Whether you want a single-origin pour-over or chicory with a splash of brandy, the best coffee bars serve much more than cream and sugar.
Before you order an espresso at a Seattle coffee bar, you can often read where the coffee beans came from, how those beans were roasted—and even a short résumé of the barista who’s making your cup.
“Coffee brewing is a science and an art, and is easy to mess up,” says Erin McCarthy, a barista with Counter Culture Coffee, and the 2013 World Brewers Cup Champion. “Just because you’re getting a coffee that may have been grown, harvested, processed, and roasted well, it doesn’t mean that these things will translate into the cup if the barista isn’t skilled—or doesn’t care.”
Such passion made Seattle a shoo-in to win the title of best coffee city, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 35 cities on such features as friendly locals, cultural ambience, and ice cream.
The results prove that Seattle isn’t alone in elevating the morning cup of joe. At one coffeehouse in Providence, RI, they won’t serve any coffee that’s older than a half hour. In Portland, ME, a purveyor boasts about the local wood used in the roasting process. And in New York City (rated No. 9), a chain hosts coffee-making classes and cuppings, where you can taste and discuss the latest single-origin treasures like fine wines.
Some everyday fans may feel overwhelmed by the sophisticated options, say, whether to order a pour-over versus a siphon or drip. McCarthy says that, when in doubt, just treat your barista like a bartender. “Say, ‘This is what I tend to like—do you have anything similar to that?’ A good barista loves questions.”
Even without the omnipresent, homegrown Starbucks shops, this town of brainy locals was a no-brainer to win the coffee championship again, thanks to the sheer numbers of cozy coffee bars, roasters, and drive-through espresso shacks. You’ll find the caffeinated cognoscenti at Joe Bar in Capitol Hill and branches of local chains such as Caffe Ladro, Espresso Vivace (which also has a sidewalk stand), and Caffè Vita, which offers a blend infused with local chocolate Theo.
Oregon’s hipster haven is probably rolling its collective eyes at coming in second to Seattle, but it may get the last laugh: Portland’s hottest coffee, Stumptown, now has branches in Seattle and is offered in increasing numbers of high-end coffeehouses around the nation. At Stumptown’s Annex location, you can participate in free public cuppings each weekday at 3 p.m. Serious coffee drinkers also love Barista, in the Pearl District, and Courier Coffee (near famed bookstore Powell’s), where the staff pride themselves on their 23-karat-gold filters and on playing vinyl records rather than CDs.
The Crescent City’s most famous java—the coffee with chicory at Café du Monde or the French drip at Morning Call—is unapologetically old-school, and holds its own alongside the near-obligatory beignet. For an only-in–New Orleans cup, but with a different kind of kick, try the Café Brûlot Diabolique at Antoine’s, first created in 1890: it’s a hot spiced coffee, flaming with brandy at your table.
How seriously do Rhode Islanders take their coffee? In 1993, the state legislature declared coffee milk the official state drink. You can explore the locals’ high standards at Seven Stars Bakery, where baristas get trained for two months, each cup is weighed to ensure consistency, and no coffee older than 30 minutes is ever served.
Caffe Trieste has been a go-to cappuccino spot since the 1950s, while relative newcomers like Four Barrel, Ritual, and Blue Bottle appeal to the same kind of purists who have given this town a serious foodie reputation. Blue Bottle’s downtown Mint Plaza location, for instance, features a stylish, five-light siphon bar and a Kyoto-style iced coffee apparatus. Four Barrel, meanwhile, challenges its coffee lovers to stay unplugged by literally not offering outlets or Wi-Fi—perhaps a refreshing change in this otherwise techie city.
It says something that readers ranked the island city’s esteemed coffee even higher than its party-ready cocktail lounges. Finca Cialitos and Cuatro Sombras are the main institutions, but it’s also worth seeking out a newer spot in Old San Juan: Caficultura, a restored home off Plaza Colón, where you can order breakfast or tapas with a cortadito (espresso with just a bit of steamed milk) or con leche (with a lot of steamed milk).
Here’s more proof that long winters create a hot market for great coffee. The Twin Cities’ version of Starbucks is the sustainably farmed Caribou Coffee, while Dunn Bros. offers coffee from microlots roasted in small batches. Costa Rica Las Lajas Honey Coffee, for instance, has apple, caramel, and wine-like notes. Explore Minneapolis’s unconventional side at the Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop & Coffee Bar, where you can sip single-origin coffee (including a smoked sea salt mocha) and get tips on cycling gear—a nice combo in this fitness-minded town.
9 of 21Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau
No. 8 Portland, ME
In this scenic base for day trips, a cup of coffee is the best way to kick-start your morning. Speckled Ax on Congress Street stands out for using beans roasted over local fruitwood. Yet plenty of locals still swear by the micro-roasted Coffee by Design, which has been around since the ’90s and has a branch inside the L.L. Bean flagship store. Readers were more impressed with New Englanders’ accents than their fashion sense, however, so if you want to brush up on the local lingo, check out Wicked Joe, where the wicked-good options include fair-trade, shade-grown blends like the Wicked Italian.
