Nothing 'Regular' About It

This is Part VI of a series on Specialty Coffee, presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America in conjunction with Saveur.com.

I tilt back in the upholstered banquette after a six-course meal at a superb restaurant, the flavor of Salt-baked King Salmon with Braised Lobster, Mushrooms, and Corn still lingering on my palate. Our server arrives to offer us the dessert menu we've been dying to see, and the inevitable exchange ensues:
SERVER: "Would you like coffee?"
ME: "Yes, thank you."
SERVER: "Regular?"

Did I fall asleep and awaken in my Chevrolet outside a convenience store? "Regular" coffee?! The appetizer alone rated five adjectives.

Indeed, the table seems set for an alternative to "regular coffee" in restaurants. With 15,000 Starbucks each offering 15 different whole bean coffees and dozens of espresso-based drinks, damning the flood of "regular" coffee elsewhere clearly represents a re-imaging opportunity the size of Brazil's annual crop. Imagine: "Would you like to see our coffee list?" Or perhaps, "Our pastry chef recommends the Ethiopian Yirge Cheffe coffee with our Fresh Lemon Tart."

After all, much of the coffee being served in better restaurants is anything but regular. Some are winey, berry-tinged coffees grown by tribes high in the mountains flanking Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley; other milder, "sweet" coffees take root on the sides of active volcanoes in Costa Rica and Guatemala. Coffees with flavors evoking brown sugar and burnt butter might come from old stock Bourbon plants on plantations in El Salvador. I might like to know if the coffee I'm about to drink can rival the Banana Tart with Honey-Vanilla Ice Cream and Macadamia Brittle in front of me.

"Regular" coffee is often hand-picked, hand-sorted, and hand-roasted. A restaurant's "regular" coffee may have been grown under tropical shade tree canopies or surrounded by migratory birds and butterflies. Some "regular" coffees are certified sustainable by third party verification agencies like the Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) or the Rainforest Alliance. Coffee "cuppers" (expert tasters) note flavors like honey and apricot, dark chocolate and licorice in the finest coffees. With the vast array of origins, blends and roasts now available, settling for a "regular" coffee is a little like asking for a generic bottle of "red" wine. Or, for your main course, maybe you'd like a nice plate of "meat"?

Two prominent New York eateries have taken up the challenge by offering coffees beyond regular or decaf. Make a reservation (a month or so in advance) at the venerable Union Square Cafe in Manhattan and you'll be presented with the option of drinking the Union Square Cafe House Blend ("with notes of toasted nuts and dark chocolate") or a rotating seasonal offering, "Sweet Unity Farms Tanzanian Peaberry." General Manager and Director of Wine Christopher Russell says, "We specialize in making meals special. Customers want to know what they're eating and drinking. Our coffee program is no exception."

Fifty miles away at Blackstone Steakhouse on Long Island, Executive Chef Chris Hollis eliminated all "drip" coffee completely, opting instead to serve light and dark roasted coffees from Central America and East Africa by french press. Every cup is hand-brewed to order. Even if they wanted to, he says, his waiters would have a hard time offering customers "Regular or … regular?" Hollis says that "At first the staff was reluctant to complicate things, but then it caught on. Now we don't serve 'regular' coffee. Our waitstaff asks, 'Would you like a french press of light roast from Central America or a dark roast coffee from East Africa?'"

Staff "coffee training" is something a good coffee roasting company can provide to help servers understand what makes their coffee so special. Whatever reasons the restaurant might have had for choosing to serve a particular coffee—a sustainable certification, a romantic story related by the roaster, the fact that it won an award or taste test—can then be succinctly suggested to the person being served.

So, the next time someone confronts you with "regular" coffee, speak up: "What kind of coffee is it?" "Where was it grown?" Because if I want regular, I'll just go to the gas station.