America's Coolest Coffeehouses
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
Black Eye Coffee Shop: Denver
Behind a garage door in the hip Highlands area: Black Eye Coffee Shop, where a vintage-neon coffee shop sign hangs cheekily over subway tiles. What to taste? Fresh-from-the-oven macarons and drinks from single-origin beans, roasted in-house. —Jenny Miller
The Roasting Plant: New York City
Walk in, inhale, and you know you’re in for a treat. This shop strives to shrink time—between roasting, grinding, brewing, and drinking—and brews your beans on demand. Mike Caswell, a onetime Starbucks employee, spent five years developing the cutting-edge technology. The Lower East Side storefront location (one of two) isn’t the best place to bivouac for the day; the few tables are often occupied. But the coffee packs such a punch it will send you jittering out onto the street, anyway.
Local Knowledge: Leave enough time to scope out the Javabot, which involves Jules Verne–ish tubes shuttling coffee beans from bin to cup. —Wayne Curtis
Busboys and Poets: Washington,D.C.
Opened in 2005, Busboys and Poets was named after the poet Langston Hughes, who first worked as a…well, you’ll figure it out. The 14th Street coffeehouse is basically of a federation of cool spaces—a bookstore, a gallery, and a poet’s zone with a large table for congregating and socializing, plus couches with plenty of outlets. Expect a diverse, hipsterish crowd amid a mild if persistent thrum of lefty angst.
Local Knowledge: The delicious coffee offerings include Café Medici, a double espresso with chocolate topped by a fragrant orange peel. —Wayne Curtis
LAMILL Coffee Boutique: Los Angeles
This chichi coffeehouse at first appears like a bit of Beverly Hills that got lost and ended up in pleasantly scruffy Silver Lake. But LAMILL, which opened in 2008, quickly endeared itself by paying as much attention to coffee as a fussy sommelier to wine. The shop is sleek, contemporary—not the kind of place to unbutton your cuffs—and famous for its elaborate equipment and attention to detail. See what the $11,000 Clover coffee machine can do to make your morning better.
Local Knowledge: Leave time to peruse the massive coffee menu, which includes options from a siphon, Japanese hand drip, or Chemex. —Wayne Curtis
Café Demetrio: Miami
Expecting a Cuban café in South Florida? Well, keep looking (try venerable Café Versailles up the road in Miami). Café Demetrio is more Old Spain than Cuba. It was the first stand-alone coffeehouse in Coral Gables (opened in 1991 in a 1926 former newspaper building) and is designed for socializing rather than camping out solo. The espresso drinks are presented with a heart drawn in the foam and served in attractive cups with a side of water. When the weather cooperates, head to the patio with an iced latte.
Local Knowledge: The owner is a chess nut. Ask to borrow a set to fill a long afternoon. —Wayne Curtis
Blue Bottle Coffee: San Francisco
Blue Bottle is one of the major shrines on the national coffee circuit. The shop at Mint Plaza is small, with big windows. Inside it’s like a mad-scientist’s laboratory whose devices are designed to torture the bean and make it yield its secrets. The staff is well versed, the single-origin coffee changes weekly, and there’s never a Blue Bottle too far away, whether you’re sightseeing at SFMOMA or the Ferry Building.
Local Knowledge: When the weather warms, try the flavorful Kyoto-style iced coffee, which involves an eight-hour drip to ensure sufficient potency to stand up to ice. —Wayne Curtis
Octane Coffee House and Lounge: Atlanta
This spacious, modern shop at 1009 Marietta St. Northwest feels like a lively college study hall. (There’s a second midtown branch, and a third at The Jane in Grant Park). Choose Chemex or French press, then pick from a number of great single-origin coffees—and maybe even add in one of the homemade syrups. The Americola, an espresso and sugarcane Coca-Cola concoction, is a true taste of Atlanta.
Local Knowledge: Surrender yourself to the wonderfully sinful Sublime Donuts sold at the counter. —Wayne Curtis
Café du Monde: New Orleans
Yes, it’s touristy. Get over it. This French Quarter institution at the upriver end of the French Market is always open, from morning sipping to after-dinner chilling. The people-watching is wonderful, as is the house specialty of café au lait. Coffee is roasted with chicory root, once used to stretch coffee supplies during times of war. It turned out that New Orleanians like the bite and tang of chicory.
Local Knowledge: The beignets with coffee are like cream with strawberries—not entirely essential, but they make life far more interesting. —Wayne Curtis
Espresso Vivace Roasteria: Seattle
Vivace was founded in 1988 in the city that helped launch coffee mania. The shop lost its beloved location in a sunny old schoolhouse in 2008 (demolished for condos), but is still making some of Seattle’s richest, kickingest coffee in a friendly, up-to-date shop not far from the original site. It’s a good place to chill out, enjoy a long-pull espresso drink, and watch the wired (in all ways) denizens of Seattle.