In a city where street performers have Broadway-worthy talent, coffee lovers expect a lot from their baristas. Joe the Art of Coffee is one purist magnet, with locations from the West Village to Grand Central up to Columbia University. (At its Chelsea Pro Shop, techie coffee snobs can buy espresso machine parts, or take classes like Milk Steaming Theory.) Brooklyn holds its own with Blue Bottle Coffee, Café Grumpy, and the quirky Parlor Coffee, a tiny espresso shop tucked in the back of a barbershop.
While sunny San Diego may not seem like an obvious top 10 coffee city, readers may have changed their minds after taking a dip in the chilly Pacific. Near the beach in La Jolla, check out the award-winning Bird Rock Coffee Roasters, started by a former English teacher, or follow the foodies to North Park: the Coffee & Tea Collective offers small-batch roasting (as well as occasional free waffles), and Roast Coach, a coffee cart at 30th and Upas, does pour-overs like a bold Death Before Decaf or a cold-brew Café con Horchata.
One of the best places to soak up this southern city’s local charm is Café Foxy Loxy, in the SoFo (South of Forsyth) area, where local art is for sale as well as coffees by resident roaster Perc. To kick back with offbeat locals, go to the Sentient Bean, just south of Forsyth Park, which offers fair-trade coffee, live music, and “underappreciated” film screenings by the Psychotronic Film Society.
In a city that ranks highly for its wild weekends, the morning-after coffee options need to be substantial. Houndstooth Coffee in East Austin is a good place to sample the nation’s most renowned roasters, such as Counter Culture, Cuvée, and Intelligentsia; nearby, Cenote (named for Mayan wells) does French-press coffee, gluten-free pastries, and local Rockstar bagels, a New York–style bagel outfit started by a local drummer. Indeed, the Texas capital also ranked near the top for its live music scene.
The Hawaiian capital gets big props for being in the only state that grows its own beans—and that acidic volcanic soil gives the local Kona coffee its special flavor. You can drink it or take it home from such companies as Honolulu Coffee Company (whose locations include Moana Surfrider Hotel Café and Ala Moana Center Café) or Kona Mountain Coffee, which has a branch at Hilton Hawaiian Village as well as a tourable farm on the Big Island.
The best coffee places reflect this southwestern city’s artsy, quirky vibe. Thirty-year-old Ohori’s was doing small-batch roasting before it was cool, and Holy Spirit Espresso has plenty of loyal fans, despite its tiny size and lack of Wi-Fi. On the newer side, Iconik—in the Second Street Studios area—was started by Bay Area transplants, who use a vintage 1927 roaster and pair their coffees with local-flavor cuisine, such as green chile cheeseburgers.
Music City easily ranks in the top 10 for its cocktail lounges and sports bars, and its entry into the coffee top 20 this year reflects an increasing number of caffeinated watering holes. Award-winning Crema, in the Rolling Mill area, has a “slow bar” where you can listen to a barista wax poetic about the coffee’s finer points. East Nashville’s Barista Parlor offers a who’s-who of hip roasters (Stumptown, Madcap) and even sells its cold-brew in growlers, microbrewery-style.
These midwesterners scored highly for being enthusiastic sports fans, but they also have plenty of legit coffee snobs: Parisi Artisan Coffee is home to a recent World Champion Barista, while roaster and coffee bar Oddly Correct doesn’t even offer cream or sugar with its coffees, to preserve the nuances of flavor. At The Roasterie, you can take a free factory tour to see how it air-roasts its beans—perhaps one reason Kansas City won the survey for affordability.
Boston’s notable coffee history dates back to 1932, when longtime favorite Polcari’s first opened in the North End. More recently, Cambridge’s Dwelltime—named for the amount of time that coffee grounds comingle with water before dripping—opened in a former art gallery that still shows exhibits and holds public cuppings every Thursday. Boston also ranked in the top 10 for great pizza.
The best artisanal coffees around the Windy City rely on distinctive technology—appropriate in a town filled with proud, smart locals. Renowned roaster Intelligentsia Coffee, which now has coffee bars in NYC and L.A., uses vintage, gas-powered roasters called Gothots, while the Ukrainian Village’s Dark Matter makes its iced coffee from double-strength, heat-extracted coffee that’s often served from a nitrogen-tapped keg. If you’re not too distracted by the equipment, coffee bars are a good place to mingle: Chicago ranked in the top 10 for its singles scene.
Readers found this city to be quite civilized, thanks to its compelling architecture, inventive restaurants, and quality shopping. For a charming cuppa, check out Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer, which offers both caffeinated and hoppy beverages, as well as live music and even latte art competitions. At Black Tap Coffee, you can get more indulgent renditions, such as a shakerato—a shaken iced espresso—or an affogato, made with a double shot of espresso, homemade toffee, and a scoop of ice cream.
The City of Brotherly Love slipped 12 spots in this year’s coffee rankings, but locals are still loyal to the espresso at La Colombe, which has a café off Rittenhouse Square. Meanwhile, newcomer Ultimo Coffee, with a location in South Philly, was recently declared the nation’s best coffee shop by one foodie site, in part because of its loyalty to the highly esteemed Counter Culture beans. But locals love more than a good coffee high: Ultimo’s South Philly location shares space with Brew, a by-the-bottle craft beer shop.