Time Traveler’s Primer on Modern Coffee Shops

Coffee-siphon (2) Once upon a time one had their coffee in a coffee shop. A waitress, perhaps calling you hon, would arrive at your table within seconds of your sitting with a pot of coffee in one hand and ask “coffee?” There were two choices: black coffee was black. Regular coffee was coffee with milk in it. The waitress would come around occasionally to refill your cup which was a heavy white ceramic mug (see photo below). This was known as the bottomless cup of coffee.

Flash forward some 40 years to contemporary Los Angeles and a time traveler would hardly recognize a coffee shop. In fact, I don’t think they’re actually called coffee shops. Maybe they’re called cafés, or caffées, or coffee bars (I don’t know for sure). One will be confronted with a dizzying array of choices, nearly all with Italian names—macchiato, espresso, Americano, latte, cappuccino. One must specify a size because the bottomless cup of coffee no longer exists. The coffee will not be immediately poured. One has to stand aside and wait for the coffee. We are not sure why this is, but everyone complies without complaint. If you ask for a black coffee they will ask if you want room for milk. You will need to force yourself not to say “no, you twit, that’s why it’s called a black coffee.” Relax, maybe you shouldn’t have such a large coffee.

At home I sometimes make my own espresso using the same Medaglia d’Oro espresso coffee my Italian grandfather use to use. This is an intense coffee which provides you about a thimbleful which is why I make it at home as I’m unwilling to pay $3 for it when I’m out. I have a little $20 stovetop espresso maker not a $1,200 machine which I believe you have to be certifiably crazy to have for a thimbleful of coffee. I occasionally have some Turkish coffee, also known as Arabic coffee, an even more intense thick coffee I also make at home—this is coffee on steroids and curiously you cannot get it in coffee shops. I never drink either in the morning. In the morning I only want my bottomless cup of coffee.

However, coffee drinking has gotten even more complex in Los Angeles and I assume in other cities as well. There are no longer waitresses pouring coffee asking if you want refill, hon. You will approach the counter to place your order with a good deal of trepidation because the old Bunn VPR Pourover Coffee Brewer is gone. In its place you will see a line of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions involving siphons and other devices looking more like a chemical lab than a coffee shop. The waitress is gone and a barista has taken her place. A barista is a person who knows more about coffee than anyone else, anywhere. They might be female, but they might be male, sometimes bearded, with a funny little bun on the top of their head. They are not in a funny costume; this is called fashion. Try not to laugh. They think this look is cool, which of course it’s not. Dean Martin circa 1962 is cool. Coffee-ceramic mug (2)

The barista will not know what a regular coffee is and when you ask for black coffee you will be asked a series of questions and given information concerning growing practices in Third World countries and free-trade agreements. You must choose whence your coffee bean. I think I chose Ethiopia. (Can’t travel there, so I thought this is the next best thing). The coffee will take a good deal of time to arrive because it has to go through the siphon system (I guess) or maybe it has to arrive from Ethiopia. (Damn I knew I should have chosen the “California” bean—just kidding, they didn’t have a California bean). In any case when it arrives it will not be as hot as you would like, it will have cost $6, it will not be re-fillable, the barista will not call you hon, and when they look at you to see what you think it’s best not to do what I innocently did which was to say, approvingly, “it’s just as good as the Folgers I drink at home.”


  1. Melodie bryant says

    I love rants!! Get your point. Tho usually i didnt get fresh brewed in coffee shops and it was frequently burned. Always loved those waitresses tho.

    • Ranting, as long as you keep it short, and don’t use capital letters, is a great way to blow off steam. It is, however, very much like a firefly in the summer, giving very short ephemeral illumination to something.

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