“You guys are from Seattle? No wonder you write about coffee!”
We’ve heard it hundreds of times. Never from friends in the industry, baristas, cafe owners, roasters or journalists, mind you – they’ve long-since learned that specialty coffee has no home base these days, no anchor city to speak of, and that the best roasters, cafes and baristas in the world are as likely to be found in Sydney and Seoul as they are in Portland or the Bay Area. But family members, however – particularly those who (beginning in roughly 1994) learned to associate Seattle with Niles Crane’s four-part orders at Cafe Nervosa – well, they think it’s only fitting that we wound up writing this sort of website.
No city in America, and perhaps the world, is more closely associated with milk-and-coffee concoctions than Seattle. And for good reason. There’s coffee everywhere in Seattle, in every block of downtown, on every corner, in the hands of countless pedestrians, and in the tiny drive-through kiosks that dot the Puget Sound suburbs. Coffee in Seattle is built into the urban landscape in a way that at this point feels intrinsic, like the act of some all-knowing, all-brewing city planner. It occupies a weighty place in the Seattle cultural mindset, for which you can thank the aforementioned Frasier, or the coffee shop hangouts depicted in Singles, not to mention the sheer economic reality of having multiple enormous multi-national coffee purveyors, including that 10 ton green mermaid gorilla, headquartered within Seattle city limits.
There’s some really cutting edge, fascinating stuff going on in Seattle, especially when it comes to the machine builders, green buyers and roasters who’ve made this city their home. But the reality as we see it is, most of what’s here exists in a remarkable sort of time warp. The vast majority of coffee in Seattle feels like a nicotine-and-grunge fueled mosquito trapped in amber, where you, too, can journey to a prehistoric jungle and marvel at creatures from a bygone era.
For better or for worse, we offer our Sprudge Guide to Seattle as a panoramic kind of snapshot. Nothing authoritative, more experiential than anything else. Welcome to Seattle, let’s go drink some coffee.
Lighthouse Coffee Roasters
One gets a feeling, one really does. From the Formica tabletops to the barista who looks like the guy from the Spin Doctors, this place just feels like the mid-1990’s. Linoleum floors, a long front bar, and that roaster in the back, a vintage Gothot that dominates the space with its very presence. Lighthouse was Duane Sorenson’s first roasting gig, and while it’s not the exact same machine Duane learned to roast on, it’s in the same space, and you can almost imagine him there…the baristas up front would look much the same, and the menu offerings – unspecific mystery beans from an importer with labels like “Estate Java”, non-descript Sumatra, Panama, Nicaragua, Ethiopian, Kenya AA, Yemen, and “dark roasts” including French and French Sumatra – feel flown in wholesale from oh, say, the release date of “Nirvana Unplugged”.
Shots of espresso at Lighthouse taste like burnt toast and ashtrays…at first. But then, with that last little sip, the flavors go to this delightful cinnamon condensed milk place, still burnt, mind you, but with sugars peeking through the carbon. The barista tells us, “I don’t want to be making coffee for the rest of my life. It’s impossible to pull a perfect shot, but you can try forever. It’s hard, and fun” – and isn’t that almost exactly right? One gets a feeling this place was really swingin’ in the Nineties. And it was! Once upon a time, Fremont was the weirdest, coolest, most swingingest neighborhood in Seattle. But it’s not anymore; people cling to places like Lighthouse for that last gasp of neatness. It used to be a free lovin’ hippy pit, Lenin statue and all, but nowadays you’re more likely to encounter families with frames from Eyes on Fremont, stoppin’ off at Lighthouse for a cappuccino before getting the whole family a big sloppy cuban sandwich at Paseo. People go there now because they happen to live there, but once upon at time, this place was one hell of a clove smokin’ hang-out hookup spot. Is it the coolest shop in town these days? No. But you could do far worse with your Seattle afternoon than to stop by Lighthouse, admire the space, have a cappuccino, and get over to Paseo for lunch. The grilled corn on the cob? Are you kidding me?
