My DC Coffee Shop Reviews
This morning I thought I might talk about coffee. I’ll begin with a short life story, and review my favorite DC coffee shops after the break.
I never grew up with coffee and didn’t much care for it until about four years ago, when I was introduced to it via the experience of coffee shopping. I was having trouble getting work done in my noisy dorm, so I got a laptop and begin and begin going to JJ’s Market & Cafe in Nashville. I found that the coffee shop provided me with my ideal combination of quiet but not tomblike atmosphere and a pleasant venue for people-watching when I needed a break. For two years before moving to DC, I became the classic regular: the guy who knew all the employees by name and could lay down exact change for any item on the menu. When I go back to Nashville, I always set aside a few hours for JJ’s, and Sam the owner typically greets me with “welcome home.”
I credit Jacob Grier for sending me along this path, and a host of other people for helping me to continue along it. As someone who would never have discovered coffee without free wi-fi I’m a stalwart supporter of it, though I believe one should always purchase something as a courtesy and would support owners who make it a requirement. But I wouldn’t begrudge the person who stayed for hours just ordering a couple of drinks, because I’ve seen firsthand the multiplying power of a regular who’s treated well. During the years I frequented JJ’s regularly, I attracted dozens of new customers — some of whom are now regulars in their own right — through class project groups, discussion groups, dates, and friends who were just looking for a good place to meet up. This was precisely Sam’s business model and philosophy, and as far as I’m concerned it’s working nearly to perfection.
As I didn’t like coffee when I first started coffee shopping, my first regular drink was a cafe mocha, which JJ’s serves with a healthy infusion of Hershey’s Syrup and whipped cream. When I began looking for an alternative, Sam recommended the vanilla latte which has remained my staple ever since. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to visit every coffee shop I can and have become exposed to many different business models and several different roasters. While I still prefer flavored drinks, I’ve taken to ordering the classic cappucino from time to time if I know the espresso is good and the baristas are well trained.
I’m admittedly nowhere near a coffee expert, and obviously not a purist, but I can claim to be ascending toward a higher level of understanding of what it takes to run a coffee shop as a business. I don’t have the product knowledge to serve quality coffee, nor the capital to fund someone else’s passion in its entirety, but my education and experience would lend itself well to a joint venture in which I focused on the marketing and operations component. I’ve considered just such a venture, in fact, though I’m not convinced the reward would outweigh the risk at this stage in my life.
So, with background out of the way, what about DC coffee shops? Well, when I arrived here I spent a lot of time at Murky Coffee in Arlington — close to my house and work. However, crowding and internet problems forced me to begin a search for an alternate third place, and so I began a coffee shopping expedition. What follows is my unauthoritative opinion based on the places I’ve been. To qualify for my ranking, the coffee shop must be metro accessible (<15 min walk) and have free wi-fi. Oh, and if you know of any other places that have opened up recently, please don't hesitate to let me know so I can check them out! That said, on we go:
1) Open City (24th & Calvert, NW) offers, in my opinion, the best combination of atmosphere and product. A part of the Tryst family, they pride themselves on quality barista training and also double as a restaurant/bar. The caviat here is that because OC is a restaurant, it’s jam packed during meals and pretty much all morning and afternoon on weekends. My recommendation is to show up after 8pm and belly up to the bar, which is also about the only time you’ll actually see people using their laptops. They used to be open until 2am which was awesome, but rumor has it they now close at midnight.
2) Tryst (2459 18th St, NW) gets the #2 nod for pretty much all the same reasons that Open City is great. In fact, I would argue that its lounge atmosphere — lots of comfy sofas and intimate tables — makes it a more attractive venue for reading or doing laptop work. However, it’s in the heart of Adams Morgan, which makes it both difficult to reach by foot or by car (parking issues) and impossibly loud/crowded on weekend nights. Moreover, they made the decision to turn off their wi-fi on weekends! How could I rank a coffee shop #1 that did that to me?
3) Murky (3211 Wilson Blvd in Arlington) is at least as fastidious about barista training and product quality as Tryst/OC so you’ll nearly always get an excellent coffee or espresso drink. It’s got plenty of seats and no kitchen, which means lots of coffee drinkers. Internet used to be spotty (Comcast’s fault) but has been pretty good of late, plus decent access to outlets. It can get a little crowded with George Mason law students who take up entire 4-person tables for hours of studying. Don’t be frightened by the fact that it’s in Virginia — it’s a block from the Clarendon metro so people who live anywhere other than Red Line will find it easier than most to get to. Murky also has a location in Eastern Market, but it’s much smaller so you’d have to be pretty lucky to get a seat unless you put in some seriously off-peak hours.
4) Soho Tea & Coffee (21st & P, NW) is about 2 blocks west of Dupont Circle metro. It’s open very late as I recall. The decor suggests it’s kind of trying to be like some kind of counterculture refuge. Cool feel, fast free wi-fi, decent drinks, and a great location make this place worth serious consideration.
