Foster's Cafeteria in San Francisco no longer exists. It perforce does not qualify as a great café, but that doesn't matter because it was indeed just a cafeteria.
You had to slide a tray along a kind of chrome track, picking from the various Jello desserts, leathery eggs, meatloaf that resembled shaped fertilizer, doughnuts that oozed liquid, hours-old mashed potatoes, and other such treats where they rested in heated containers before you. They served coffee there, also, but that didn't qualify it as great, either.
What did happen at Foster's was that the first section of "Howl" was written there by Allen Ginsberg in 1954. It happens, by the way, that I once had a cup of coffee at Foster's, because I wanted to see where the great literary event had taken place, so I know whereof I speak. I never went back. I also know that Ginsberg used to frequent another San Francisco café, a fact that for me qualifies it as a great one.
You might be surprised when you walk into the Caffé Trieste, on the corner of Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue in San Francisco, to find that it is included in this survey of great cafés. It is sloppy, for one. There is no table service. You stand in line at the counter to place your order, and then you wait for it and carry it yourself to a table.
Newspapers reside on many of the tables on any given day; much-read newspapers, tossed about, from which individual articles have been torn out. The café breaks one of the cardinal rules of being a great café, in that food is served here only on paper plates. This is simply not acceptable.
I have sentimental reasons for thinking that the Trieste is a great café. The first cup of espresso I ever had came to me at the Trieste, in 1957, when I was fourteen years old. It riveted my consciousness, to say the least.
Every follicle of hair on my head felt etched by that first sip from a dark brown, tiny ceramic cup, and I spooned at least three cubes of sugar into the moil. My cheeks continued tightening as I took the second sip and, immediately, I could feel the start-up of whole new kinds of emotions and intensities, the likes of which continue to this day after many hundreds of espressos. One's first will do that and, so, should be cherished.