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Why is it so difficult to find good espresso in restaurants?

As a break-away from another thread -- http://www.chowhound.com/topics/424274 (which itself was broken away from yet another thread) -- the question arises: why can't restaurants serve good espresso?

To be clear, I am not talking about coffee houses that serve food, or coffee roasters that also have espresso machines (think Espresso Vivace -- http://www.espressovivace.com/ -- or Peet's -- http://www.peets.com/). I'm referring to high(er)-end restaurants where one might order an espresso after lunch or dinner (with or without dessert or after-dinner drink).

All too frequently the quality of the espresso is just horrid! I am limiting my comments here to JUST the coffee itself. It's thin, over-extracted, and brewed too high a temperature -- meaning it's bitter, weak and tastes more like regular commercially brewed coffee (think one of those ubiquitous BUNN coffee makers installed in every Denny's and Waffle House) that was left on a burner far too long.

I know it's not that difficult -- I do it at home all the time! -- and the fact that some restaurants CAN do it obviously means that it isn't impossible . . . so what gives???

Jason

P.S. And the names of some restaurants that DO make good espressp would be appreciated, too.

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  1. I agree about how hard it is to end one's meal with a decent cup of espresso. The tell tale signs come before a taste usually - steam on the top (too hot, bound to be bitter), no crema, cup too full.

    1. Around 5-6 years ago, William Grimes wrote a good related article in the New York Times about the lack of good espresso (in general) in New York. The basic gist of the article was that New York and other American cities simply don't have the same coffee culture as other places (i.e. Italy), where espresso-making is valued as more of an art. One NY restauranteur said something along the lines of "Basically, the guy who cleans off your table is the same person who makes your espresso." States-side, it's generally viewed as more of a menial job.

      That doesn't necessarily explain why, if a skilled amateur can make a decent cup at home, a high-end restaurant can't do the same. But many customers don't really seek out high-quality espresso, nor do many know what it really tastes like either (esp. if they're accustomed to going primarily to Starbucks for their coffee). So they won't question the flavor/quality of the espresso they get, and there is no incentive for the restaurants to improve.

      6 Replies
      1. re: DG14973

        Starbucks -- the McDonald's of Espresso -- is a perfect case in point (albeit not the type of "restaurant" I was addressing in the OP). Not too long ago, they realized they can't count on their employees to consistently make good espresso -- proper barista training was just too expensive, given their turnover -- and so they dumped all of their (outstanding) La Marzocco semi-automatic machines for super-automatics (where the employee only has to push a button and the machine will grind, tamp, and brew the coffee -- all the employee has to do is pour milk in the steam pitcher).

        * * * * *

        The dearth of great espresso in high-end restaurants reminds me of a somewhat similar situation in restaurants in the late-1970s/early-1980s with "house" wine. Many restaurants were serving house wine by the glass and carafe, but only bottles and half-bottles of wine (i.e.: no wine-by-the-glass). I asked several restaurant owners and/or wine buyers why this was (it being my job at the time to sell wine to restaurants), and the one thing that came up repeatedly was that XYZ Chablis (or Burgundy) was only 3¢ per ounce -- so a 6 ounce glass cost only 18¢, but they could sell it for $3-$4 and were making HUGE profits (94% beginning gross and $2.82 cash profit at $3/glass).

        I pointed out theat they could be selling -- at the time -- an imported Chardonnay that cost 10¢ per ounce. At first they thought that was too much money, but I pointed out to them that:

        -- they could increase the price they were selling the glass for;
        -- even if they left the price at, say, $3.00, they would still make a beginning gross profit of 86.66% and $2.60, respectively (and how much did they need to make?); and,
        -- what did the cache of pouring a French Chardonnay by the glass (as opposed to a cheap, generic "California Chablis" say about the image of their restaurant?

        * * * * *

        Espresso is such a HUGE money-maker for restaurants, you'd think that they would take it more seriously.