5) Baked & Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St., NW) earns points for being the only non-Starbucks in Georgetown, albeit it’s just a bit off the strip (near the Barnes & Noble) so you may not have spotted it. They’re actually a coffee shop and copy center, believe it or not. Their baked goods are excellent, and their coffee operations have undergone a recent revolution that’s raised product quality to a Tryst/Murky level. Negative points for hours (close at 6pm weekdays and closed on weekends) and an extremely limited seating area.
6) Busboys & Poets (14th & V, NW) is to U Street what Open City is to Woodley Park, in that the artsy feel and weird designs seem to reflect the area’s culture. Beer selection is pretty good, and desserts are great. The place is huge and not only serves food, but also has a bookstore. Note that the bartenders are clearly that, and not baristas by trade. My vanilla latte was decent, as in not made from an automatic machine, but definitely not a product of craftsmanship.
7) Mayorga Coffee (8040 Georgia Ave in Silver Spring) is, as I understand it, a reasonably well respected roaster. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience here in terms of both the quality of my beverage and the decor. The cafe is large and wooden, has a bar and clearly turns into more of a happy hour kind of place at night. Almost a western feel to it. The biggest knock on Mayorga is it’s definitely the most difficult on this list for me to get to — it’s at least a half-mile from the Silver Spring metro, which made it pretty much a day trip for me.
8) Buzz (901 Slaters Lane in Alexandria) just opened a couple of months ago and is still getting its sea legs, I think. The coffee is respectable but not great, and though they advertise themselves as a coffee shop I feel like they’re more of a bakery. The shop is a decent size and has lots of comfy chairs, but I feel like the setup actually puts their space to poor use. They have a liquor license, but they don’t yet have any specialty coffee/liquor fusion drinks and looked confused when I asked for a recommendation. I also must confess that it comes near to violating my metro requirement, being that it’s a long 15 minutes from Braddock Road stop. But in spite of all this, Buzz is owned by the same people as Tallula and Rustico — two bar/restaurants for which I have the utmost respect — so I’m optimistic that they’ll sort out the growing pains in the very near future.
9) Steam Cafe (17th & R, NW) gets more restaurant-like during meals, but they do have free wi-fi and lots of people were hanging out there. I would describe my vanilla latte as clearly better than shops ranked below but clearly worse than anyone making a serious effort to serve a tasty product. (In other words, about Starbucks quality.) It’s open really late — perhaps even 24 hours? It’s a little too diner-ish for my style of atmosphere, and none of the customers or waiters have been particularly friendy in my visits, but it’s still worth a look.
(Chain coffee afficionados: this is about where I would rate Starbucks, but their wi-fi solution is T-Mobile, so they’re disqualified from my ranking.)
10) Love Cafe (15th & U, NW) bills itself as much a bakery as a coffee shop, I think. It’s housed in a very narrow room. The people behind the bar are efficient and friendly but the kitchen is narrow and cramped and you can’t see anyone. They had a nice looking espresso machine but took zero care in making my latte and it was somewhat disappointing. Also, they only serve in to-go cups. We were the only people in this place not eating a piece of cake which suggests their baked goods are worth trying. I recommend checking it out for the atmosphere, and for a case study in what happens when you make your kitchen area too small.
11) Azi’s Cafe (9th & O, NW) is a chill little shop with kind of a trendy orange-colored art deco feel. Very small, like 5-6 tables. Vanilla latte wasn’t bad. Appears to specialize in baked goods and cater to a breakfast crowd. All the workers were very friendly. In the Shaw area, this was one of the more difficult shops for me to get to by foot.
12) Ebenezers Coffee (2nd & F, NE) is exactly what you’d think from their website: “We serve coffee with a cause. All of our coffee is fair trade…. We are owned and operated by National Community Church and all profits go towards our community outreach projects.” It’s small and pleasant, and the only decent coffee shop I’ve found thus far in Northeast. They’re set up to host Christian music some nights. Coffee was subpar; if the decor and the attitudes of the baristas are any indication, product quality is clearly not as important as the cause.
13) Foster Brothers (3515 Connecticut Ave, NW) is a strip mall shop right next to the Cleveland Park metro. I couldn’t get the wi-fi to work and I think it’s because it was a pay service, but I’m keeping it on this ranking because there were so many laptop users inside that I’m not completely certain it wasn’t just my ineptitude. Vanille latte was okay, nothing special. There’s a hardwood modern feel to the inside and I really liked the lighting, but unfortunately it was so crowded that we had to sit in the cold rainy umbrella chairs outside.
14) Cyberstop Cafe (17th & P, NW) is designed to be more of an internet cafe than a high-class coffee shop. Two stories with lots of seating and computers are available for rent, and there’s free wi-fi if you bring a laptop. The downstairs is designed to be a bit more social, while the upstairs is like a library. I’m pretty sure that everyone else in the shop was gay. They brew insanely awful machine coffee — I prefer the french vanilla cappuchinos out of the machines at gas stations. Also, they only serve in to-go cups, not that this could diminish the product quality any more.
15) Crumbs & Coffee (Columbia & Ontario, NW) is mainly a low-quality bakery located near Adams Morgan. The coffee is not good and the staff serving it are clearly not baristas in the pride-in-their-work sense. Decor is clean and efficient — particularly the window-area seating which is very modern and bright.