The Espresso Vivace coffee cart has been open in the heart of Capitol Hill’s Broadway thoroughfare since 1988. It’s quite literally an institution, with acolytes (the staff is famously loyal), mythologies (the goddess “Caffeina” awaits your spare change down a small side hallway), and a bonafide prophet at the helm. There’s no one in the Seattle coffee world more revered and accredited than David Schomer, a man who wears many hats (and bolo ties) as Vivace’s founder, muse, maestro and chief champion. Beneath a sign reading “A Sidewalk Espresso Bar – Since 1988″, Vivace’s simple menu contains information on ristretto shots, why they’re used at the shop, and absolutely no drip coffee. This isn’t likely to turn heads these days, but back in the late 80s, it was revolutionary, a plainly stated call to arms for the quality and care given to a very specific style of espresso. And these days, shots at Vivace are consistent – stop to stop, year to year on that Synesso machine – decidedly Italian in profile and yet, somehow, miraculously clean, complex and delicious. It’s no secret that coffee pilgrims to Seattle make damn sure to include Vivace on their itinerary. The trappings of la espressiano italiano belissimo are supposed to be anathema to the “third wave palate”, but our real and honest suggestion is to get over it already. Not every shot should taste like this, but sometimes it’s great when a shot tastes like this. Variety is the spice of life, and the cart – that lovely, dingy little wall-kiosk cart – has been there for eons in the Specialty Coffee Geologic Timescale. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll like it.
But honestly, the best thing about Vivace isn’t the coffee, it’s the view. The Vivace cart on Broadway inarguably offers the best view of any coffee shop in Seattle, and the last time we visited, we sat and made a little list of what we saw. From a randomly sampled 15 minute interlude: overheard conversation snippets, auditory delights, funny looks, repeated requests for change, classic Seattle chilly glances (this passes for flirting in the Seattleite id/ego/super ego), assorted comings and goings at the Casa Del Ray apartments, the endless gray-scale rush of Broadway drama, diatribe and detritus, fashion plates in kitten heels and grandma tights, couples holding hands, sprinkling rain, ear gauges that would make a Maori warrior blink, incongruous joggers, someone that you used to know, scarves, caps, hooded sweatshirts (no matter the month or time of day), endless leather booty boots, blue jeans, more blue jeans, the beautiful and the hideous and the mundane, the fabulous, the befuddled, and those far too busy to care.
We could sit there forever, and have.
Seattle’s classic Downtown hole-in-the-wall, populated by anachronistic clove-smoking bike messengers and rushed office space apparatchiks. Located in the heart of the Seattle urban core, Monorail’s menu is home to a sea of chai and leprechaun lattes and snickerdoodles and peppermint mochas, made lovingly by an old man from Bulgaria. Think of it as the Honey Badger of Seattle coffee; they’ve been doing what they do since before time began, with a certain kind of Seattle urban je ne sais quo about it, and they don’t care what you think. You might not need a peppermint mocha, but you should begrudgingly respect the fact that places like this, these impossibly popular little swill-slinging joints, have fought long and hard for their own place in the coffee world. Places like Monorail offer a glimpse at the living history of coffee in Seattle. “Monorail Espresso don’t care; Monorail Espresso don’t give a shit.”
The Good Coffee Company
When the zombie apocalypse finally arrives, humanity’s few survivors will take comfort in performing ritual actions of The Before Times, the Long-Long Ago. Welcome to The Good Coffee Company, where the roast practices haven’t changed in 30 years, and the past is fused inexorably with the present. It’s a hidden cathedral of Seattle coffee history we highly recommend visiting.
