Bay Area Cafés Worth the Buzz

A new, hip, trendy coffee shop pops up on every street corner just about every month, each with its own schtick -- rainbow lattes, veganismcats. It's like the mythological Hydra -- one goes under, two more appear the next day -- and your choices them become overwhelmingly varied. In distress, nearing hysteria, you scream to the heavens, how can I choose? Where do I shamelessly spend $4 on coffee? Which café's aesthetic will get my overhead latte-and-scone shot the most likes on Instagram?!

Never fear. I've got you, boo.

Hopefully I can shine a light on your pit of despair and artisanal espresso. Here are a couple cafés in S.F. and Oakland (sorry, Marin) that I hold near and dear, and I hope you'll find your go-to in one of them. Just remember, for every personality (and every Instagram aesthetic), there's a coffee shop out there. In due time, you'll find "the one."

Beauty's Bagels: Oakland

The Vibe:

Situated on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue, the shop looks unassuming from the front if you disregard the hordes of people outside each morning.  When you walk in, you’re greeted by an eclectic mix of businessmen grabbing to-go before work, writers sitting down with a cup of coffee, and locals catching up over fresh bagels. Most importantly, the friendly and engaging staff is always willing to lend their expertise when you’re stumped on what to order.  The atmosphere is warm, welcoming, and enriched with quirky Oakland flavor.

What to Order:

I can't personally attest to whether they hold up to the authentic New York bagel, but a New York born-and-raised friend of mine gave Beauty’s her glowing approval. This is tough as Beauty’s offers a vast range of cream cheeses, egg dishes, jams and more, so let this serve as a guide and go with your gut from there (no pun intended). Beauty’s is known for their fried chicken sandwich featuring a creamy beet coleslaw, which I can vouch for a hundred times over. Served alongside house-made pickles, the chicken is moist and well-seasoned, and the crispy bagel with toppings of your choice completes an overall excellent sandwich. To me, this sandwich is the beauty that makes the shop’s name a reality.

The best way to carbload, Montreal-style. Image via  Dirt Road Travels.

The best way to carbload, Montreal-style. Image via Dirt Road Travels.

The Mill: San Francisco

The Vibe:

Situated around the corner from Alamo Square, The Mill is one to visit if you're playing tourist for the day (stop by after a look at the famous Victorians!) This café's abundance of natural light and high ceilings make for a great place to kick back on a foggy San Francisco afternoon, not to mention perfect lighting for all the Insta-worthy pictures you'll post of your coffee. You'll find white marble, rustic wood and an ever-changing collection of local art in the airy room. The smell of the fresh-baked bread is really the kicker, though

What to Order:

The Mill is known for their artisanal toast, and for good reason. Critics may call it overrated; I call it a masterpiece. All the bread is made by in-house company Josey Baker, and in thick slices fresh out of the oven, it's definitely worth the hype. On top, go with any of their spreads; with everything from their herb cream cheese to house-made almond butter, you can never go wrong here. My personal favorite is butter and seasonal jam with a sprinkle of sea salt -- and don't miss out on a mean cup of coffee from local roaster Four Barrel.

I can basically smell the bread from a look at this picture. Image via  Eric Herrmann .

I can basically smell the bread from a look at this picture. Image via Eric Herrmann.

Arizmendi: Oakland

The Vibe:

This is a no-fuss, no-frills bakery that is definitely worth the constant line out their door. It may look modest, even boring, from the outside, but don't let that deter you from hopping in line. The staff moves customers along with an efficiency and grace that only comes with years of practice and a tried-and-true business. Though their original location is on Valencia Street in the Mission, I'm more familiar with the Oakland shop that I frequented as a kid. (You don't have the I-live-in-the-East-Bay-S.F.-is-too-far-away excuse here. So go if you haven't already.)

What to Order:

Arizmendi is a bakery, but it's really known for its gourmet pizza. Serving up just one type per day, you're bound to love whatever they've got (trust me). This is what the line is all about and how they made a name for themselves, so don't pass it by. Toppings rotate daily and vary depending on the season; goat cheese, sweet peppers and garlic olive oil are only a few of the options that you'll find on a regular basis. And though their pizza selections are limited, their pastry options are limitless. Fresh baked daily, you can find cheese rolls, shortbread, cinnamon rolls and more. I personally recommend the crumbly, not-too-sweet cornmeal cherry scone.

It has veggies on it, so it's healthy, right? Image via  Serious Eats

It has veggies on it, so it's healthy, right? Image via Serious Eats

Craftsman and Wolves: San Francisco

The Vibe:

This café is, in a word, cool. It's sleek, simple, and edgy without seeming inhospitable. Rustic brick complements black walls and countertops to create a laid-back yet modern vibe, making it one of the most unique bakeries in the city. Dark but not too dark, it's a great place for San Francisco's high-end alternative folk to hang around. The owner is, I've heard, a perfectionist, and this is reflected in the atmosphere -- the pristine tables, cases and (most importantly) desserts are what set it apart from your typical coffee joint.  Just down the street from the also contemporary, also-featured-on-this-list Ritual Coffee, Craftsman and Wolves' menu is much more food-focused -- read on and you'll see why.

