La Dolce Vita

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.

I recently went back one afternoon after a several-year absence to see what had become of the old place. There was a help-wanted sign in the window, which never would have happened during our heyday, when we always had some unemployed friend or another to take up any slack. But other than that, things seem to have remained largely the same. The boys behind the counter were pierced in all the wrong places and clearly had better things on their minds, but they were fast and they pulled a mean espresso. The waffle cone triangles still come stuck in the side of the little plastic dishes of Stacciatella and Marzipan Cherry Kirsch. The little square spoons could have come from the same bag we used to keep under the counter. The coffee is still Illy, and while the chairs have been replaced, the round white tables out front and on the deck look very much like the same ones I used to spend off-days scrubbing for extra cash. The only real concession to the passage of time seems to be that the placard fronting the zabaglione has been dumbed down to a phonetic-friendly spelling of "Zabione," presumably for the benefit of employees who finally got tired of correcting tongue-tied West U matrons.

It looks a bit faded, still sitting there, very much the same as it was ten years ago, before it was overtaken in the race to create a "truly world-class city," where the local coffeehouse was never more than two minutes, by car of course, from whatever cardboard condo a citizen might happen to be paying mortgage on at the moment. The chrome doesn't shine quite as brightly as it once did, and it doesn't reflect the only-place-in-town clientele quite so sharply.

But it was still the first, and if ten years have dulled some of the sparkle, those years have also done something that a mere ten years would be unlikely to accomplish in any other city. They've made of the place -- once so Euro-sleek and futuristically forward-thinking -- an almost antique landmark in a town whose idea of preservation is to tear it down next month instead of today.

A landmark of what, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe of a time when a decent cup of espresso was something you had to work for, in my case literally. Now we're willing to suck down our caffeine at whatever franchise is most easily accessible to the driver's side door, choosing the objects of our patronage the same way we choose gas stations.

Ten years later, I still drink plenty of coffee, and judging by the number of franchises keeping themselves afloat, Houston drinks even more. But that demitasse of espresso just doesn't taste as good at Store No. 36 as it used to at Dolce. It tastes, somehow, diluted.

E-mail Brad Tyer at

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