The Good Coffee Company is not a cafe, per se, but they do have 150 (that’s right, one hundred and fifty) blends of espresso, all of them numbered individually and served “off menu”. This means, in theory, that customers have been coming to TGCC for decades and ordering a “#37″, or a “#75″, or a “#3 with fries and a Coke”. The menu itself – hand written, yellowing on a piece of lined graph paper – hasn’t changed one bit since, say, the first Reagan inauguration. The father and son who own the place are quite friendly, rightly proud of their place in Seattle’s coffee history, and will gladly pull you a shot of espresso served in a full-sized paper cup (the kind with little handle wings). The whole experience has a certain kind of moth-balled charm about it, as though one has boarded a neglected, mundane, shabby-chic industrial time machine.
The early 1970s in Seattle were the petri dish in which specialty coffee culture in America first grew. Starbucks, Wet Whisker (which became Stewart Brothers, which became Seattle’s Best Coffee) and The Good Coffee Company were on the forefront of that bacterial gurgle. Starbucks became a mega-titan; Seattle’s Best expanded, was bought out by Starbucks, and is now served worldwide by Subway, Burger King, and Steak ‘n Shake (to name just a few). The Good Coffee Company, however, has not changed one iota in all that time; it’s still there, in a first-level space underneath the Highway 99 viaduct, roasting coffee in exactly the same way as it did 10, 20, 30, even 40 years ago. It’s the coffee roaster that time forgot, and yet, they soldier on. They have loyal clients, in fact, clients who speak volumes online about the quality of their service, and they’ll gladly pull you a shot if you happen to drop by. Charming, remarkable and undeniably Jurassic, The Good Coffee Company provides the kind of coffee experience you can only find in Seattle.
Starbucks Coffee Company
So, let’s talk about it. The “Original Starbucks” (historically the second Starbucks, when the original original space at 2000 Western Avenue closed in 1976) sits in the north end of Pike Place Market, playing host to endless throngs of weekend tourists and aging, unshakably devout locals. If for no other reason, the “original” Starbucks is worth your while for a rare chance to enjoy Starbucks coffee from a non-superautomatic machine. They are actually pulling your shots here! There’s a Marzocco 4 Group on the bar! They take your order, shout it over your head across to the barista station, and leave you to wonder at the antique world map to your left, lovingly adorned in mid-90s Starbucks passport stickers.
To speak the truth, there are some awfully nice Starbucks shops in Seattle. *The 15th Avenue stealth project has given up the ghost and now openly flies the Mermaid Flag, while it’s still “Roy Street Coffee & Tea” a little ways further down the hill; both are gorgeous moneyed playgrounds of interior cafe design, and worth seeing. The newly remodeled Starbucks on Olive and Denny (colloquially referred to as the “Gaybucks” by generations of Capitol Hill residents) is similarly stunning, though not quite as sumptuous and ostentatious as the Roy Street and 15th Avenue locations. Think fake fireplaces, wines by the glass and lots of people working on their LinkedIn accounts.
And the coffee? Uhm…well, this may come as a shock to you all, but it really doesn’t taste very good. I mean, is that what we’re supposed to say? There’s some interesting stuff happening at those “stealth-not-stealth” cafes, but the truth is, the phenomenon of Starbucks and what it means to the city of Seattle has long since transcended what’s actually in your cup. Can you imagine what Starbucks might be if they were as innovative with their approach to roasting as they are with their interior design, advertising and reusable to-go products? Allow yourself to slide through that wormhole for a just a moment, into another dimension where Starbucks roasted their coffees to match palate considerations not rooted in the era of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin. With all their success, all their dominance, and the unfathomable war chest of cashola with which they’re able to perpetuate it, we’re all damn lucky that Starbucks still roasts the bejesus out of the vast, vast majority of their beans. Without an unbelievably dogged determination to stick to their roast profiles, who knows? Would there have been room for a third wave in the first place?
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Opening two shops and a roastery in Seattle was a bold move for Stumptown – and, in retrospect, a harbinger of things to come. In terms of local allegiances and brand loyalty, Seattle can be a formidably xenophobic place. In 2007, Stumptown Coffee Roasters was cracking into the independent roaster niche carved out by the three V’s: Caffe Vita, Victrola and Vivace. The latter of these three was the only company to publicly welcome the Portland-based operation.