What to order:

With an edgy vibe comes an edgy menu, and theirs has a bit of an attitude. Their specialty is a muffin called "The Rebel Within;" a creme fraiche and sausage muffin with a delectable, runny farm egg on the inside. It's served along with a tiny vial of sriracha salt to give it a bit of a kick, living up to its daunting name. But don't let the name scare you -- the muffin is equal parts punk rock, mayhem, and deliciousness. All the other items on the menu are hardcore in a different sense; their pastries and cakes, displayed in their sleek glass case, look like untouchable works of art (Remember that perfectionist owner? This is where he comes in.) For dessert, I highly recommend their whipped coffee and yuzu stone on a coconut praline. You might be afraid to eat something so beautiful, but sometimes a little destruction is worthwhile (you'll thank me after you taste it).

Food or a work of art? Image via  Craftsman and Wolves.

Food or a work of art? Image via Craftsman and Wolves.

Baker & Commons: Berkeley (Formerly Elmwood Café)

The Vibe:

If you're looking for a spot to curl up with a book and a good cup of coffee on a rainy day, this is your place. Conjoined with Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore in Rockridge, this café encourages people to relax and stay awhile! Its yellow awnings and attentive service give it a warm, neighborhood-y feel. Opened in 1921 originally as the Elmwood Soda Fountain, it's a historic part of Berkeley's Elmwood District and still maintains that vintage atmosphere with house-made sodas and live music on weekends. I think honest cafés with no ulterior motives or "modern" twists are hard to come by anymore. Baker & Commons is just there to give you a good cappuccino and a family-friendly vibe which is exactly why it's been open for all these years.

What to order:

They serve standard café fare here; muffins, paninis, etc., so you'll likely be able to find any sort of comfort food your heart desires. Brunch fare is standard here, but reliably delicious and always served quickly. I personally think they serve a mean waffle, and with a cup of their strong coffee, you'll be tempted to sit there for hours. It's a classic, with strawberries and fresh whipped cream, but is always just crispy enough on the outside and light enough on the inside. Be sure to snag a seat by the window for great people-watching!


Ritual: San Francisco

The Vibe:

Now, when I mentioned cafés with a "modern" twist, I wasn't throwing shade. Ritual is a sleek space that might scream more "gallery" than "coffee shop" at first glance, and it's go. With floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and a geometric bar, it's the polar opposite of Baker & Commons. They attract a much more trendy group; you'll find your usual sophisticated S.F. coffee snobs here, but the kind that actually is there for the coffee (not the 'gram). The newly installed garden at the back of the shop gives an organic feel to the otherwise minimalist space, and the many high-tech coffee-brewing gadgets for sale makes it an espresso-lover's dream.

What to Order:

The best thing about Ritual is their coffee (they are a coffee roaster, after all). Their cup is typically a darker, greener roast than Four Barrel's, and I think it's overtaken its famed competitor Blue Bottle as my favorite in the city. Go for one of the smoothest cappuccinos you'll find anywhere as Ritual's prime objective is crafting small batches of the best coffee possible. They'll even explain the minute variations in flavor from different brewing methods, like the French press vs. Chemex, a glass coffee-making contraption for sale in their shop. They offer a selection of fresh, gourmet pastries to accompany your brew that I definitely recommend, but the real focus here is on the beans.

That light fixture, though. Image via  Conscious City Guides.

That light fixture, though. Image via Conscious City Guides.

Darwin: San Francisco

The Vibe:

This tiny, unassuming SOMA café is located on a little side street -- go too fast and you'll miss it! Though it's a hole in the wall, you'll always find it bustling with friendly staff and locals grabbing breakfast or lunch. It gives me the impression of a quaint French bistro, with rustic wood paneling on the bar and exposed pipelines that complement the semi-industrial naked lightbulb fixtures. Decorations are simple, including a hand-written roll of butcher paper as a menu and local art on the walls, but the bar overlooking the tiny kitchen space can't be beat. Neither can the wine selection they have on tap!

What to Order:

The simplicity of the decor is reflected in the food. Everything is made from basic, organic ingredients -- the most complicated thing on the menu is organic cottage cheese with balsamic black figs; a minimalist breakfast that still knocks it out of the park. Darwin is home to potentially the most famous kale salad in all of San Francisco. I tried it for the first time today and I was not disappointed! With a mellow balsamic glaze and bits of savory chopped prosciutto and raddichio (not to mention the heaping size), it's without a doubt a serious contender in the S.F. salad scene. The heavy-handed portion of parmesan grated on top didn't hurt, either.

Secluded yet sun-soaked. Image via  Well-Traveled Wife.

Secluded yet sun-soaked. Image via Well-Traveled Wife.