A few years ago, as I prepared to move to China from Italy, I anticipated some serious withdrawal symptoms. I had grown accustomed - no, dependent - on Rome's ubiquitous cafes. Any slot of space big enough to hold an espresso machine could qualify. Place a rickety table out on the cobblestones, and you're in business. My daily routine would take me to these cafe-bars four or five times daily... for a morning croissant and doppio with soda back, a few times throughout the day for a cappuccino or americano (iced in summer, though I always felt a little guilty about this...), and, usually, after work for a beer or two. These cafes were everywhere, and I knew I would miss them. While Shanghai had its fair share of Starbucks and a few other chains, "real" cafes were sparse... and those that had invested in the bulky, imported, expensive equipment were usually too crowded to be enjoyable.
So, I was excited to move to Seattle, in part due to its famous coffee culture. While Starbucks is dominant, the city is blanketed with other, better, spots for your caffeine fix, and I was pleased to find that few even followed the Italian model, with walk-up windows and sidewalk seating. What I couldn't anticipate was the phenomenon of the Bikini Barista.
The concept is self-explanatory. Over the past 15 years or so (according to Wikipedia) Washington state's road-side espresso bars have gotten increasingly racy, with competing shops marketing themselves with titillating names and the promise of scantily-clad young women. These "sexpresso" stands have proven controversial, of course, and though interest seems to have waned after media coverage peaked around 2010, there are a number of them still doing brisk business, with employees in various stages of undress. Today, most of the Bikini Baristas have covered up, and there's nothing more shocking than what you'd see at a Hooters or Twin Peaks (the stands are still invariably staffed by attractive young women).
But wait: road-side espresso stands?!
While Seattle is a fairly walkable city, to really get the most out of the Pacific Northwest's amazing landscape, you'll need a car, and for the long drives, you'll need to stay caffeinated. Like all American cities, Washington's sub- and ex-urban landscape is dominated by automobile infrastructure. While there a number of major interstate highways, for the most part, traveling in Washington state means traversing the state-routes with their lower speed limits, occasional traffic lights, and their road-side drive-through coffee shops.
Perfectly scaled for their environment, these shacks would be vanishingly small when viewed from an Interstate, but with the smaller setbacks and lower speeds of a state route, they easily catch the eye. While they take a variety of forms, and vary in size (and occasionally include a kitchen and seating), the vast majority are pre-fab shacks, big enough to hold an espresso machine, ice machine, refrigerator, and one or two employees. Set back from the highway, these free-standing structures are typically set in the parking areas of gas stations or other businesses, providing fast and cheap caffeine hits for travelers.
Though clearly not exclusive to the Pacific Northwest, the ubiquity of the espresso shack here is intriguing, and the typology stands as one of the region's more interesting forms of roadside architecture.
Returning to the US after years of work and travel abroad, Evan Chakroff attempts to bring a global perspective to analysis of the relatively-unknown architectural traditions of his new home, Seattle, Washington.