Stumptown built out two spaces located eight blocks away from each other on Capitol Hill: a roastery/cafe space on 12th Ave and a cafe next to Rudy’s Barbershop on Pine. Space-wise, both cafes have their loyalists and their pros and cons, but as a general rule, try 12th Ave for shots on the go or a front-row seat at their downstairs roasting operation, and use the cafe on Pine for work sessions, coffee dates, and to take in a pastiche of Seattle’s Pike/Pine cool-to-too-cool street scene. You will find exceptional coffee at both, made for you by some of the best baristas in the city.
Does Stumptown fit in Seattle? Yeah, man. Really awesome coffee raises the bar wherever it goes, and quality can’t help but carve out its own place to fit in. Loyalties die hard and some in the Seattle coffee world still view Stumptown as outsiders. And maybe that’s a good thing? Complacency, mediocrity and a reverence for what’s come before can quite easily hold back any scene, any culture, and pushing against those boundaries, while not easy, is ultimately a positive and inspiring endeavor.
BTW, Arabica Lounge on Olive and Denny makes a killer Stumptown Chemex and serves an emblematic shot of Haribender, a little House Blend drip goes great with your hangover hipster brunch at Linda’s on Pine, and the merging of Stumptown Coffee and craft cocktails underway at Liberty on 15th shows tremendous promise. (As a side note: Seattle’s cocktail scene is absolutely banging right now. If you tipple, consider tempering your coffee tour with a few “oh, snap” cocktails at places like Tavern Law, Needle and Thread, Zig-Zag Cafe, Bathtub Gin, and Liberty.)
Cafe Allegro Espresso Bar
Open since 1975, Allegro is the oldest continually operating cafe in the city of Seattle. There’s nothing particularly special about the coffee here – they offer a lovely peppermint tea – but by God, that space! Low-slung upon a brick-and-ivy alleyway directly across the street from the University of Washington, Allegro positively lives and breathes with a quarter-century’s worth of cram sessions, class hookies, goof-offs, professor-and-student half-dates, and all the trimmings of 35 years spent fostering the hustle-bustle environment of coffee shop academia. Their upstairs seating once ran on cigarette smoke, was positively fueled by the stuff, and their alleyway seating out front is at all times a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of academics, wandering junkies, nervous undergrads, exchange students, cute boys on bikes, aging, always-smoking Turkish 60-somethings, and some poor soul who’s late for class. In short, Allegro is the perfect college coffee shop, and an essential, quintessential constant in the Seattle cafe landscape. Long live Allegro!
Victrola Coffee Roasters
For as established as they are, open for 11 years and roasting since 2003, Victrola still represents the vanguard for specialty coffee in Seattle. They’re quite possibly the most consistent purveyor of quality single origin espresso shots in Seattle, and their offerings – when we last visited they had a fully-washed Ethiopia Nekempte Kemgin and the Ruli Musasa from Rwanda’s COE auction – come complete with extensive information and tasting notes.
Victrola’s three spaces vary wildly and are spread across Seattle. The roastery on Pike Street is sleek, functional and spacious, the perfect site for annual CoffeeFest parties; their Beacon Hill space is intimate and very much a part of its neighborhood; and 15th Avenue, our personal favorite, may very well be Seattle’s best example of a “second living room” cafe serving exceptional coffee.
Mostly. Mostly serving exceptional coffee. The shots aren’t always right; sometimes thimble-short, sometimes ashy, Victrola is perhaps a better bet for a macchiato or cappuccino than it is for a straight shot of espresso. When we went there all the time we grew accustomed to this wild variability, and took a “you win some, you lose some” attitude towards it; when we go there now as visitors, we play it safe, enjoy the space, and occasionally opt for beer and a sandwich instead of a shot. It’s awesome how involved they are in the community, and their public cuppings are informative and welcoming, but the coffee itself, while sometimes surprisingly delightful, is often far from perfect.
