Coffee Service: Let It (and Me) Linger, Please



After a dinner out the other evening, I forgot an important instruction to the server: "Yes, I'd like espresso, but with dessert." I got my espresso immediately, and I had to choose between cold espresso with my dessert or hot espresso without the divine accompaniment of something rich and sweet. (I hate to send it back, asking for it to be served at the appropriate time. The server gets grumpy, and the bartender probably keeps it warm on top of the machine, letting all the flavor evanesce. And I try not to make coffee scenes; it embarrasses my wife, Jane.)

I got to thinking about how and why American coffee service changed. Coffee comes at the end—right? Maybe it could come with the dessert; coffee makes a fine accompaniment to many a dessert.

The traditional progression of courses I grew to love and respect is first course, second course, cheese—and, if I'm indulging, then comes dessert, then coffee. France, Italy, America, wherever you were, coffee came last. Years ago, the coffee industry advertised, "Coffee is the last thing your guests taste. Make it good."

I should have been paying more attention all these years. Perhaps I could have enlisted help in ending this rush-me-out-the-door coffee service. When did they start doing this to us?

I asked several friends who own restaurants about this nefarious practice. The coffee-obsessed owner of a small bistro, who is on the floor most nights, always asks when customers would like their coffee served.

The response from the chef-owner of a large San Francisco restaurant leaves me wondering what we have wrought. She says, "I believe this is an Americanization of service. Not in a good way. We do have an American habit of washing our food down with beverages. We serve too many double tall lattes after and with dinner." (Mercy!)

"In Europe, they ask Americans if they want coffee before, after, or with, and that is the result of 'it's-all-about-me' Americanism and I want it the way I want it, when I want it. The cultural traditions of espresso are not well understood. Espresso in the final position of the meal is more about the taste and sensory complexity. It's not just a pick-me-up!"