to $6 in a fast-food restaurant—even if the cost of goods may be similar—we know the care in preparation and sourcing of ingredients will be far more impressive.”
It’s this full disclosure that is enticing coffee drinkers, modeling the farm-to-table movement for culinary ingredients or vineyard sourcing for wines. At 2 Sparrows Restaurant in Chicago, employees strive to educate each consumer on her brew, whether it’s a single-varietal coffee from Cerrado Mineiro, Brazil, that expresses notes of graham crackers and brown sugar or a breakfast blend to “wake up the palate,” says general manager Peter Lund. “We’re trying to make [coffee] as important as the cocktails and beer.”
Of course, it’s not always a grand gesture that impresses. At Stone Creek Coffee Roasters, a regional chain of roasters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, baristas in flannel and beards craft individual coffee orders at the shop’s newest location. A laboratory-style pour-over bar is in full view, and if customers want to know more about the farm from which the beans originated, they need only query the barista.
Chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Ruth’s Chris Steak House also rely on wait staff to suggest a specific dessert with coffee, says Billy Boswell, general manager of coffee service marketing at Community Coffee, a Louisiana-based roaster and distributor. “The best marketing tool they have, other than a nice four-color photo on the menu, is the server staff,” he says.
For a lot of people, coffee is the final impression. To close out the meal without hiccups, that final act should be delivered with as much intention as the salad course. Failure to do so might cloud the meal’s other highlights; I’d hate to end my experience on a weak note.