North Beach's Caffe Trieste Offers Patrons History Alongside Strong Espresso

By Justin Dolezal, Foodable Contributor

Like many American cities, San Francisco has witnessed a recent surge in artisan coffee. Premium quality coffee roasters have sprung up around the city, with local brands like Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Ritual all expanding across the Bay Area, and beyond. These new coffee superstars have built their brands on sourcing quality products, employing careful and deliberate production methods, and assembling teams of trained professionals to produce their coffee. The classic morning beverage, enjoyed for millennia, has been raised to the level of culinary high art.

The argument could easily be made that the proliferation of high quality coffee in San Francisco can be traced back to a small, unassuming cafe in North Beach. Caffe Trieste, originally opened in the historically Italian neighborhood in 1956, was the first espresso-based coffee house to be opened on the West Coast. The cafe offers a casual slice of Italian culinary culture, with an array of classic pastries, live music, and high quality espresso. In addition to launching the espresso movement in San Francisco, Trieste has developed a history as a literary hotbed within the city. The cafe was frequented by the Beat poets and writers of the 1950's, who clamored for shots of strong espresso after nights of now-infamous debauchery, and remains a favorite of writers and creative types to this day. Since opening its initial location, Caffe Trieste has expanded its brand by opening additional locations around the Bay Area, delighting patrons with old world charm and high quality java.

America's Coffee History

To fully understand Caffe Trieste's place in San Francisco's coffee culture, it's important to understand the history of coffee in America. Coffee overtook tea as the dominant hot beverage in American culture soon after the early colonial “tea party” protests, but was mainly a luxury item inaccessible to everyday people (coffee was also used as a medicinal product at this time, something any drinker who has had to endure a day without it can understand). Though the beverage consumed at that time would likely seem undrinkable to modern coffee aficionados, advancements in packaging and shipping made decent, though unimpressive coffee fairly accessible by the early 1900's. The rise of instant homemade coffee in the 1950's is considered the “first wave” in American coffee culture. These were pre-ground beans sold to consumers in vacuum-sealed containers, fine for stimulation but devoid of any kind of character or nuance.

The “second wave” of American coffee culture is generally considered to coincide with the rise of Starbucks in the early 1970's. Though many coffee houses (including Trieste) had been providing espresso drinks to consumers on a small scale for years, Starbucks brought classic Italian drinks which are now ubiquitous to the masses. Starbucks also brought a focus on terroir and regional bean character to the forefront of coffee culture.

The current rise of artisan roasters, with an intense focusing on flavor and textural nuance, is considered the “third wave” of American coffee advancement. The popularity of direct trade products has expanded to coffee as well, as many roasters and coffee brands work directly with the farmers who produce their beans, ensuring a higher attention to quality and better living conditions for coffee producers.

Considering this timeline, it's obvious that Trieste was directly at the forefront of coffee advancement when it opened its doors in 1956, a full 15 years before Starbucks was established in 1971. Founder Giovanni Giotta moved to the United States from Italy in 1951 and, missing the espresso houses of Trieste, Italy, decided to open his own shop. He imported and roasted his own beans, a practice that was virtually unheard of at the time. Initially embraced by the Italian residents of the neighborhood, Giotta's shop soon became popular with residents throughout the city. The rest, as they say, is history.

Literary Tradition

It's impossible to discuss Caffe Trieste as a San Francisco icon without also mentioning the cafe's place in the city's creative history. North Beach in the 1950's was the epicenter of the Beat literary genre, as artists such as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still a Trieste regular), Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso lived, wrote, and performed regularly in the neighborhood. These writers may have been fueled creatively by the mundane uniformity of post-war America, but they were stimulated mentally by Trieste espresso. The cafe also served as a meeting place for writers, where discussions and performances frequently took place. Francis Fold Coppola, another former North Beach resident, wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather at the cafe. In addition, the cafe has hosted regular Saturday musical performances since 1971, and The Caffe Trieste Saturday Concert has become as much of a city institution as the cafe itself.

Caffe Trieste has been a player in the fertile San Francisco coffee scene since its inception, and with plans for continued expansion, the Bay Area institution shows no signs of slowing down. Many of the same coffee practices that made Trieste revolutionary in the 1950's are still in effect now, and the cafe's influence can be seen in any number of artisan roasters that open their doors today. In a city full of creative history and culinary tradition, Caffe Trieste offers consumers a relaxed and comfortable slice of both.