Trabant Coffee & Chai
It’s a sneaky kind of juggle, the realities of running a successful small business in a city with high rents, enormous tax and health code restraints, and a saturated market. Trabant Coffee and Chai has carved out a niche for itself in this milieu, and to do it, they’ve had to be mercenary at times. This is a cafe serving excellent coffee (from 49th Parallel roasters, based in Vancouver, BC) staffed by passionate and talented baristas, yet still beholden to the “& Chai” half of its masthead. Ask your average Kappa Kappa undergrad, and she’ll tell you Trabant makes the best chai in the U District. What gets lost in the shuffle is the fact, the delightful fact, that they’re also a real-deal destination for great shots of espresso.
Trabant’s cafe Downtown is huge, serene, ethereally beautiful and uniquely spaced, while the cafe in the U District is a hustle-bustle shitshow, crammed to the gills with study groups, local weirdos, chai seekers, coffee nerds and erotic fiction authors who refuse to leave after the doors are locked. 45th and University is a weird intersection, and that weirdness can sometimes spill into Trabant, a cafe where multi-tasking on your bar shift frequently entails calling the cops. Being open late probably doesn’t help matters, but it’s part of the fun. Recommended.
Seattle’s microroaster scene has a couple of names not well known outside the city. Herkimer Coffee‘s two cafe spaces (Phinney Ridge and North U District) are “modern and comfortable”, which is a nice way of saying “sort of boring”, but the coffee doesn’t suck, and they do have a nice wholesale presence on Capitol Hill (at Porchlight Coffee, 14th and Pike). Kuma Coffee, a microroaster based in Magnolia, are increasingly focused on sourcing their Latin American coffees via direct trade. They lack a showcase cafe space – their Wallingford shop on Stone Way is quite small, and keeps limited hours – but their coffees have improved greatly in the last year, winning over knowledgeable devotees. Well worth checking out.
Zoka thankfully didn’t go out of business like it was rumored they might. Their shop near Greenlake remains Seattle’s premier buzzing hive of laptop drone, and their menu still has quality options. A trip to Zoka provides its own kind of Seattle coffee history lesson; a remarkably large number of working Seattle baristas have put in time there over the years, and several former Zokacolytes have gone on to start roasters, win Sprudgie Awards, and do amazing things throughout the industry.
Aster Coffee Lounge in Ballard recently celebrated their 3 year anniversary, and they’re currently the only place in Seattle consistently serving Intelligentsia’s Black Cat espresso. They also offer a number of Stumptown Coffees via Clover and chemex, and have wine and beer on tap. While in Ballard, check out the Equal Exchange space in the Ballard Market, featuring perhaps the only Slayer machine in the world housed inside a grocery store.
Caffe Vita, and her down-the-hill spiritual brother Bauhaus, still exist and have largely not changed in the last decade – both of these shops are total meat markets, scene queen see-and-be-seen fashion shows of the highest order. These cafes played host to endless Stranger ‘I Saw You’s” in the 1990s, even more countless Craigslist “Missed Connections” in the 2000s, and a presumably near-constant flood of OkCupid dates in the here-and-now. It used to be that both Bauhaus and Vita had upstairs smoking lounges; in fact, at Bauhaus shots of espresso were once paired with a single cigarette, and the shop still has packs for sale behind the counter. These days the tables and chairs in front of Vita and Bauhaus will have to suffice, offering Seattle’s premiere venue for second hand smoke, bottomless cups of urban ennui, the drone of youth and the hum of the pretty. All coffees served therein are strictly an afterthought – this applies to the growing army of Vita spaces throughout Seattle, Olympia, Portland and beyond, elbowing for a better view at the front of the show.
Neptune is a perfectly lovely outpost in the Greenwood neighborhood, a welcome source of Victrola-roasted, re-branded beans and a variety of pour over and shot options. Neptune’s owner is a USBC judge, and if challenged, he will gleefully kick your ass at the ping-pong table in the back corner. You’ve been warned.
