Coffee houses are more than just a place to get a jolt of caffeine and a bagel on the go. They’re a public meeting place. Since before the founding of our country, they’ve served as a venue for meetings to talk, work, and play. Yet that seems to be the only really consistent thing about cafes. As our culture, politics, and tastes inevitably change, the places where people congregate are destined to adapt as well.
In a very meaningful way, cafes are a reflection of our culture – both in large ways and in small. In putting together this list of the best coffee shops in America we were most interested in the small ways in which cafes reflect our lives. We tried to pick out coffee shops that in some way reflected not just broader trends like ‘third wave’ coffee writ large but feature smaller more localized quirks. Every town and city has their handful of best coffee shops, and there are always bound to be omissions whether intended or not – but these are in our opinion some of the best cafes in the United States.
The West Coast
The most painful part of putting any list like this together is knowing that you’re leaving some really special cafes out of the mix. Coffee shops on the West Coast, in particular, have done a whole lot of lifting in terms of actually pushing the craft forward. The whole coast is full of equally important and interesting shops. What would be referred to as ‘second wave’ coffee started out in Berkeley at Peet’s Coffee and Tea (which eventually acquired cold brew pioneers and perennial cool-guys Stumptown). Third Wave was a term coined by a man who now runs a roastery and cafe in San Francisco. As for the prevalence of expensive toast at cafes? You can thank Trouble Coffee Company for that. You really can’t go wrong – but here are some of our all-time favorites.
Bird Rock Coffee
Started in San Diego back in 2007, this young coffee roaster has grown into a force to contend with in the craft coffee world. They regularly produce coffees that are rated in the high 90s by Coffee Review and even won coffee of the year in 2016. Their Cafe in Little Italy, while not their first, is their best in which you can enjoy a pour-over or an expertly pulled cortado brewed with farm-to-cup beans.
Wrecking Ball Roasters
Located between Pacific Heights and the Marina District, this small coffee shop offers up house-roasted beans in a clean and simple setting. Their attention to detail to every part of the roasting and brewing process means you’ll be getting some of the best coffee out there. Period. Don’t expect to hole up there for hours and hours, though. The shop is small, with most of its seating located outside.
Based in San Francisco, Sightglass coffee’s flagship store in the SoMa district serves as both their main shop and primary roastery. Over a century old, the building features a large second open-air second story that looks down on the sprawling cafe and roasters where you can see coffee being processed and turned from green to coffee. Started in 2009 by a couple of brothers, Sight Glass has grown to be a substantial wholesaler that supplies cafes both around the country and internationally.
Located in downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, G&B coffee offers up truly top quality brewed cups and pulled espresso without the pretension or fuss that all too often comes with other cafes. The shop started with humble beginnings – the love child of a couple of roasters looking to strike out on their own – but has gained a world-class reputation winning awards both locally and internationally.
A Los Angeles-based espresso bar in the Arts District, Blacktop was started with a mission to become a neighborhood coffee shop with world class service. Content with being small, the shop itself is more lax than most third wave cafes – happy to serve up cups with chocolate, sugar, and only offering seating outside. Hey, it is L.A. after all so why not?
Salt Lake Coffee Roasting Co
Located in downtown Salt Lake City, Salt Lake Roasting Co eschews the almost clinically sparse cafe style for a more traditional crazy atmosphere. That isn’t to say their coffee isn’t up to snuff. Far from it. The owner of the cafe mentored under Alfred Peet (yeah, that Peet) and has decades of experience under his built. The coffee is roasted in-house as are the pastries that are sold alongside it.
The Pacific Northwest
Other than flannels, grunge music, and the self-satirizing show Portlandia – coffee may be one of the strongest associations people have with the Pacific Northwest. This may be in part due to the fact that the coffee behemoth Starbucks came out of Seattle, or it may be because coffee always pairs well with the gloomy, overcast days which the PNW has more than their fair share.
Victrola has been roasting in Seattle since 2003 and has really firmly placed themselves at the center of the coffee community up there. Their cafe is located in an old auto row building from the 1920s, it has an open feel to it with lots of natural light – making it an ideal place for hanging out with a book or catching up with a friend.
This Portland-based cafe is young, small, and widely respected. They roast all of their own green coffee and source much of it directly from farms in Central and south America as well as countries in Africa. They have two shops in Portland – with their original one being on the east side of the city and the newer opened in 2013 on the west. Their Cafe in the Kerns neighborhood is particularly nice, featuring a welcoming but sparse atmosphere.
A fun cafe in downtown Seattle that serves up seasonal coffees and light fare. Anchorhead coffee, which also makes their own bottled cold brew, isn’t afraid of adding in flavorings to their drinks. They whip up their own in-house sugary concoctions to throw in your drink. The thousand square foot cafe also offers up made to order waffles, and quality in-house baked scones, biscuits, and buns.
