Living in Boston, I wake up every morning to an enviable American dilemma: what to do for breakfast? Diner food, the great American breakfast, is a wondrous down-home institution: eggs sunnyside-up or over-easy, crispy bacon, thick pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, maple syrup poured liberally over everything. Served all day and any way you want it. But there’s a new kid on the block: the artisanal coffee house where your day begins with single-estate espresso or a bitter chocolate cappuccino so carefully made it beats the pants off anything you drink in Rome. I am eternally torn between the old and the new.
Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe was established 1927 in Boston’s South End and has never changed. Four children of the first employee, Christi Manjourides, a Greek immigrant who came through Ellis Island as a child, still work there every day. The floor is the original tile; Norman Rockwell red vinyl stools line up along a Formica counter, worn white in places with decades of wiping. On the wall framed memorabilia track American history: a telegram from Duke Ellington asking them to keep the coat he left behind so that he could pick it up next time, Obama on the campaign trail ordering a hamburger to go. The South End used to be a working class neighbourhood of boarding houses and immigrants. It has gentrified, but still, on a frigid February morning, the regulars are much as they have always been, local Boston.
Adam, who works for the municipal sewer and water services, is sitting on the same stool he always sits on, tucking into his usual cranberry pancakes: “Charlie’s is like my living room.” Dan, a self described “irregular regular,” says he’s going to have something different today: “I want two fried eggs with sausage, whole-wheat toast, home fries, yeah, but only a half portion…”
Marie Manjourides briskly writes it down on her pad—“and can we butter your toast for you?” A couple of seats down the counter the Metro editor from the Boston Globe is chatting to a man who has the suit and tie of a councilman. “He comes in every day,” Marie says, pouring me more coffee. “People come in every day and become like family. Sometimes I say we’re kind of stuck in a time warp.”
Her brother, Arthur, works the stove with precise and relaxed concentration, omelettepan- shake, one-handed egg crack, pancake flip. I order the famous turkey hash with a poached egg, a dish invented at Charlie’s. It tastes like Thanksgiving stuffing—delicious. Cut to the new: Dwelltime, a clean and spacious blonde wood coffee house in the leafy academic neighbourhood of Cambridge, just across the river. I sit with Jaime Vanschyndel, the owner, an intense and earnest young man, percolating coffee passion as he explains the effects of the intricate variabilities of time, temperature, grind and roast. He came to the business as a barista, increasingly frustrated with roasters who wouldn’t give him information about their roasting dates. “There’s a window,” he explains, for the beans to be at their optimum. “Between three and 12 days. They have to de-gas and get rid of the CO2 so you don’t have that sour carbonic taste. Some of my customers won’t even touch it if it’s more than seven days old.’
He set up a roastery and delivers his beans by cargo bike. His coffee machine has a double boiler so that he can control the temperature and pressure of each one. “Everything is digital and now I can pull shots to any specification and do all kinds of crazy things.”
He buys his beans from single estates in Central America, and ships them in hermetically sealed pouches so they don’t pick up the taste from the jute sacks that are usually used. He describes how to make a “pourover,” hot water hand-poured over ground coffee and then allowed to rest and absorb and develop flavour. The pause, 20 to 30 seconds, is called the “dwelltime.”
This may all sound precious and exacting, but make no mistake, Dwelltime may serve the best coffee in the world—rich, dark, chocolate, cherry and orange and tart. Flavours that reveal themselves in as many complex layers as wine.
America’s two breakfast cultures do not collide. I asked Marie at Charlie’s if they had ever considered getting an espresso machine. She grimaced and shook her head.
One morning recently I was sitting in Dwelltime, among the cognoscenti and professors who come in to tap on their Apple Macs and swap lecture notes. A grizzled old timer came in from the cold, stamped the snow off his boots and asked for a coffee. “What kind?” asked a barista with maple leaves tattooed up one arm. “American coffee,” said the old timer, baffled by the question. “An Americano or a pourover?” The old timer blinked. He had never heard of such things. The barista didn’t know how to translate so he brought the man a menu. The old timer ran his finger over the options: La Loma (Tarrazú, Costa Rica) described as having apricot and citrus, cocoa and stonefruit flavours; or Teklu Dembel (Kochere, Ethiopia) with lavender, berry and grape notes. And then, oddly, trying to make his own kind of compromise between the two worlds, he ordered an espresso, “with cream.”