La Dolce Vita

I was young, espresso was exotic, and Dolce and Freddo was the only game in town

Pull up a mug, my young friends, and sip a spell while we regress one-tenth a century to a bygone Houston, when "loft" described something substantially less and yet somehow more than a $1,200-a-month studio apartment with sealed windows, when any investment over twelve bucks on the east side of downtown would have gotten you laughed out of the Elks Club, when a "chain" bookstore was something very scary deep in the heart of Montrose, when Montrose, like downtown, was still previtalized, when suburban kids from Clear Lake scrounged for a current copy of Public News to find out who was playing at The Axiom, and when those of us with a serious coffee jones had so few options that we ended up not just frequenting the original -- and at the time, sole -- location of Dolce and Freddo on Kirby, but working there, for rent money, or for pocket change, but mostly for the discount espresso fix (and now that the statute of limitations has run its course, those of us who were in on the deal may as well admit that we helped ourselves to some very heavy discounts).

Yes, those were days of hardship for Houston's caffeine addicts. Days, though you're not likely to remember them, when taking a drink through the doors of a bookstore was akin to entering sans shirt and shoes. Days when a specialty coffee drink meant you had arrived at work 45 minutes late and hungover, brewed up four perfectly foamed single-shot espressos, poured them over ice in a highball glass and sucked it down sugarless just to get started on the shift. Simpler days, when regulars who insisted on low-fat in their cappuccinos brought their own milk stash to keep in the fridge under the counter, when frozen granita machines were rightly unheard of, when baffled locals still asked what part of Mexico "Cafe Ole" came from. Days when Dolce and Freddo, with its exclusive on the Italian Illy brand and its high-brow munchies (gelato, sorbet, tiramisu, biscotti and those ubiquitous little triangles of vanilla-scented waffle cone) was, coffeehouse-wise, the only game in town.

Dolce had been planted on its corner at Kirby and Albans for four years already when I started my on-again, off-again espresso jerk career in 1988. Kirby Drive, at the time, was still the city's premier restaurant row, and Dolce stayed open till midnight on weeknights, 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, to catch the post-movie, post-theater, post-whatever crowds of yuppies looking to extend their cultural excursions another half-hour or so. We served Channel 13 anchorman Dave Ward on more than a few occasions, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and for a time the shop's co-owner was Robert Sakowitz, whose wife-at-the-time, Laura, was a glamorous if too-infrequent visitor. We served snotty West U matrons who ordered the zabaglione as if it were something that smoothed the ice at a hockey rink, and one of whom once (justifiably) declared to my manager that I was "the rudest man she had ever met."

We also caught the college kids who would nurse a single espresso through an entire empty afternoon, staring ponderously at the traffic on Kirby and then scribbling poems in a notebook or, if a stray pretty girl might be watching, on napkins for better effect.

Those of us who steamed the milk and shoveled sorbet, in the classic manner of service workers everywhere, hated them all, though you'd never have known it from the tip-seeking chattiness with which we wooed our marks. We were bound for better things, we figured. And in large part, that turned out to be true. As Dolce and Freddo changed hands over the years, our core group of compadres wandered off. At least two are well-respected actors on local stages. One is a wildly recompensed network administrator for a wildly profitable local law firm. One pretty much runs the Art Car Weekend. One is the fiddle player for the North Carolina band Whiskeytown. A former manager is now Christoph Eschenbach's right-hand man. And at least one of us has climbed to such dizzying heights that he now works for a free weekly news and entertainment paper.

In the meantime, Dolce and Freddo itself wandered off in pursuit of bigger things. A second store opened at San Felipe and Voss. More recently another opened on Augusta at Westheimer to catch the multiplex movie crowd. A downtown store failed, predating the boom wave by several years.

And then the world began catching up. Around 1992, Brasil, Cafe Artiste and Amy's Ice Creams and Coffees all opened their doors, and as the city's coffee drinkers began to disperse, so too did the diaspora of coffeehouse workers ensue.

Empire Cafe and Kaldi Cafe targeted the antique rows of Westheimer and 19th Street respectively in 1994. In 1995, Diedrich Coffee bought out Brothers and began an expansion to its present four stores.

But by then, the real killer had already established a beachhead. Within the span of a single week in November 1994, Starbucks opened shops at Highland Village, the Galleria, and San Felipe and Voss, within spitting distance of the second Dolce and Freddo. Subsequent expansion has resulted in a present-day grand total of 40 Houston Starbucks, including one at University Boulevard and Kirby that continues the bleed on Dolce's original location, the one that, for better or worse, started it all.

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