        1. re: zin1953

          Any idea what percentage of diners order an espresso (or espresso drink) after dinner at a fine dining restaurant? (I'm being literal, I have no idea).

          It seems like espresso may be a huge money maker in terms of the single item (ie high profit margin for an espresso shot) but not overall in terms of sales when compared to the rest of the items in the restaurant.

          My sense has always been that there's very little, if any training specifically on espresso machines and that the coffee quality and turnover is somewhat suspect. Why they don't spend more time on it/take it more seriously...I can only assume that, as with your wine example, they believe that its simply not worth it in terms of money.

          1. re: ccbweb

            From my own personal observation (and I'm a espresso drinker after my dinner), most people order coffee and not the espresso. I want to say about 1 in 5 will order the espresso, the rest coffee. That being said, I'm only ordering an espresso at a higher end restaurant, where I've either seen the machine in or around the bar area that is going to make it later on or I know that the place I'm eating at is going to pay as much attention to the espresso as they are going to the food (e.g. Fleur de Lys in San Francisco)

            I agree with most of the comments here, espresso making is an art and sadly most places don't want to invest in it. Makes one yearn for the baristas in Italy who can crank these puppies out perfectly while chatting you up and cracking a joke at the same time!

            1. re: ccbweb

              >>> Any idea what percentage of diners order an espresso (or espresso drink) after dinner at a fine dining restaurant? <<<

              I don't know of any "hard" statistics to cite, so speaking strictly from personal observation . . .

              In the US, it's certainly a minority of diners -- and nothing remotely like the numbers would be in Italy or France, for example. That said, it also clearly varies by region. I'm much more likely to see diners with an espresso (or espresso-based drink) in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle than I am in Boston or New York, for example.

              >>> It seems like espresso may be a huge money maker in terms of the single item (ie high profit margin for an espresso shot) but not overall in terms of sales when compared to the rest of the items in the restaurant. <<<

              You're probably correct, BUT . . . keep in mind that profit margins on thinks like coffee and tea are huge, and the margins on espresso is -- if anything -- even greater. People often complain about the markups on wine, but "bar" markups (distilled spirits) are higher, and on coffee & tea, even higher still.

              >>> My sense has always been that there's very little, if any training specifically on espresso machines and that the coffee quality and turnover is somewhat suspect. <<<

              I agree that training is virtually non-existent, but I suspect that at the type of restaurant that this thread is focused on, turnover is much less than one might imagine -- especially when compared to a Starbucks or the place that hires lots of college kids to wait tables . . . .

              Then again. barista training is hard to come by, period. What I would *expect* to happen is that the bartender, or maybe manager, would pass on his/her training.

              Jason

              1. re: zin1953

                most people don't order espresso in restaurants because they don't like it, perhaps that will change with the influence of starbucks ;-o

                1. re: fara

                  If they want it to taste like Starbucks, I think we're all in trouble!

        2. I can't help but wonder if its because the owners of places just don't take the time to train their staff properly. Awhile back, I went into a "Coffee House" in Savannah and asked for a double espresso. I received way too much coffee in a way-too-big mug. While this place was not part of a chain, it struck me as humorous that the place was trying really hard to cultivate an atmosphere - looked like pics of European coffee houses in the late 50's, with bohemian looking folk reading odd newspapers. I looked around for a Vespa or two upon leaving the place but there were only BMW's and sedans at that.

          Also, I have noticed a trend in some restaurants to put whipped cream on top of cappucinnos instead of frothed milk. Olive Garden comes to mind. Comments about Olive Garden aside, it seems odd that they do this.

          And I have to hand it to Starbucks - awhile back I was at one in Chicago and people were piling up at the counter as the barista kept dumping one espresso after another. Despite being slammed, he kept at it until he got the tamp and timing just right.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Jimmy Buffet

            Interesting . . . as I mentioned elsewhere, most of the Starbucks around here dumped all their high-end La Marzocco machines for super automatics -- precisely so the "barista" won't have to do much and thus, "consistency" is mechanically maintained.