A certain coffee shop chain started there four decades ago and changed the way Americans thought about coffee. Dried-out coffee flakes sold in tin cans were out. Highly polished European contraptions that hissed noisily and sent forth geysers of steam were in.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the rapid expansion of Starbucks and other standardized chains, small coffeehouses are flourishing. Americans are increasingly educated about their coffee and evaluate these independents with chains as a benchmark: is the coffee better or more interesting? Is the environment more appealing? Does it have an engaged clientele, or is it a generic “coffeeworld” where you get your cup to go, head bowed?
Coffeehouses that meet the criteria for cool each stand out from the crowd and attract us for diverse reasons. Travelers have an extra appreciation for a neighborhood coffeehouse with personality—the last thing you want to drink on vacation is your workday cup of joe. We pop in to refuel after hours of pounding the pavement, but also to sample regional brews, people-watch, and find out about local goings-on.
Some coffeehouses draw us primarily for their own scene, like Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., which hosts impassioned speakers or (surprise!) poets on many evenings. At quieter times, you can browse a small in-shop bookstore and check out artwork.
Others are virtually small universes built around state-of-the art machines, like the Lamill Coffee Boutique in Los Angeles, which approaches coffee as a university laboratory might approach quarks and is always tweaking something. This is the place to discover what an $11,000 Clover coffee machine can do to improve your day.
Café du Monde in New Orleans, by contrast, draws on a lost 19th-century coffee culture imported from the Old World. The coffee is roasted with chicory root for extra tang and paired, naturally, with beignets.
Even though it’s touristy, Café du Monde, like the best coffeehouses, is fundamentally also a community living room, where neighbors can be both alone and with others—and visitors can blend right in.
Coffee: it’s the best legal drug. We know because the right cup in the right place can change your reality. —Wayne Curtis