Providence, Rhode Island, is about as small as cities get, an itty-bitty city for our union’s tiniest state. Here, somewhere between Boston and New York, Providence has often been stuck playing second or even third fiddle. But this scrappy city has heart, and people are taking notice. In recent years the town has ranked high as a great food city in numerous polls—sometimes beating out its bigger East Coast siblings—and the coffee scene is catching up. Here’s a list of some of our favorite coffee shops in the Creative Capital.
Located at the top of Fox Point on the East Side, this aptly named shop is a local favorite. Every morning, sleepy college students and community members stride over to enjoy the plentiful sunlight that streams into the cafe and open their eyes with offerings from Parlor Coffee.
Since late 2014, The Shop has been the place to meet a friend, write a paper, talk politics, or people-watch. This hub of activity lacks a kitchen, but still manages a solid food program. They serve delicious toasts (ricotta and honey or avocado with sea salt), porridges, and locally produced pastries. The crew is friendly and the coffee hits the mark.
The Coffee Exchange
Providence institution The Coffee Exchange became a microroast- and origin-focused cafe long before such things were in vogue. A dimly lit space loaded with dark wood and impossibly scuffed floors, this cafe boasts numerous blends and single-origin beans all in a multitude of roast styles. There was a time when “cafe” evoked an image of warm dens buzzing with tinny jazz and filled with more hardcovers than laptops—here, that world feels alive and well. In a sea of cold minimalist cafe design, it’s nice to be reminded of a coffee culture where ideas, not just Wi-Fi passwords, are shared.
Co-founder Bill Fishbein was ahead of the industry in other ways as well: he started the Coffee Kids organization in the ’80s, the first US nonprofit focused on improving coffee farmers’ and their families’ lives. Later, he also created The Coffee Trust, an organization dedicated to improving sustainability in coffee farming in Guatemala and Honduras. This cafe is a good spot to grab a cup of coffee with a conscience.
Bolt Coffee Company at The Dean Hotel
The lobby/lounge of The Dean Hotel houses a cafe rather than a concierge. Here, around a giant communal coffee table bathed in the glow of pink neon, hotel guests and cafe patrons rub elbows over cappuccinos. Bolt Coffee Company supplies a steady supply of caffeine to commuters and advice to overnighters. The coffees featured are rotated semi-regularly giving visitors from near and far a chance to try exciting roasters from around the country. Batch brews, espresso, and Clever Dripper offerings are available.
It’s a wonderfully open feeling at The Dean; you are free to stay or to go. Design buffs and consumers of cool will find the atmosphere to be clean and polished, but not sterile. Though this shop screams hip it does not scream pretentious. Grab a chair at the table to get some work done, or sink into a couch and sort through the plentiful volumes of current magazines. This is what modern hospitality feels like.
Bolt Coffee Company at Cafe Pearl (RISD Museum)
The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) ensures that Providence keeps a steady flow of young art-minded individuals in its population. The school also benefits the city with numerous art installations and the beautiful RISD Museum in the center of the town. In the foyer of this museum is Bolt Coffee Company’s second location. Here, under lofty ceilings, the Bolt team offers the same great service as at their Dean Hotel location but adds a modest food menu to the mix. Their savory grits are a work of art that almost looks too good to disturb.
Coffee is served either via batch brew or from a pair of La Marzocco GS3 espresso machines. A creative menu of signature drinks and a choice of two espressos give the customers plenty to be excited about. The cafe is often bustling, but the baristas at Bolt focus on one drink at a time. The goal here is to give the customer the same experience whether they are the sole patron or if the line is 10 people long.
New Harvest Coffee and Spirits
New Harvest Coffee Roasters can be credited with bringing Providence’s coffee culture forward. Co-founder Rik Kleinfeldt has put the city on the map as a coffee capital by organizing the grassroots MANE Coffee Conference, an industry favorite. New Harvest has also hustled to bring freshly roasted specialty coffee into cafes and bakeries throughout the region. If you see their Whisper Espresso on the menu then you can expect good things.
Inside of The Arcade, the oldest shopping mall in the US, New Harvest Coffee and Spirits serves up coffee in the morning and cocktails at night—there is even an after-hours speakeasy entrance. Behind the bar, new and creative creations and numerous choices of whiskeys are on the menu. If you are looking for a solid espresso, or a masterfully made Manhattan (or both), this is the spot.
Dave’s Coffee has made a name for itself by doing the impossible: improving upon a cultural icon and local favorite. Rhode Island’s official state drink is coffee milk—in most places, kids grow up drinking chocolate milk but not here. Coffee milk is made from coffee syrup, and for as long as any Rhode Islander can remember, Autocrat brand has been the only option. Dave’s came along with a simplified, small-batch version of the syrup and people have been gulping it down ever since.
Of course, Dave’s Coffee also features non-syrup based coffee drinks, in a coffeehouse relaxed in atmosphere but sleek in design. Little cubbies carved out over the bench seating act as shrines to brewing equipment. An imposing black monolith of a table serves as a communal workspace—and conjures memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stools line the front of the cafe windows allowing coffee sippers to perch, and, if they care to, ponder the world outside.
Borealis Coffee Company
Though technically just outside of Providence, Borealis Coffee Company warrants a mention. Housed inside a reclaimed train depot, this cafe roasts in-house. The atmosphere is rustic and warm and the coffee choices range from comforting to exciting. The folks at Borealis host a number of pop-ups featuring bagels, waffles with pulled pork, yoga lessons, and more. This coffee shop is a great community hub that keeps things interesting, so consider making the drive over. Better yet, take the bike path that runs right along its side.
Eric Tessier is a freelance journalist based in Providence. Read more Eric Tessier on Sprudge.