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Tale of the Toast

It's the standard trajectory of a food trend to come: You spot it once out of the blue, and within weeks, it's on menus practically everywhere. Now, it's humble toast's turn. Like grilled cheese, meatballs and cupcakes before it, toast has been elevated to hipster status, which means taking a plain, often underconsidered object and enhancing its properties to a level that allows you to declare it "artisanal."

In the case of toast, the bread isn't taken from a bag of pre-cut, processed Wonder, prematurely pulled from a toaster and served with cold, hard packaged butter. Rather, it's locally baked, cut thick, toasted to the perfect golden brown and tenderly spread with homemade toppings such as organic butter, jam, cheese and spices. And, perhaps most notably, sold for up to $7 a slice.

John Gravois, deputy editor of Pacific Standard magazine, noticed the appearance of toast at Bay Area coffee shops over the summer three times before deciding to write a story on the trend. "You have that moment where you realize something is a thing," Gravois said. "It seemed sort of silly to me, but I could also see the appeal."

Josey Baker, co-owner of The Mill in San Francisco, started selling toast at the coffee shop in fall 2012, and it's now the restaurant's top seller. "On a really busy weekend day we'll sell 350 to 400 slices," Baker said. "It's definitely not anything new, but I think why people are having such a good response is because we're just taking care about it from the very beginning to the very end. You can make crappy bread taste like good toast if you cover it up with tons of butter, but if you find the best butter and put it on the best bread you can make, it'll be that much better."

The Mill's offerings change often, but selections, priced up to $3.75 per slice, can be country bread with butter, maple syrup, powdered sugar and sea salt, or whole wheat bread with house made pumpkin butter. The trend has spread to Los Angeles, where Sqirl charges $7 for thick-cut local "burnt" brioche bread topped with house made ricotta and seasonal jam, and New York City, where The Smile offers buttered multigrain toast with local honey, raspberry jam or almond butter for $3.75.

Backlash has already begun about the perceived high price of toast on San Francisco blogs, where the toast trend is in full force, and Gravois said, "At one point it was like a populist rally cry in San Francisco." Baker points to "the true cost of food" as the reason why his cafe charges up to $3.75 a slice.

After extensively researching toast and its recent uptick on area menus, Gravois came away with a few realizations about the simple food.

"Expectations are very low with toast, so it's not that hard to hand somebody a piece of toast that's better than what they think they're going to get," he said. "And I think there's a little bit of pastry case fatigue when you're at a coffee shop and it's all scones and muffins and sugary cakey things. The way they present toast in these cafes, it plays up that this is actually something that's sort of handmade, even though what they're doing is taking a premade piece of bread and sticking it into a simple machine, and it pops up a minute later and they spread something on it."

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