From a lot of road food testing, I’ve come up with a rough rule of thumb: Don’t order coffee at a breakfast place, and don’t order food at a coffee joint. In other words, stick with what each does best.
First off, I’m not saying absolutely don’t order coffee with breakfast. For a lot of people, it’s the only jolt of java they’re going to get before hitting the road. And there is something comforting about coffee hitting the bottom of that mug just as your seat’s hitting the chair at 7 am. I’m just saying, don’t expect that coffee to be great.
Think about it. Most breakfast places charge $2 or thereabouts for a cup of coffee and maybe two refills. I’m sure they’re not making much money off these bottomless cups. It’s just something they’re expected to offer—more of a loss leader, in marketing terms. Whether it’s driven by economics or not, the resulting coffee may be fresh (busy breakfast restaurants do go through lots of pots) but it’s also usually weak and indifferent, at least by my standards. The spoons that arrive inside the filled coffee cup at some diners are not exactly standing up.
And if restaurants do offer espresso-based drinks, it’s normally the wait staff handling those duties, on top of running around serving breakfast. I strongly doubt they’re timing those shots.
What good breakfast joints do well is make good breakfasts, because they often have two experienced cooks focused on just cooking those breakfasts. At most coffee joints, good as they may be at making coffee, they have exactly zero cooks producing made-to-order breakfasts. Instead, they offer breakfast treats, like scones or muffins, typically produced offsite and delivered close to opening hour by a local baker, which in some cases means it might be reasonable fare.
Unwilling to call it quits here, though, most coffee shops also offer something hot—maybe a breakfast egg sandwich or burrito. But in the vast majority of cases, these breakfasts have already been made and are then heated in an oven or microwave when ordered. (I recently watched one café worker put together breakfast sandwiches assembly-line style, slapping white slabs of cooked, cold egg between slices of bread to await the panini press.) In other words, it’s hardly fresh fare, though it is more efficient… for the cafe. I’ve even been offered the “opportunity” to heat the food myself in a microwave. Eggs or croissants nuked in a microwave. Yum!
And if you see something wrapped in plastic, run for the hills. To me, this screams “day old”. I’m always amazed people will pay $3 or more for this packaged stuff.
So, I tend to keep my two morning road-trip worlds, breakfast and coffee, apart—eating breakfast first and then getting a coffee at a coffee joint. And if you’ve got the time, I suggest you do the same.
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