Best (and worst) Downtown Coffee at Restaurants

“My nerves have gone to pieces
My hair is turning gray
All I do is drink black coffee . . .”

Black Coffee
Music: Sonny Burke, Lyrics: Paul Francis Webster
Performed by Ella Fitzgerald
I can’t run from it any longer. I’ve been overdue to write about downtown coffee since I started this blog. I know I’ve mentioned it – that’s because I can’t help it. It’s my heritage. It is in my blood. My blood is probably 50% coffee by now.
According to my father, it all started when he put coffee in my baby bottle. He’s an honest man, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It was part of the culture where I grew up. When you wake up in the morning, you make coffee. When you end your day, you make coffee. If you have guests, you make coffee. A date? How about doughnuts and coffee? Special guest coming to have dinner? Gumbo and coffee essential; iced tea, likely.
We went to south Louisiana to visit relatives or to New Orleans and had coffee with chicory. It was thick. It was black and it better be fresh and hot. Burned coffee stinks and cold coffee is an abomination unto God, who probably grew the first coffee.
So, I got older, went out into the world and discovered, much to my horror, that not everyone drinks coffee. The first time guests came to the house and said, “We don’t drink coffee,” you could have knocked me over with the soft toss of a coffee bean. I lived in Gainesville, Florida by that time and I soon discovered an amazing coffee house called Cafe Espresso. I suppose they had frappuccinos and cappuccinos, but I always like my coffee straight. Which doesn’t mean it was boring. On any given day they would have a dozen or more different coffees from all over the world: Ethiopian, Cuban, Malaysian, Italian, etc. The tables were cross-sections of cypress trees. I’m sure they would be illegal, now. My palate learned a lot in that place.
Then I moved to Knoxville in 1982. I know: Right in the middle of the World’s Fair. A World’s Fair is a very international event, right? This is a major university in town, right? Knoxville is probably 20 times bigger than Gainesville, right? What must all that mean? Only one thing: the coffee here is going to be great! Except for one thing: It wasn’t.
There were no coffee houses to be found. The best cup of coffee I can remember in those early days was at Regas (Dad’s money when he came to town, FYI) and it wasn’t great by any stretch. I could not believe it. This was even the coldest climate I had ever lived in. They should have coffee!
Things slowly got better and now there are a number of places to get a good cup of coffee in town. I’m not extreme about determining the source of the bean and I’m not prudish about buying from a large corporation if they have good coffee. If anything, I think Starbucks – and maybe Duncan Donuts of all things – taught most Americans that the cup of coffee they pry out of the pot at 3:00 in the afternoon or the hot water they add to instant faux coffee, isn’t real coffee. I’m a bit of a purist at home: I hand grind my beans in an old-fashioned grinder. It’s just better that way.
So, fast-forward and now I’m downtown. There is excellent coffee to be had downtown, there is very good coffee, there is barely coffee and there is brown-tainted swill that, if encountered, should be spewed from your mouth forthwith.
I’m not afraid to name names. I haven’t had coffee everywhere that serves it, so I’m only evaluating the coffee I’ve had. If there is somewhere I should try, let me know. Of course, these are just my opinions, but I feel pretty strongly about my coffee, so here goes:

Best Coffee at a Restaurant: Trio – Always delicious, fresh and hot. They serve a different specialty blend each day, a house blend and a decaf. I’ve had a number of the special blends and the house blend many, many times (decaf is an abomination unto God) and I have only once been disappointed. I have no idea what happened that day. Find a not-so-busy time for the restaurant and yourself and bring a book. Sit outside. Eat a panini and afterward leisurely drink multiple cups of coffee while reading and people-watching. Preferably, do this when it is not hot as blazes outside. Do not, however get my table (the tall one to the right of the door).

Also excellent at restaurants: Italian coffee at French Market. Very traditional! 🙂

Good at restaurants: Cafe Four – not always the best, but good. Also, La Costa – sometimes really good, sometimes not so much. Regas – not terrible, not so great the last time I had it (it’s been a while).

Not the best place for coffee: Le Parigo – how is this possible at such a high-end restaurant? Food, yes. Coffee, don’t think about it. Downtown Grill and Brewery – I know, they aren’t known for their coffee.

Spew it from your mouth: Pete’s – the absolute worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life. They should remove the word “coffee” from their name. The drink they serve should not even be called coffee. My advice: Go there. Eat their delicious breakfast. Smuggle in a thermos of good coffee. Sapphires – Truly horrible. I was there for brunch, so the coffee should be fresh – not. It was disgusting and tasted very old.

Coming Soon: My ranking of coffee at Coffee Houses. Happy drinking.

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