Local Knowledge: Try the potent Caffe Nico, a four-ounce espresso drink with orange and vanilla syrups and a dusting of cinnamon. —Wayne Curtis
Progress Coffee: Austin, TX
Knowledgeable baristas whip up lattes and cappuccinos with fair-trade organic beans from Owl Tree Roasting in this former warehouse with a porch. Don’t overlook a biscuit with your joe (especially the city-appropriate jalapeño), and take your time so that you can soak up the East Austin scene. The walls display fun, bold local art, and the music changes with the time of day.
Local Knowledge: Hot Texas weather sapping your energy? Opt for the Iced Lightning, which will put a swagger back in your step. —Wayne Curtis
Pavement Coffee House: Boston
Music students from nearby Berklee College tend to camp out here, but the expansive space—large footprint, tall ceilings—offers room for all comers. The vibe is a Boho blend of modern and down-home rustic. Get your fix with tremendous espresso drinks and single-origin pour-over coffee, with the beans sourced from an array of top-notch roasters.
Local Knowledge: The Spanish latte (made with sweetened condensed milk) will convert any coffee agnostic. —Wayne Curtis
Intelligentsia Coffee &Tea: Chicago
This jewel on the ground floor of The Loop’s historic Monadnock Building is the most old-world branch of Intelligentsia (one of three in Chicago)—even the baristas look like period pieces with their vests, ties, and interesting facial hair. The shop has outstanding single-origin and coffee blends bought directly from the growers.
Local Knowledge: Intelligentsia sells coffees only when at their seasonal peak. Which means that remarkable Kenyan Maywal you enjoyed a few months ago might not be available. —Wayne Curtis
Stumptown Coffee Roasters put Portland on the coffee map when it opened in 2000. The downtown Third Avenue branch—one of four in the city—is airy and slightly austere, with early Madonna in the background and laptop campers perched on benches and Eamesian plywood chairs. Stumptown roasts beans carefully to highlight the native qualities of each variety.
Local Knowledge: Order a latte at the branch at the Ace Hotel, then sprawl across the big lobby couches while watching tousled-haired guests rise and shine. —Wayne Curtis
Beach Bum Café: Honolulu
Beach Bum Café in downtown Honolulu specializes in 100 percent Hawaiian microbrewed coffee, with fine beans from Kualapuu, Molokai, Kula, Maui, and the North Shore of Oahu. Even its espresso blends are local. Patrons can also choose among five brewing techniques—from traditional French presses to Chemex filters and vacuum siphon pots heated over open flames.
Local Knowledge: Try a cup of Joe made with rare, potent Maragogype beans from the Kona coast, known to be the slowest growing (and the largest) beans in the world. —Adrien Glover
Arabica Coffee Company: Portland, ME
This homey wood- and brick-filled spot in the scenic Old Port neighborhood (with free Wi-Fi) has a reputation for stiff espresso drinks deftly assembled by pro baristas on a La Marzocco machine—the preference of espresso snobs worldwide. Beans are roasted on premises in small batches for freshness. Arabica is also famous for its thick slices of buttery toast.
Local Knowledge: Ask for a splash of real Maine maple syrup as a sweetener for your latte. —Adrien Glover
Each cup is made to order, and it’s all up to you. First, choose your roast from a rotating menu of curated beans, then select your brewing device from seven choices ranging from a French press to a futuristic lab vacuum siphon thingy. Intimidated by the Bunsen burners and slow-dripping columns of Pyrex? Don’t be. In spite of the inevitable line of customers waiting for their small-batch fix, the baristas at this temple to coffee are approachable and will guide you to a satisfying cup of Joe.
Local Knowledge: No Wi-Fi, which means you can focus on that magical caffeinated elixir you’ve been served. —Ann Shields
PJ’sCoffee: New Orleans
New Orleanians are mad for “cold-brew” coffee, and this eponymous neighborhood shop—founded by Phyllis Jordan 30-plus years ago—was the first to develop the addictive concoction in the Crescent City. Made by adding cold water to coffee grounds and letting it drip through a fine-mesh filter to produce an inky coffee syrup, the reduction (which is less acidic than your average brew) is then poured over ice, diluted with milk, and sweetened. It’s the perfect pick-me-up on a humid New Orleans day.
Local Knowledge: Pick up your own low-tech coffee “toddy” for DIY cold-brew at home ($42). —Adrien Glover
Opened in 2009, Coava (pronounced “ko-vuh”) quickly became one of the best coffee roasters and brew bars in Portland. Head to the airy bamboo-lined industrial space on SE Grand Avenue for a cup prepared from single-origin beans roasted just feet away by some of the best in the business: two of Coava’s baristas took top honors in the 2011 North West Regional Barista Competition, placing first in the Brewers Cup and Barista Competition.