Top Pot serves up an astonishingly large amount of coffee, some of it drinkable. The maple bars rule.
Fuel has multiple locations around the city. The space in Wallingford is right near where 1/2 of Sprudge lived when this site first started, and he goes there still from time to time to get some work done without having to run into anyone. Very neighborhoody, and charming for it.
A couple of non-cafe sights to see:
Some of the most interesting sights for the Seattle coffee tourist aren’t in cafes at all. For example, while in Seattle one can:
Visit the La Marzocco USA factory, check out their souped up Strada MP, and catch a glimpse of their enormous stockpile of vintage, old school, and downright antique espresso machines. Kind, knowledgable people work here, and if you’re lucky, maybe you can enjoy a local microbrew pint from the La Marzocco USA Signature Series BS3 – the world’s first espresso machine kegerator.
Peruse the bevy of gear, toys, scales, cups and assorted ephemera available at the Visions Espresso storefront, and check out the doings at their Coffee Enhancement Lounge. We’ve been to events, lectures and charity throwdowns there over the years, and recommend you check them out in advance to see if anything is going on during your trip.
Get a cup to go from wherever you please, head down to the Alaskan Way waterfront, and gawk at the sheer physical beauty of where you are. Stroll along the docks, past restaurants and the Aquarium and that pier where they filmed “The Real World”, and breath in deep all the glorious saltwater air giving life to the world around you. There’s gorgeous mountains to one side, buttressed by a shimmering salt water inlet, itself dotted with ridiculously picturesque ferries departing to-and-fro from Seattle, destined for one port or another amidst the Puget Sound’s rabbit warren of tiny forest islands. To the other side, a city of glass and concrete, with a crumbling viaduct and enormous skyscrapers and hills, endless hills, pockmarked by the nooks and crannies of enterprise that gave birth to specialty coffee’s American journey long ago. But not that long ago… after all, it’s all still here…
A handy location guide to all the featured shops:
Lighthouse Coffee Roasters – 400 North 43rd Street, Fremont
Espresso Vivace – Sidewalk Bar, 321 Broadway East, Capitol Hill
Monorail Espresso – 520 Pike Street Seattle, Downtown
The Good Coffee Company – 818 Post Avenue, Pioneer Square / Waterfront
Starbucks – Moon Base Xenon, Outer Belts, Saturn
Stumptown Coffee Roasters – 616 East Pine and 1115 12th Ave (Roastery), both on Capitol Hill
Victrola Coffee Roasters – 310 East Pike Street (Roastery) and 411 15th Avenue East, Capitol Hill; 3215 Beacon Avenue South, Beacon Hill
Trabant Coffee & Chai – 1309 Northeast 45th Street, U District; 602 2nd Avenue, Downtown
Herkimer Coffee – 7320 Greenwood Ave, Phinney Ridge; 5611 University Way NE, U District
Kuma Coffee – 4110 Stone Way North
Zoka – Multiple locations, including two in Japan. Our favorite is at 2200 North 56th Street, Tangletown / Greenlake
Aster Coffee Lounge – 5615 24th Avenue Northwest, Ballard
Equal Exchange – 1400 Northwest 56th Street, Ballard (inside of Ballard Market)
Caffe Vita – Multiple locations
Bauhaus – 301 East Pine Street, Capitol Hill
Neptune Coffee – 8415 Greenwood Avenue North, Greenwood
Top Pot – Multiple locations, our favorite is 609 Summit Ave E, Capitol Hill
La Marzocco USA – 1553 NW Ballard Way, Ballard
Visions Espresso – 2737 1st Ave S, SODO
Fuel – Multiple locations, our favorite is 1705 N 45th St, Wallingford
*Correction: In an earlier version of this article, “Roy Street Coffee & Tea” was incorrectly identified as “openly flying the Mermaid Flag”. We regret the misstatement.