Starbucks' latest bid to elevate its food (and expand its market) started with fanfare at Seattle's high-end flagship — but how does it taste?

Share story

Seattle’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room appears to be as popular as ever. It is vast: Fifteen thousand square feet, with a capacity of 497, and what seems like at least that number of patrons swarming throughout the premises on even Seattle’s dreariest winter day. They drink coffee — espresso, pour-over, cold-brew, more. They take selfies — so many selfies. They browse the goods of the “Handpicked at the Roastery” retail zone, where the “Select supplies for the well appointed” include shirts emblazoned “ESPRESSO YOURSELF.” They lean on railings to gawk at employees in handsome leather aprons running the immense, Willy Wonka-esque coffee-roasting machinery of tubes and funnels and vats — labor as theater in an upscale contemporary steampunk setting. They tap on laptops, they chat in various languages, and they try to figure out how to get something to eat.

The food at the mammoth, multinational mermaid’s flagship used to be the purview of Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas, who operated an outlet of his pizza endeavor, Serious Pie. He got the boot in favor of Princi, installed last November under the direction and imprimatur of high-end Milanese baker Rocco Princi. With Starbucks’ growth slowed, several other efforts to expand food offerings having fallen short, and the downfall of acquisitions such as Teavana and La Boulange, the company’s grand plans for worldwide Princi expansion will be closely watched ones.

The TL;DR version of the Princi backstory gets trumpeted in salt-of-the-earth copywriting on to-go bags and on the far north wall of the Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, above racks of beautiful loaves of bread branded “PRINCI” in stenciled flour. “Rocco Princi started making bread in Italy in 1985 — artisanally … Today he does it exactly the same way. Because for him, there is no other way…” No one seems much interested in the bread, for in front of it lies an enormous case of salads, tarts, breadsticks, sandwiches, pizza and pastries — a colorful, gorgeous expanse.

Employees all in white, including spotless aprons and caps, deserve gold medals for their efforts to deal with the style of service here: No signs of where to order, no menus, just small placards for prices. They are friendly to a degree of which you may feel unworthy, their offers to help guide you sincere and numerous. Sometimes one of them comes around to the customer side for added encouragement. “It’s a little overwhelming!” I said to one such emissary. She laughed, replying, “Let me know if I can help you with any life decisions today!”

She should guide those on their Princi journey to the pastries at one end of the counter, with more available in a further-flung region of the building as well. The cornetto ($4.25) — indistinguishable here from its French friend, the croissant — has the right happy butteriness, inner whorl of lofty layers, and exterior crisped-brown. An escargot-shaped girella ($4.25) was also airy and burnished to a glisten, with nice crunchy edges and edge-of-caramelization raisins. Nothing tasted mass-produced or oversweet; even a standard-looking doorstop of carrot cake ($4.75) proved to be rich, moist and fresh.

Princi’s salads (around $9.75 each) seem to come from another planet. An oil-drenched eggplant one had a texture that went beyond creaminess to the point of soggy-dissolving, and a metallic taste. A pasta salad with roasted vegetables had the overriding, insistent flavor of roasted peppers and nothing else, with its s-shaped lengths of caserecci noodles tasting remarkably plain. In the case, caprese looked promisingly like a Italian flag, arranged in color-blocks of greens, fresh mozzarella and tomato; it came with the enthusiastic, confiding information that “Rocco” uses arugula instead of the traditional basil for “a little more heartiness.” Also cheaper, longer-lasting and stronger-flavored, the arugula had the chew of maturity, while the mozzarella had an unsettling sourness. A configuration of chicken salad took an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, including uniform slices of chicken breast; quarters of hardish cherry tomato; thin slices of carrot and celery; the occasional, grainy-textured single pea; the occasional mushy corn-kernel; a little lettuce; fragments of artichoke heart; and a chickpea now and again. The free-for-all philosophy was abandoned in the dressing, which fell closer to undetectable.

Princi’s service creates uncertainty on both sides of the counter. At one point, with customers clustering, two employees conferred, sotto voce, “Who are you helping right now?” Wavering before taking a seat at a communal table nearby, a woman plaintively asked, “Do they bring your lunch to you?” “They’ll find you!” I reassured her, for, heroically, they somehow memorize you and hunt you down.

The large slices of focaccia pizza (priced to match, around $8.50 each) reflected the place’s unpredictable feeling, fluctuating wildly in edibility. A thick rectangle of Margherita conjured the elementary-school cafeteria: The spongy, doughy, bland base carried scant yet oregano-heavy sauce, a gluey layer of cheese and none of the usual basil (and not even a well-rehearsed explanation about Rocco’s feelings on the subject). On the same visit, a slice with speck and scamorza had a decent loft to the focaccia, tender slices of potato, subtle rosemary and nicely crisped edges. Quattro stagioni had good pops of briny olive but floppy, canned-like mushrooms; parmigiana had melty-soft slices of eggplant, so much better than the salad’s.

As with the eggplant, ingredients appear at Princi in various guises with dramatically different results. The focaccia itself was serviceable in some pizza formats, dreadful in others, and never the revelation of simple, rich, airy-honeycombed goodness found in Italy (or at San Francisco’s legendary Liguria Bakery). The plain strips that came with salads were tough-edged and chewy. A Princi caprese sandwich ($8) compiled uninspired focaccia with a soggy underside; wilty, shrunken arugula (again); and grainy-textured wintertime tomato. A sfilatini ($3), touted by the most preternaturally friendly server as Rocco’s best-seller in Italy, seemed to be a manifestation of focaccia dough as a thick stick, studded so thoroughly with big pieces of olive that it was rendered intolerably salty.

The same server, possibly gunning for employee of the month, observed of his colleagues, “These are the best baristas in the world!” “The world?” my companion rejoined. “Well, America is the best country in the world…” he said. (Don’t tell Rocco!)

We dutifully reported to the nearest coffee bar, which also serves Rocco Princi-curated aperitivo, wine and other drinks — including, as one of the world’s best baristas let us know, some special, off-menu coffee cocktails. When in Rome! The Princi martini contained a dangerously drinkable mixture of cold brew, vodka, vanilla syrup and chocolate bitters, topped with a layer of rich foam. A Melrose Manhattan, with Woodinville bourbon, pricey Antica vermouth, cherry bitters and espresso, was bitterly imbalanced, a drink having an intense argument with itself.

The cocktails cost $14.50 each, though it’s worth noting that gratuity is included … sort of. An inquiry about the lack of a tip line on receipts at the counter sent workers scurrying for a manager, who just smilingly, firmly said it wasn’t necessary. At the bar, asked whether tips were then built into his pay, the barista said, simply, “No,” and kept on smiling. When we turned up a few extra bucks in cash and handed it over along with the credit card, he was outstandingly, cheerfully grateful.

“Gotta keep the belly full,” he said. “We really appreciate it.”

Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, 1124 Pike St. (Capitol Hill), Seattle; 206-624-0173;