In case you haven't heard and been appalled yet, toast in San Francisco now costs $4 a slice. Not at home—at your extremely expensive San Francisco home, you can still make toast for a fraction of that price, or a fraction of a fraction if you use crummy supermarket sandwich bread (which San Francisco has not yet outlawed). This $4 toast is toast that you order at a cafe or a restaurant—toast that someone who is not your mom makes for you. It may be toast made with artisanal wood-fired-oven-baked bread, spread with hand-churned butter from Marin County–dwelling cows, topped with jam made from fruit handpicked by angels. (One place, the Mill, serves toast with "small-batch almond butter.") Nonetheless, it is just toast.
In San Francisco, $4 toast has quickly become a symbol for the city's rampant nouveau riche and everything that is wrong with them—I mean, Christ on a bicycle, they don't even make their own toast, and they pay the price of an entire loaf of bread for one slice. Part of the moral outrage here is economic: Toast is meant to be a thrifty food, meant to make homespun, happy use of otherwise less-than-optimally-fresh bread. (French toast, in French, is pain perdu, the would-be "lost bread" that you are rescuing instead of throwing away.)
But the sense of perversity goes deeper than that. Toast is home, toast is hearth (granted, a tiny hearth inside a metal box, but...). Toast is the simplest but most magical transformation—it's the first thing you learn to make, your first exposure to the Maillard reaction, your first inkling of how applying heat can make a thing taste so much better. It's the first thing you screw up in the kitchen, and the first time you learn this is not an irreparable tragedy—I can just try again. A slice or two of any old bread goes in, you hear the hum of the heating elements beaming orange, you wait during the tiny crackles, the great wafting smell. The popping-up never stops seeming like a tiny, quotidian miracle: You put in bread, and look—now it's toast. Spread it with butter, maybe some jelly, and it never fails to be more than the sum of its parts, it never fails to be good. It took but a matter of minutes. Even a completely incompetent cook can make this one perfect thing: toast.
Cafe-and-restaurant toast has now come to Seattle. Because we're still behind San Francisco on cost of living and general rich-person asshattery, toast starts at $3 a slice here, at a place called Toast Ballard (5615 24th Ave NW, 784-0615, toastballard .com), located in a new condo building just north of Market Street on 24th called the Metropole. Across the street are the new NoMa condos. Kitty-corner are the new On the Park apartments. On the fourth corner is a construction site.
Nine people were at Toast Ballard at 3 p.m. last Wednesday. They were all on laptops. It's a pleasant, high-ceilinged space, with blond wood tables, white walls with local artists' work, white curtains tied with brown craft string, and a concrete floor. They make by-the-cup Clover coffee, they have espresso from three different local roasters, they refill growlers with Maritime IPA or Nightwatch. They also make waffles with all kinds of toppings, sweet and savory, for $9 to $11, and $5 breakfast sandwiches. The man who was working was ideally nice: not snobby, not obsequious, just completely personable in a low-key way. I felt terrible asking him for toast. I felt like his response might be—ought to be—"Are you fucking kidding me? Go home and make your own goddamn toast." He didn't even blink, and since I was already being that kind of person, I ordered a glass of their bougiest wine, a Chateau de Campuget rosé ($8, peachy colored, really good).
When the man brought out my rosé, he said, "I'll be right back with your toast." He said it without derision, though derision would've been deserved.
The toast was all right. It was made with Tall Grass organic bread ($7 a loaf at the bakery). First I had "Italian" toast, which was topped with olive salad and melted provolone cheese; this arguably gets into open-faced-sandwich territory, but for $3, that seems fine. It was about four inches square, an inch thick. The cheese had golden-brown bubbly spots; the bread had a large, dense crumb. Overall, it was a bit dry, in need of a drizzle of olive oil under its toppings. It was an okay snack; it did not seem like a terrible rip-off. It took a while for the man to make it—not a big deal, he had other customers, I had my wine. But at home, toast is nearly instantaneous. Waiting for toast and, especially, the intensely jerky thought that your toast is maaaaaybe taking too long: This should not be part of the human experience.
Then I had cinnamon toast. It needed way more butter and way more cinnamon-sugar—two to three times as much. But how is this man to know how I like my cinnamon toast? Cinnamon toast is personal. In any case, a slice of cinnamon toast would need to zip up your jacket and kiss you on the cheek to be worth $3. This did neither.
Brand-new Tallulah's on Capitol Hill (550 19th Ave E, 860-0077, aneighborhoodcafe .com, reviewed February 26) also has a menu of toast, as part of weekend brunch only. Tallulah's toast makes more sense: While it costs from $4 to $6, each order comes with enough toast to make the carb-avoidant very uncomfortable: three sizable slices of Macrina's vollkorn or brioche. And while, yes, you can get whole loaves of these for $4.50 and $5.75 at the bakery, respectively, the toppings at Tallulah's are what a San Francisco jackass would call a real value-add: spicy and nicely bitter satsuma marmalade, a slightly grainy and not-too-sweet version of Nutella, light and lovely ricotta with fresh herbs mixed in. It's all made at Tallulah's, and even the "house butter" tastes special: Extra-creamy, it's made with organic milk. The spreads come separately in generous portions in little metal cups, so you can get your own toast just right—except the cinnamon toast. No one but you is ever going to get that just right, but if they brought you the butter and the sugar and the cinnamon to apply yourself, that would be absurd... wouldn't it?
Tallulah's toast made me lose perspective on the whole toast thing a little. Sitting in the airy, bustling dining room, surrounded by happy, privileged people—what's so wrong with ordering toast? Tallulah's also has full table service, and they are very nice. "How are our toasts?" one server inquired sincerely, and I felt part of a temporary toast community. But there is no doubt in my mind that at brunch there in the future, I would choose a great-looking pecan sticky bun or coffee cake instead of toast—these are $3 each, and my toaster and I will never make anything like them.