In the atrium of the recently renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, visitors are greeted by a massive black-and-white mobile, an untitled work by famed American sculptor Alexander Calder. It’s something else—hulking and friendly, familiar yet exciting.
Continue past the Calder, scale three flights of stairs, navigate through the museum’s permanent photography exhibition, and you’ll spy what to coffee fans might be an even more familiar vision: Sightglass Coffee. The fourth location in the city for the roaster, this cafe boasts the same irresistible scent, killer coffees, and San Francisco-chic look—the design is by Boor Bridges, the architecture firm that also designed Sightglass’s Mission and SoMa locations—as its siblings.
“People are primarily going to the museum and then discovering us along the way,” says Sightglass co-owner Justin Morrison, who adds the important point: “Probably about 90 percent of the people who come through would not otherwise have come into one of our stores.”
By replacing SFMoMA’s pre-renovation Blue Bottle Coffee shop, Sightglass is now available to an entirely new clientele. “The museum saw it as an opportunity to bring in some different amenities,” says Justin Morrison, making it clear the museum simply wanted a fresh partner for its relaunch. “It wasn’t anything crazy.”
“The museum itself is such a destination, and people from all over the world are visiting,” explains Justin’s brother and business partner, Jerad Morrison. “That means we get to serve them our coffee, which is great. It’s different.”
Different is the operative word there. When I visited, I got an espresso that was, predictably, delicious. Like the majority of Sightglass’s drinks, it was prepared by a barista with the intense concentration of a goth teen reading a Ouija board and made with the shop’s MoMA blend, one that’s specific to this cafe. It’s just a hair heavier than what you might get from the city’s comparatively light roasters (such as Ritual), and darker than the espresso roast at the other Sightglass outposts—a very fine adjustment possibly put in place to appeal to the museum’s wide audience. It tasted syrupy, like super-ripe fruit, and I made a mental note to order a cappuccino next time: this was a shot that could handle a cup of milk.
So while it was a distinctly Bay Area, distinctly Sightglass espresso, the overall experience was a new one. In place of a barista’s vaguely recognizable (but choice) soundtrack, the ambient noise of the museum cafe consists of patrons chatting about photography that looks vaguely recognizable. Instead of banter between baristas and regulars, there’s a pack of German tourists softly, gutturally explaining the menu to their dad. Rather than a gritty alley, the shop backs up to framed Man Ray photos. Even the typical La Marzocco machines are replaced by new, foot-pedal-instead-of-steam-wand-dial Kees van der Westens.
But then there’s the warm, familiar Sightglass espresso, meticulously sourced. There are the same Square cash registers, the same impeccable service. The cups and saucers are the same as the other branches too. (Although, in a museum of this caliber, you could be served a tepid “expresso” in a rusty tin can and it will usually at least feel more high-brow.)
The conclusion I’ve reached is that there’s a connection to be made about drinking a favorite brand of coffee in a new environment and seeing a well-known work of art in real life. So, in the spirit of observing art and enjoying it for what it is: it’s the same Sightglass. It’s great. And it feels a little different. Familiar, yet pretty exciting.
Photos courtesy of Michael O’Neal.