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My Favorite Coffee Houses

October 1994

America doesn't have to envy Europe its coffee bars anymore. Each week a new coffee bar seems to open--on the main street of every sizable town in the country, in the lobby of a crowded office building, in a train station or airport, as part of a convenience store, in a laundromat. We're finally well supplied with places to sit and decide how to change the world, eat a little something, and maybe meet somebody who wants to change the world the same way.

And the coffee tastes good, too. A whole army of coffee fanatics has formed since the late 1960s, and now that Starbucks, the Seattle-based chain of espresso bars, has shown America what fine coffee can taste like, many previously sleepy doughnut chains and fast-food restaurants have awakened to the fact that we want not just fuel but something we can drink with pleasure. Even McDonald's is experimenting with a dark roast, and supermarkets are stocking far better beans than they used to.

Where once, if they were lucky, coffee drinkers had a choice of regular or decaf today "specialty" coffee shops and many restaurants offer entire menus of coffee drinks, many based on the powerfully flavored espresso, which requires a special machine that brews coffee under high pressure to provide a syrupy elixir. Specialty drinks such as espresso, cappuccino, and caffe latte are only the beginning. Milk-and-espresso drinks come laced with all manner of flavored syrups and even liqueurs, and every conceivable combination of milk and blends of different beans (for example, Mocha Java is one third Yemen Mocha, two thirds Java). In addition, gourmet coffee bars such as Sirius in Washington, D.C., have gained popularity for their brewing skill.

The real font of better coffee, though, is the plethora of specialty coffee shops opened by the exceptionally dedicated--the new Johnny Appleseeds of beans. While researching a book on buying and brewing coffee, I've had the good fortune to encounter many coffee lovers who want the farmers who raise the world's best beans to be able to keep growing them. These fans have turned professional, opening their own small shrines to quality coffee. Here's a list of my favorite places to sip many kinds of brewed coffee and espresso, nibble on a brioche, a muffin, or some biscotti, and, of course, scrutinize the passing scene.

  • Hacienda La Minita, 150 Main Street, Bar Harbor, Maine, (207) 2884219

    Bill McAlpin runs a spectacular and impeccably managed farm in the volcanic mountains of Costa Rica, where the coffee trees are practically manicured. The flagship bean of the several kinds McAlpin grows is La Minita ("small mine," named for the farm), which is processed with extraordinary care: Every bean is scrutinized closely, and only 15 percent of the plantation's production is considered good enough for McAlpin-brand coffee. This summer McAlpin opened a coffeehouse in Bar Harbor, where he lives when he's not in Costa Rica, featuring those beans. Aside from getting an education in how beans should be grown and handled by looking at the photographs and descriptions on the walls, and admiring the antique processing equipment and the murals of La Minita's farmworkers, you can taste for yourself why from year to year there's never enough La Minita to satisfy the demand.

  • Coffee Connection, 165 Newbury Street, Boston, (617) 261-4800; also at 350 Newbury Street, 2 Faneuil Hall, 4 Faneuil Hall, and other locations in the Boston area

    George Howell, the chain's founder, has spent 20 years traveling to coffee-producing countries to track down the world's best beans, and he has become a legend in the coffee business. His Boston coffeehouses reflect his post-sixties leanings and his early career as an art dealer; the walls are hung with colorful yarn-art by Mexico's Huichol Indians. Recently the chain was bought by Starbucks. For a while, at least, the Coffee Connection will retain its separate identity and separate roasting philosophy, which is that the darkness of a roast should suit the bean. Many of the roasts here are light, as compared to the currently popular dark roasts. For example, a bean such as one of the Kenyan coffees Howell prizes will reveal its sparkle at a lighter roast than, say, the heavier bodied but also superb Sulawesi (the modern name for the Indonesian island Celebs).

  • Caffe Dante, 79 Macdougal Street, New York City, (212) 982-5275
  • Kaffeehaus, 131 Eighth Avenue, New York City, (212) 229-9702

    It's hard to pick just one New York coffeehouse, because so many have been around for so long, frequented more for ambience than for the coffee, which in New York has never been stellar. Of the old guard, none has retained its raffish bohemian charm better than Caffe Dante, which still recalls the arty Greenwich Village of the 1920s, down to the dark-painted, cavern-like walls lined with dusty prints, the busts of cultural greats, and the tasseled ceiling lamps. The espresso and cappuccino are fine; the service is artily slouchy (you have to be in the mood).

    Kaffeehaus also looks at least 50 years old, but it's brand new, designed to look like an old-style Viennese coffeehouse. The Vienna-style coffee drinks, with plenty of schlag, are superb--made with the gold-standard Italian espresso, Illy Caffe, which is actually better than what you get in Vienna (trust any place that serves Lavazza, too). And the cakes, which of course you've been wondering about, are made by a Viennese emigre living in New Jersey, whose name the owners will not divulge, no matter how enraptured you are by the hand-pulled strudel.

