Monday, September 6, 2010

Coffee for a certain crowd: The Supreme Bean

Strange as it may seem, coffee snobbery in Eugene is usually practiced in places bearing a decidedly shabby-chic decor and a cultish clientele. Not so at The Supreme Bean, a coffee shop that also serves lunch, dinner, wine, and beer next to the palatial Willamette street Market of Choice. The Supreme Bean says it all right there in its name: they aim to make coffee that's superior, in quality and -- it should be noted -- in price, in an atmosphere devoid of the usual coffee shop traffic.

The place is small but has plenty of tables for groups of two and a couple for up to four people, as well as a bar facing the window that overlooks a patio/sidewalk beyond. Out there, a few umbrella-shaded tables provide a chance to people watch (fascinating, at the intersection of Market of Choice and Ben & Jerry's) or to keep an eye on your car in the vast, steamy parking lot beyond. On Fridays and some weekends, there's often live music outside (or in, weather depending).

My general experience of The Supreme Bean has been positive in most respects. Their house coffee (20 oz: $2) is strong but not exceptionally bitter, and they're one of the only places I can think of in the wider Eugene region that bothers to make leaf patterns or swirls in the foam on a latte. (Whether a latte should have any foam is apparently a debate for another city, because they all do, here, except at Starbucks). If you dine in, your coffee comes in big, colorful mugs with saucers and a spoon (invaluable!). I tell you, I love a good saucer. They serve and sell a variety of loose-leaf teas (try the genmeicha, if you like rice), coffee by the pound, and various coffee-related materials. I've spent several longing moments staring at the travel presses they used to sell by the front door.

There's also food available, the most notable of which is the crepe. There's an honest-to-goodness crepe maker, one of those flat black jobbies that I have occasionally lusted over at Williams Sonoma, and from it springs crepes that can be topped with fruit, cheese, vegetables, or even meat. I've had a very good apple-cinnammon crepe here, and a really tasty blue-cheese apple treat, once upon a time. There are a few staples, but there's usually also a seasonal offer or two on the menu. Right now, berries are king -- strawberries, if you can get them, are a great topping, with fresh whipped cream. There are also panini and usually treats from Sweet Life Patisserie available, as well as a quiche of the day.

My two snags with The Supreme Bean are more indicative of my own station in life than anything specifically critical about the store. The crepes, and coffees, are expensive. I've easily spent over $10 to get a crepe and a cup of coffee to go with it, and I never quite feel like it's worth it. What you pay for, though, is more than just the food and drink; you pay for the atmosphere, which is tailored to welcome a certain type of crowd. What type? Well, older and affluent, I'd say. Generally, the place is pitched toward two-person parties who meet in the middle of the day (so: likely retired) for a cup of coffee or a quick bite but don't intend to stay much beyond finishing it. The Supreme Bean has self-selected its crowd through its products (European drinking chocolate, anyone?), pricing, and decor, and also through passive touches like requesting that students/people using the wireless internet not linger.

Maybe I'm oversensitive to this because, when I was a student, I used to go to The Supreme Bean pretty regularly, valuing its mid-morning quiet to get some writing done -- until I specifically heard the owner telling a friendly customer about the steps she was taking to limit the overtake of her coffee shop by the studying hoards. That's fine; it's actually a sensible business decision, in a town where you're likely to see a group camp out at Starbucks for 3 hours, soaking up free wifi on the strength of a single coffee purchase. It's just made me less likely to return to the store.

I think there's certainly room in the Eugene market for a place like the Supreme Bean to not only survive but thrive, as it is clearly doing. This is a safe space for those who want upscale coffee in an environment that reflects what they're able to pay for it, without the inconvenience of a grubby counter or the sheer commercialism of Starbucks. It's also a willing contributor to the community. Last month, they played host to a benefit event for CASA, and they seem to always have a new event coming up. That's good, local coffee.

Location: 2864 Willamette Street, in the SouthTowne shopping center next to Market of Choice (and Ben & Jerry's)
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; Friday and Saturday until 8 p.m.

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