Sitting down to a good coffee is a great way of getting into the local flow of life when you’re visiting somewhere new. While what constitutes ‘good’ is a matter of personal preference, the US has been a tricky proposition for lovers of Italian-style coffee – in all its luscious forms.
When Greedy Girl first visited the States, back in the 80s, she’d been conditioned through virtually every American TV show or movie she watched in her formative years to expect a coffee ‘culture’. The reality was somewhat different. Coffee was served from a brewed (and stewed) pot; it was weak, watery and most definitely uninspired. Today, however, the US (despite the ubiquity of Starbucks and other chains) has come a long way, especially in the cities that pride themselves as destinations for food lovers. But finding good coffee in the US still requires research and tenacity.
Greedy Girl concedes not everyone likes to drink their coffee this way; otherwise Starbucks and its various clones would be out of business. Australians (especially Melburnians, like your humble blogger) are generally coffee snobs. Given the number of apps and websites dedicated to finding great coffee wherever you may be (several of which emanate from Australia), it’s a fair bet that they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get a decent cup. The coffee entrepreneur is also one of Australia’s great exports (see the blog The quest for coffee which gives details of great coffee in a number of European countries or Coffee in Tokyo) and while that’s certainly the case in New York City where there are big Australian connections, there are also home-grown entrepreneurs who’ve cottoned on to this burgeoning market.
On our recent trip, we were lucky enough to find some great coffee experiences and others that would do, at a pinch. Here’s a list of cities and venues. We’ll be adding to this over time.
New York City (Manhattan)
While the hipsters over in Brooklyn have had the mortgage on good coffee for a while, it’s been slightly slower to permeate through Manhattan. Having said that, there’s no shortage of good coffee to be found and a great many outlets seem to have an Australian connection. If you’re serious about your coffee fix (and don’t want to have to jump a Subway train or cab to obtain it each morning) then perhaps finding lodgings within walking distance of one of these beauties is the way to go.
Bluebird Coffee Shop (now closed, but replaced by The Lazy Llama)
This tiny cafe can be found in the East Village (with a sister outlet called Milk Bar in Brooklyn) near the corner of 1st and 1st (Avenue and Street). Ordering an espresso and strong latte (Australians always abbreviate ‘caffe latte’ to just ‘latte’ – which can cause some consternation in Italy when they get a nice glass of milk) we were very happy to grab a spot on the bench in front of the exposed brick wall, sip and plan our next move on the iPad, thanks to the free wi-fi.
When we visited, Melbourne barista Tyson was leading the charge, although all the local staff were also very well trained behind the machine and the enterprise is owned by another Melbourne ex-pat.
For more on Bluebird, check out the blog here. At Tyson’s suggestion, Greedy Girl switched from her strong latte to a Piccolo (or as it was called in NYC, a cortado) – basically the small glass sometimes used for espresso and macchiato. A double shot of espresso in that and topped with some slightly foamy hot milk and Greedy Girl was in heaven. Tyson offered us a taste of the local ‘iced coffee’ on one particularly warm day; it didn’t change our opinion of American coffee at all. Sorry guys! Check out their website here for more details.
On seeing a sign out front of a cafe, proclaiming it to have the best coffee in (insert city name here), Greedy Girl usually gives the premises a wide berth. Such was the case out front of Everyman Espresso on East 13th Street (there’s another one in the West Village as well).
Various listicles had rated Everyman to be the #1 coffee shop in the US, while American Express’ Departures website had it as one of the 10 cult places for coffee. It had also been recommended by Tyson, the barista at Bluebird, mentioned above. It should be said the coffee was perfectly acceptable but, to this taster’s palate, there was certainly nothing worth raving about. Again, there is free wi-fi and a rather large seating area on East 13th Street, but it’s very popular with the hordes of NYU students from the nearby campus all staring intently at their Macbooks.
If this was your neighbourhood coffee haunt you’d probably count yourself satisfied (if a little poor – the coffee plus tip doesn’t work out cheaply).
You can find more details here.
This was founded by a guy from Sydney and was Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband’s daily hangout on their previous visit to NYC when they stayed in midtown. Good European style coffee co-exists with other American varieties.
Again, there’s free wi-fi and a reasonable number of seats. It’s a haven in midtown, somewhere in the middle between 34th Street (to the south) and Times Square (to the north) and you can get some yummy snacks.
There’s a big range of coffees on offer, including one favoured by Americans, the pour-over. Greedy Girl is yet to appreciate the fuss about it, but it seems very popular. More details about Culture can be found here.
After being spoiled for choice in NYC, Boston was a bit of a shock to the system. It seemed much harder here to find a good coffee and even talking to the staff in restaurants we enjoyed didn’t offer up too many more ideas. Undeterred, we found a few spots.
This is another Australian export. It’s barely bigger than a kiosk, on a busy cross-street. There are a few stools inside and, in fine weather, a couple of tables out the front.
A range of Australian goodies are on offer, including Anzac biscuits (made locally, using golden syrup imported from Australia by the Sydney expat owner) and a range of meat pies. There’s also free wi-fi.
On the downside, it’s closed on Sundays (at the time of writing; apparently the owner would like to open seven days). Asking for a piccolo or cortado didn’t register with the barista on the first visit.
We managed though to get a double shot in a caffe latte glass and only two-thirds milk. It was very drinkable. The quirky Australian coffee spoons were a nice touch. Their website is here.
This is a chain in Boston with the advantage that it’s open on Sundays. We headed to the north end branch, in the heart of the tourist precinct.
