Outsiders might confuse Portland, Oregon with a coffee titan, thanks to Third Wave pioneers like Stumptown Coffee, blazing quality-pushing roasters such as Heart Roasters and Roseline Coffee, and innovative cafe brands like Good Coffee, Either / Or, and Barista. But this is a small place—just 600,000 or so people live here—and so hot new cafe brands don’t launch each week, unlike some cities we can think of. (Los Angeles, London, we see you.) Which makes the opening of Upper Left Coffee in Portland’s Ladd’s Addition neighborhood something of a big deal. It helps that the shop is light, airy, and surprisingly spacious, and that the coffee is similarly distinctive, at least so far.
Upper Left is the result of a food and coffee collaboration between Katherine Harris, a coffee industry veteran, and Jim Harris, a chef and cafe owner. The father-daughter team bought what was once Ladd’s Inn Restaurant and Bar and turned it into a cafe with a clean and open feel, armed with both a roasting facility and a capable kitchen.
“When he and I were talking about concept and everything, it just made sense to do something with coffee and food… it was almost like there was no option,” Katherine Harris says of the process. “Food is like second nature for us.” That degree of familiarity translates into a menu using mostly Portland-local ingredients, made into hearty toast and open-face sandwich options. Upper Left also features a homemade almond / macadamia nut milk for the non-lactose lovers.
On the coffee side, Upper Left focuses on single-origin espressos and brewed options. Coffee is made as a pour-over on the Kalita Wave, in batch brews on a FETCO, or as espresso on a La Marzocco Linea Classic. The bar sports a Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder for coffee and Nuova Simonelli Mythos One grinders for espresso. All coffees are roasted in-house on a shiny red 10-kilo Proaster by roaster Chris Alspach, formerly of Torque Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, Washington, and D’Amico Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn. Alspach is sourcing his green coffee from importers Sustainable Harvest, Coffee Shrub, and Cafe Imports.
With a build-out crafted by Fieldwork Design, the space offers indoor and outdoor seating, plenty of natural light via the many windows and foyer skylight, custom-built furniture, and a modern design with details that draw on the shop’s location in the neighborhood’s unusual layout. One wall displays the mileage and direction to the sources of the cafe’s coffee offerings, which, as those change over time, will be a fun commemoration of the original beans on bar when the shop opened. Pottery by Pigeon Toe Ceramics holds plants aloft in the entryway, which is separated from the seating areas on either side by standing bars.
Steering away from the oft-found darker wood and more secretive lighting found in Pacific Northwest design, Katherine Harris wanted something “fresh and lighter.” She went to Fieldwork and laid out her dream: “You want to walk in, you want it to feel good… maybe even a little feminine.” The end result “isn’t necessarily feminine,” she adds, “but it works especially because you’re doing production, so you can’t make it super light and whimsical and then have [the roaster] working back here, so they kind of found a balance.” That balance between slightly industrial, light, open, and still comfortable and relaxed underpins the concept of having a cafe that houses a roasting production and a small kitchen.
Perhaps the best compliment one can pay Upper Left is that it feels like this cafe could be in another city altogether. Its light woods and airiness could be Sweden, or Santa Monica, or South Africa; somewhere with a beach nearby. It’s a uniquely Portland paradox: this city is both trendsetting and slow moving. With just a few weeks on their legs, and plenty of room to grow, Upper Left feels like a great big breath of fresh air.
Rachel Grozanick is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Grozanick has contributed previously to Bitch Magazine, 90.5 WESA in Pittsburgh, and 90.7 KBOO in Portland. This is Rachel Grozanick’s first feature for Sprudge.