  • Sirius, 4250 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., (202) 364-2600

    Since coffee beans are extremely perishable once roasted, microroasters, which roast small batches, have sprung up. One of the national leaders is this attractive new store in the fashionable Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington. Sirius roasts right in the store, in a fire-engine-red roaster that exhales heavenly aromas. Sirius offers an expert selection of coffee made by various methods, including drip, espresso, Turkish coffee (in which the grounds, sugar, and water are briefly boiled together), and French press (coffee and hot water are mixed in a beaker; then a plunger attached to a fine screen separates out the grounds). Be sure to try the silken vacuum-pot coffee, the very purest kind of filtered coffee. There's also an interesting menu of coffee-based alcoholic drinks; for instance, the Nirvana (a double espresso, Grand Marnier, Tia Mana, and creme de cacao, topped with whipped cream) or the Sirius Rocket (a double espresso and Bailey's Irish Cream, with whipped cream).

  • Espresso Royale, 324 South State Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan, (3 l 3) 662-2770

    Noisy, huge, a little scruffy, perpetually full of students and teachers, this home cafe of an ambitious small chain (16 across the country) defines what a school meeting-place should be. The cookies and other baked goods are basic, but the young owners are very serious about coffee and feature especially good African and Indonesian beans. Cappuccino is the number one seller (a thousand cups a day), but the chocolate flavored espresso drinks are awfully good, too. Although Espresso Royale looks as if it has been around since the twenties, it's just five years old.

  • Cafe Europa, 102 King Street, Madison, Wisconsin, (608) 255-0770

    It's called European, but there's something uniquely American and appealing about this cafe in a university town, where the coffeehouse competition is stiff. This one is a bit away from the college action, behind the state capitol, and despite its spareness it has the ineffable quality that identifies a real coffeehouse: people sitting and reading from the newspapers provided, occasionally talking about the news, occasionally utterly lost in contemplation. The cakes are Germanic in inspiration, as in a Viennese cafe. Work on a piece while sipping the dark-roast of the day.

  • Trident Booksellers and Cafe, 940 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado, (303) 443-3133

    Espresso-crazed customers don't know just how good the drip coffee is at this landmark coffeehouse-bookstore, which introduced the Denver-Boulder area to fine coffee and which still brews an array of beans from Allegro, one of the top American companies that select and roast coffee. Kevin Knox, a master blender and roaster at Allegro, admiringly calls the house blend of Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea a "bright, sunny cup." Trident's longtime barista, or coffee bar master, has a reputation for vigorously discouraging extended chatter about such favorite Boulder topics as tofu and crystals. The many loyal customers are grateful.

  • Torrefazione Italia, Pioneer Square, 320 Occidental Avenue South, Seattle, (206) 624-5773; also at 622 Olive Way, Seattle, and 838 N.W. 23rd Avenue, Portland, Oregon

    This is one of the best and, by now, longest-lived coffeehouses in Seattle, with a new store in Portland. The roaster, Umberto Bizzarri, honed his craft in his native Perugia, Italy, and is a master of bean blends and gentler roasts than are typical these days but that result in mellow, deep espresso. The home store at Pioneer Square, Seattle's charmingly renovated downtown shopping district, is full of espresso connoisseurs and expatriate Italians--quite a compliment in this most devoted of espresso-crazed towns.

  • Peet's, 2139C Polk Street, San Francisco, (415) 474-1871, and other locations in San Francisco and Berkeley

    You can argue that the roast is too dark at this landmark coffee bar--which, starting in the late sixties, gave rise to the whole American gourmet coffee revolution--but you can't ignore the quality of the beans or the professionalism of the brewing techniques. Now lovingly overseen by one of the first Peet's acolytes, Jerry Baldwin (who with two partners launched Starbucks in the early seventies), the small chain of 17 coffeehouses has consistently first-rate beans and drinks, both espresso and brewed. As specialty coffee takes off in America, Baldwin is dedicated to setting an example for the flourishing industry. Try a single espresso, black, and marvel at its flavor and intensity.

  • Caffe 817, 8l7 Washington Street, Oakland, California, (510) 271-7965

    This narrow coffeehouse, opened a year and a half ago in a Victorian building in Oakland's refurbished downtown district, is decorated in contemporary Italian style (its owner, Sandro Rossi, is Italian), yet, for all the sleekness, is welcoming and informal. The coffee, from Illy Caffe, and the perfectly simple sandwiches, worthy of the nearby Chez Panisse, are superb. Have an expertly made cappuccino, with the right--restrained--amount of foamy milk. Then, wherever else you order cappuccino, insist that it be made just like the one at Caffe 817.

    -- Corby Kummer

  • More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1994, Corby Kummer. First published in USAIR Magazine, October 1994. All rights reserved.
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