It’s a large cafe, with equally long queues. You queue to order and then again to collect your coffee from the barista – making it hard to talk through options when you want something a little different, given there’s nothing but a cash register docket that the barista has to go on.
The result was OK. Drinkable, but on the weak side i.e., too milky for our liking. The cafe at north end doesn’t offer wi-fi; Greedy Girl can’t vouch for the other branch she saw near Boston Common. Here’s their website.
There are a lot of little cafe chains on Martha’s Vineyard but most of them wouldn’t really pass muster for those who love Italian-style coffee. The cafes are relatively small so it’s easy to speak directly to the baristas but something gets lost in translation. There is an exception though!
This cafe has two branches, one in Oak Bluffs (not far from the main ferry terminal serving the island) and down at Menemsha – but this is only open during the main summer season (July-August).
The Oak Bluffs cafe is reasonably large, has very comfortable chairs and has free wi-fi. The coffee is prepared with care and the request for a double shot with a small amount of foamy hot milk on top was readily executed – and it was far and away the best coffee we tasted on the island.
And, in case you were wondering, Beetlebung is the name for a local indigenous tree, as well as a combination of terms connected to the old ‘whale oil’ trade from the early days of the island’s settlement. Check out their website.
The foodie capital of the midwest, Chicago is a fine town. It is, however, absolutely wall to wall with Starbucks outlets. We did get a tip, however from the barista at Boston’s Cuppacoffee and were delighted to find a cafe just around the corner from our hotel, in the centre of it all, the Loop.
This is a chain of coffee shops, with branches all over Chicago (we went out into the suburbs on the Sunday when our local Loop cafe was closed). It also has two outlets in Manhattan (at Herald Square and on the High Line) and three in Los Angeles.
While we were reluctant, initially, to try a chain outlet, the coffee and service here was exceptionally good. It was through a barista at the Loop outlet that we found Longman and Eagle, a Michelin-starred cafe and bar out in Logan Square. The coffee here is excellent, the staff are very knowledgeable and there’s free wi-fi. We were also turned on to a new ‘style’ of coffee.
A double-shot in a small glass topped with steamed milk is not a piccolo or cortado here, it’s a ‘Gibraltar’ – which is also the name for the type of small glass used. It was sensational. The Loop cafe opens very early so we even managed to have a stop there on our way to the airport for our morning flight to San Francisco. More details on locations can be found here.
This is another very expansive city and the best of it can be found away from the tourist areas such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. Here, we also found a couple of chains that were our saviours in terms of the daily coffee fix, although their ordering systems left a lot to be desired.
A short walk from the main Westfield shopping centre in Union Square, one branch of Blue Bottle is on Mint Plaza. There are a lot of high and low stools inside and a few tables outside which, in the sun, are extremely pleasant. There’s also a big range of coffees here and a selection of snacks.
The small coffee here is also called a Gibraltar (although it’s served in an espresso cup rather than a glass), so communication to get our preferred style of coffee (nice and strong, not too much milk) was easily achieved – the queues, however, are ridiculously slow moving and the system used in the cafe just doesn’t appear to be particularly sensible.
Having said that, it’s a nice spot to sit when it’s sunny and the coffee itself is very good.
There are a number of branches throughout the Bay Area – we also visited the small outlet in the Ferry Building, down on Embarcadero. Blue Bottle also has an outlet in Los Angeles and several in NYC. You can check out their website here.
San Francisco’s Mission district is a grungy, edgy place full of food outlets and a cafe we were strongly recommended to try – Four Barrel. There are three outlets in San Francisco but this was the easiest for us to navigate towards. It’s a very cool spot; the decor is out there – from the animal heads on the wall to the extraordinary painted floor and ceiling in the restroom and the bearded, tattooed barista, it definitely makes a statement. In terms of coffee though? Well, it was a bit too edgy. The coffee was very strong, quite bitter and not to Greedy Girl’s taste. It’s an extraordinary looking spot (see the picture at the top of this blog and worth checking out if the scene is as important to you as what’s in your cup. There’s wi-fi available but the connection seemed to be through the shop next door. More details here.
Ritual Coffee Roasters
There are three San Francisco locations and one in Napa. We visited both the Napa store (inside the Oxbow Market) and an amazing outdoor venue in the Hayes Valley. Once a rather seedy area of the city, Hayes Valley has been revamped to a rather chic enclave. Part of the impetus for the transformation was the last major earthquake in the city, which demolished part of the nearby freeway and regarded as an eyesore.
This venue is spectacular on a sunny day, with a host of outdoor tables and the chance to enjoy an open-air and very good coffee. The one in Napa is also a terrific spot; you can order coffee and then search out a variety of food options from the other stalls. Check out their website.
Waikiki is not the greatest food destination and Greedy Girl didn’t hold out much hope of a decent coffee either, however, the Honolulu Coffee Company had received reviews on Trip Advisor and other sites from Australians saying it was worth trying.
There’s a cart on the main shopping strip, just outside the Princess Kaiulani hotel (a Sheraton) and it’s a nice spot to sit and sip. Across the road there’s a full-on cafe inside the Westin.
We tried ordering a variation on the piccolo/cortado/Gibraltar (no recognition for any of these terms) and decided we’d both order double espressos with a small cup of frothed milk on the side. No ‘latte art’ but a very decent cup was created. More details here.
So, coffee isn’t all doom and gloom any more in the US. While all of the above cafes still made American-style coffee (with syrups and the like), the majority of baristas understood where we were coming from in terms of getting a coffee full of robust flavour and strength and minimising the milk. Of course, if you prefer your coffee weaker, milkier or sweeter, there’s definitely a sense and a willingness to help you get your coffee your way. Enjoy!