Local Knowledge: It’s easy to brew a similar cup at home with Coava’s innovative brewing gear, most notably the KONE, a reusable stainless-steel coffee filter designed for pour-over-style coffeemakers and manufactured entirely in the U.S.A. —Lyndsey Matthews
Otherlands Coffee Bar: Memphis
You won’t mistake this popular Midtown hangout for any cookie-cutter chain. The eclectic coffeehouse has an artsy, thrift-shop look and plenty of space for the laptop crowd to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and for friends to gather on the patio and catch up over a nice cup—or two—of Joe. After all, first refills are free.
Local Knowledge: Otherlands buzzes with activity in the evenings—happy hour drink specials Monday through Thursday, 5–6 p.m., and live music acts Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. —Lyndsey Matthews
Kopplin’sCoffee: St. Paul, MN
This coffeehouse is truly about supporting the local community, so when you’re sipping your café miél—espresso that’s been sweetened with honey, rather than sugar—you can rest easy knowing the milk is from a locally raised grass-fed cow and the espresso is from Fair Trade and organic sources. In November 2011, Kopplin’s opened in a new, improved space at 2038 Marshall Avenue.
Local Knowledge: Pick up a sweet pastry made at nearby Rustica bakery to accompany your caffeine fix—like the bostock, brioche soaked in orange flower water and topped with almond spread. —Joshua Pramis
FourBarrel: San Francisco
Jeremy Tooker, founder of this decidedly cool Mission District coffeehouse, went for a spare, industrial vibe to fit with the original wood trusses of the warehouse-like space. Mounted boars’ heads and local artwork adorn the white walls, while vinyl records provide the rockin’ soundtrack. But all that hipster-ness doesn’t distract the staff from making memorable coffee. They roast it by hand on a vintage German machine. The affogato is an intense espresso with stout ice cream made exclusively for Four Barrel by neighborhood shop Humphry Slocombe.
Local Knowledge: Communal tables without Wi-Fi or outlets encourage conversation, while bike racks outside let you put that caffeine jolt—and maple bacon donut—to work. —Kate Appleton
Coffee Slingers: Oklahoma City
Barefoot Coffee, which works directly with farmers in Latin America and Ethiopia, supplies all the single-origin beans for Coffee Slingers (slang for baristas). You can have your drink prepared with the Synesso espresso machine or French press, or cold-brewed over 18 hours. Formerly a car dealership, the downtown space used re-claimed lumber from the old floor for the front bar, tables, and roasting space. It feels open and airy, with streaming sunlight that provides a natural pick-me-up.
Local Knowledge: Learn to evaluate coffee beans and brews like the pros at cuppings (akin to wine tastings) held the third Saturday of each month at 3 p.m. And look for home-brewing classes in 2012. —Kate Appleton
One Shot Coffee: Philadelphia
The interior of this Northern Liberties spot feels like a warm study at some English manor thanks to bookcases, leather couches, and lots of wood paneling. While the drink selection isn’t overwhelming in size, you may have trouble ordering just one, whether it’s the palate-tingling spicy Mexican Mocha or the comforting Nutella Mocha—all from Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Local Knowledge: If you’ve reached your caffeine fix for the day but still want to warm up, there’s an impressive specialty hot chocolate menu, including the Salty & Sweet (yes, there’s actual kosher salt mixed in) and the rich White Raspberry. —Joshua Pramis
Comet Coffee: Ann Arbor, MI
Located in the beautiful glass-covered Nickels Arcade right near the University of Michigan, this tiny shop brews each cup of coffee to order using a Japanese pour-over drip technique. Apart from drinks, the menu is short and sweet: pastries from local bakeries like Miette, whose tartes aux pommes are made with apples from nearby Wasem’s fruit farm.
Local Knowledge: Take your time to explore the shops in Nickels Arcade. While Comet Coffee debuted only in 2009, some other businesses have been around for more than 80 years. —Lyndsey Matthews
The Roasterie Café: Kansas City, MO
Easygoing midwesterners can get serious about their java. The Roasterie, a sunny gas station–turned–coffee shop in the Brookside neighborhood, air-roasts its coffee beans rather than drum-roasting them. A stream of heated air is blown around the beans, toasting them evenly and whisking away the chaff, or skin, of the bean. The resulting small-batch coffee tastes pleasantly acidic and, well, coffee-ish. Pay the slight up-charge to get a cup brewed by the shop’s Clover machine (obtained before Starbucks bought the manufacturer and stopped selling them), and you’ll taste why Goliath wanted to take away David’s powerful slingshot.
Local Knowledge: Pick up some Roasterie Coffee Barbeque Sauce, two serious Kansas City passions united in one bottle. —Ann Shields