The Taste of Washington: In Quest of the Perfect Cup of Coffee

Back in Washington, spring, unlike the spinsterish schoolmarm she was in Cambridge last week, is stepping out in her full glory: flowers everywhere, flowering trees, flowering bushes, flowers and shrubs the profusion of which this kid from Minnesota would not believe if he did not see them with his own eyes.

I am downtown for a roundtable discussion on America and the Middle East, at which I eat a bag lunch and from which I emerge eager to continue my quest for the perfect cup of coffee, which means an espresso, a double.

“A cup of coffee,”as most Americans understand it, to me is a cup of dark brown, bitter but otherwise flavorless hot water; a caffeine delivery system.  If you had served a cup of this, uh, beverage, to any self-respecting Turk back in the days of the Ottomans, he would have pulled out his scimitar and lopped off your head; and received a verdict of justifiable homicide in a court of Islamic law.

There is an old Turkish saying:  coffee should be black as night, sweet as love and strong as death.

While the Venetians and Londoners were enjoying coffee a few decades earlier, it was the Viennese who introduced it to Central and Northern Europe beyond the Alps after the Turkish siege of their beloved city in 1683, which was lifted by the sudden appearance of a large and well-equipped army led by the King of Poland.  The Turks had to break camp in a hurry, leaving behind tents, equipment, food and coffee brewing on their campfires. The hungry Viennese fell upon the encampment and enjoyed their first food in months, washed down by sweet, strong coffee. Within a few decades, all of Germany and points beyond were enjoying this heady brew. Johann Sebastian Bach even wrote a comic cantata in praise of coffee, which was performed in a coffee house in Leipzig. It is performed there to this day.

Stop Number One in Today’s Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the White House:  Pick up bran muffin at Au Bon Pain.  ABP in Harvard Square served Peets coffee years ago, but no espresso of any kind is on offer here.  So, on to Stop Number Two:  Order double espresso from Cosi, corner of 17th and G.  I should have known better.  The server presses a button on a machine and the liquid trickles out into a small white paper cup.  Sigh.  Well, it suffices to accompany the muffin while I sit outside on a relatively quiet G Street and contemplate my surroundings.

Just to the east, the Old Executive Office Building is completely enclosed in scaffolding, so it is impossible to enjoy this wonderfully impossible building put up in the 1870s, often threatened with destruction until rather recently, an almost hypnotic expanse of pillars, columns, posts, pilasters, dormers, chimneys, eagles, flags, shields, escutcheons and, for all I know, suns, moons, stars and all the planets, securely wrapped in pipes and platforms so completely that Christo could not have done it better. I can’t wait to see the building when the work is done.

Directly across the G Street is Stop Number Three. “M. E. Swing Co. “ “Coffee Roasters since 1916,” read two plain brown signs with white letters above the windows.  Since I have only sat inside this temple of coffee before – no outside seating; didn’t have it in 1916, don’t have it now – I have never really noticed the building it is in.

It takes considerable turning of the head and craning of the neck to fully behold its massive, city-block-extending ugliness.  The two entrances to the building’s five upper stories are labeled “Liberty Plaza.” I am grateful to the United States of America, the Founding Fathers, the President, Congress, the Judiciary and all the patriot dead that I have the liberty of expressing how ugly I think this building is.  Every city must have its brutalist building for the local citizenry to hate and at which visitors gape; this is only one of several in Washington.  The worst is undoubtedly the FBI Building a few blocks away.  More on that some other time.  There is only so much carefully planned, brutal, contemptuous ugliness that one can contemplate in an afternoon.

Bare concrete block faces.  Unadorned poured concrete pylons.  Flat, squared-off concrete floors that project out at the corners like a dictator’s jaw.  The first floor is ringed with arc lights that give the appearance of being able to project so much light that a mouse could not escape from the building without its every movement being duly noted. Take away the windows and it would be a maximum security prison. As the windowless top floor recedes a bit, giving it a slightly pyramidal look, it would make a great site for executions, ancient or modern.

After viewing this monstrosity for a few minutes, I don’t need a coffee, I need an aspirin, a whiskey, the embrace of a beautiful woman . . .

Nonetheless I cross the street to enter the beast and order a double espresso.  Fortunately, once inside, the place looks like nothing has changed since it opened for business.  As the original building was torn down decades ago, they must have disassembled the entire interior and lovingly reinstalled it piece by piece.  It has the feel of a 1930s train station or the late night eatery that Edward Hopper immortalized in Nighthawks, only darker and dingier.  I feel like lighting a cigarette (I don’t smoke), unbuttoning my trench coat, removing my fedora and getting the lowdown on a caper from the young Peter Lorre, or somebody like him.

A generous portion of dark, dense liquid slowly dribbles into the sort of plain white heavy crockery cup that you could use to really hurt somebody if you had to.  I add a drop of cream, inhale, slurp:  old-fashioned, dark-roasted, thick, bitter, powerful; the sort of stuff that set dervishes to dancing in Anatolia when Europeans did not even have decent wine.  It leaves rings in the cup as I finish.

If not the perfect cup of coffee, certainly the winner and still champion:  M. E. Swing, southwest corner of 17th and G, northwest.

Feeling fortified and grateful, I walk out into the sunshine to take a look at the wonderfully impossible Old Executive Office Building from the south, from the foot of the tulip garden.  For a few weeks in the spring, this jumble of pillars forms the perfect backdrop to the garden and monument to the First Division.  The red tulips form the symbol of the division, a big red number one.  The golden angel atop the pillar blesses those beneath with an outstretched hand.  It is very French, beautiful, glorious and completely American.

Richard Hyde

Richard Hyde believes that St. Helena, California is the world’s greatest small town and loves to enjoy good wine and food there while playing bocce ball of a summer evening. Nonetheless, he leaves to spend winters in Washington, DC. He admits that this may be a sign of advanced lunacy, which he treats by inviting friends over to his top-floor apartment overlooking the National Cathedral, where great conversations take place accompanied by bottles of Malbec and mounds of fresh pasta. Despite the brilliant conversation and analysis of the world’s problems, no action is ever taken. Sometime in the spring, like a large migrating bird, he returns to the Napa Valley, where he practices Esalen bodywork at the Calistoga Massage Center and other fine health spas. He also writes a blog, “In Search of a Sense of Place.”

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

We are undergoing a Facelift!
Please check back soon to experience the new