I remember back when I didn't like coffee at all. I worked graveyard and struggled to stay awake. All around me, people drank coffee like it was water in the desert. I tried. I hated it. I kept drinking it. Bad stuff. Turns out it was just the crappy coffee that we bought at USC. Who knew? Once I got good coffee, things changed. Now, I love coffee.
Coffee, for me, falls into two distinct categories. Gourmet coffee and diner coffee.
Gourmet coffee is typically associated with places like Starbucks. Only I don't like Starbucks, with the exception of the Americano (espresso and water). Starbucks coffees are roasted too dark and taste burned and/or bitter to me. It's become something of a cliche to say you don't like Starbucks. I don't know what to tell you. I still drink it. I just wish there were more choices.
My favorite coffee house was Diedrich Coffee. Unfortunately, Diedrich closed up shop and sold off to Starbucks. They still sell wholesale, and I see their signs in some of my favorite restaurants. I was sad to lose Diedrich Coffee.
Next comes Peet's Coffee. Peet's has excellent coffee, but the locations aren't all that convenient for me. They never seem very comfortable, either. Small and not relaxing. I'm sure all the other coffee houses have french presses, too. But I only get them at Peet's.
It might be hard to make good espresso at home, but with a french press, your own grinder, and some quality fresh beans, the gourmet coffee experience is pretty easy to have at home.
Diner coffee is really nothing special. It's as much about the diner and the little white mug or cup, as anything.
I like sitting in a vinyl booth. I like sitting at the counter. A window seat on a pedestal table can be nice. A brightly lit, shiny surfaced diner, with waitresses who's uniforms probably haven't been updated in 20 years. Weird little aprons with the ticket pocket up front. I like that it's a small, heavy mug that keeps getting topped off. Or, just maybe, this place has a thick ceramic cup that thunks on the saucer more than it clinks. They don't ask if you want more, they just assume that you do. It's your responsibility to stop them when you've had enough.
Although the coffee served in this place is nondescript, it's distinctive in it's own way. It's not strong and not weak. It's never bitter, and through sheer volume, it's always fresh. It's made in a machine that drips coffee out quicker than you can imagine. It puts your home machine to shame and it's capable of making hundreds of pots a day. Forever.
I suppose that because of atmosphere trumping taste, this is the coffee that you just can't do at home. You can get the cups. You'd need the thick mug or heavy cup and saucer (available at a restaurant supply store for an amazingly low price or at Williams & Sonoma or Restoration Hardware for an amazingly high price). But, that's where it stops. No vinyl booth. No plastic covered tent menus. No funny aprons. Then there's the coffee.
You'd think that the coffee isn't that important, so long as it's not that gourmet stuff. We just need joe here, after all. But, for the life of me, I can't find a coffee that measures up to a halfway decent diner's cup. They are all too good or too bad. Too strong or too weak. I've tried, but other than conning a waitress out of a few foil packets for home, there's really no way, it seems, to get the coffee I need for home.
Maybe this is a good thing. After all, the experience is the kicker. Fond memories of something so basic and silly. Sitting alone or with a friend, sipping average coffee in an environment that is virtually the opposite of what most people want from their coffee experience.
Really, if a few friends want to go out for a cup of coffee, where do they head? Joe's Diner? The local Denny's? Or the Starbucks, just down the street?
One day, I will take a road trip. It will off the beaten path, where there might still be a non-chain diner or two. I'll stop here and there, and have breakfast several times a day. I'll drink a lot of coffee.
I'm just not sure how long it would take me to get not very far on this road trip. Once I sit down, that cup will keep getting filled. And, I can drink a lot of coffee.