La Marzocco Cafe
If the famed espresso machine maker La Marzocco were to have their one and only cafe anywhere, you’d think it’d be in Italy, where they are based. Instead, the heritage brand decided to set up shop in Seattle Center campus. The fun, large cafe features a rotating list of roasters, offers up classes for coffee enthusiasts and professionals alike, and operates partly as a music venue.
Starbucks Reserve Roastery
Starbucks may serve up technicolor monstrosities at the lions share of their cafes, but their Reserve Roastery is honestly something to behold. You can’t be a coffee lover and not honestly be impressed with the detail they put into this place. They offer up in-depth tours of their facilities, and access to some of the rarest coffees the gigantic company has.
At one point in time, this small shop was a beauty salon named ‘Hair Bender’. Now, coming up on 20 years since Duane Sorenson set up his little coffee roasting company there, the name ‘Hair Bender’ is better associated with the brand’s blend of coffee. The well-lit cafe has ample room for sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee too.
When it comes to just about everything, a disproportionate amount of attention gets paid to coastal cities. It’s just the inherent bias that goes along with the majority of digital and print publications being based in coastal locations. Dig a little, however, and you’ll find a staggering number of top quality roasters and cafes in this vibrant part of the country.
One of Chicago’s most famous exports has to be Intelligentsia. The coffee roaster has grown an incredible amount since it first opened up twenty years ago – now with cafes all across the U.S. The cafe that started it all is still being run by the coffee roaster, and recently got an update with more room for seating and a special back bar.
Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this roughly decade old coffee roaster has a real knack for combining quality roasted beans with accessible and fun drinks. Their sleek, almost spaceship-like location in downtown Grand Rapids serves up everything from espresso milkshakes to the simple pour-over – and they even host public tastings as well.
Based in Kansas City, Missouri, this small shop serves up seasonal coffees in a warm and welcoming environment. The bar is made from reclaimed wood and the walls feature exposed brick. A really solid place to pick up quality roasted beans and hang with good folks.
One of Anthology coffee’s most interesting offerings is the community of entrepreneurs. Located in a co-working space in Detroit, the cafe operates on an honor system and is often packed full of people busy working away on their own pursuits fueled by the cafe’s in-house roasted selections.
Kickapoo Coffee Roasters
Usually when you think Milwaukee, what comes to mind is cheap beer. The city’s coffee scene, however, is full and vibrant thanks in large part to leaders Kickapoo coffee roasters. Their new cafe in the city’s Third Ward is a sparse, clean, and light space ideal for enjoying the bright, flowery cups of coffee that Kickapoo has become known for.
The Coffee Studio
A coffee shop serving up Intelligentsia in a warm and welcoming environment. They boast plenty of tables and reading chairs to kick back and relax in. When the weather is nice enough they also host some outside seating in the front of the building.
It has been a long time since truly high-quality coffee has been limited to just the west coast. Quality cafes and roasters on the east coast are as abundant as they’ve ever been – especially in cities like New York and Boston. It is hard to compile a list of the best on the east, in fact, because cities like this have such a crazy high concentration of really quality cafes. A couple that didn’t make the list but that you should check out all the same are Toby’s Estate, Barrington Coffee Roasting, and Third Rail Coffee.
This place is a gem. Usually, the further you get away from the larger cities the more removed coffee house are from the more popular brew methods and roasting profiles. When it comes to Amherst coffee, this couldn’t be further from the fact. The cafe features brews from Barrington Coffee Roasters and even boasts a full whisky bar.
Boston has an abundance of cafes, and it is really hard to say that one is better than the other. What we can say with certainty is that Barismo, located in Cambridge, is a standout pick that won’t leave you disappointed. They roast their own micro lots and keep two rotating espressos, two coffees, and have a wide selection of teas. The space itself is big and open while also managing to be cozy.
La Colombe Coffee Roasters
Specialty coffee heavy hitter La Colombe wasn’t messing around when they opened up their Fishtown flagship. Essentially a massive warehouse space, this cafe boasts not only a top quality cafe, but roasting facilities, offices, and even a rum distillery. Yeah. We know. We were impressed, too.
Oslo Coffee Roasters
What more could you ask for out of a local micro-roaster? NYC’s Oslo Coffee Roasters flagship store puts some of their best coffee on display while also acting as a community meeting place. The cafe is full of light thanks to the large glass rolling door – making it a great place to go during the cold months for a bit of warmth and natural light.
Brooklyn Roasting Company
The Flatiron BRC location has an old school feel to it that can act as a refreshing break from all of the tres cool cafes in the city. They serve up well roasted, expertly brewed coffee with a no-fuss feel. Plenty of spots to sit – and the front of the cafe features floor to ceiling windows.
Irving Farm’s UWS location in New York has just about everything you could ask out of a cafe. The well-designed space features a Kalita brew bar, house recipe sandwiches, and even a sections of solid wines and beers. A great place to escape during the colder months thanks in large part the skylight in the back room.
It seems like pretty much anything that tastes great owes some debt to the American south. Full of history and even more packed with great chefs, restaurants, and cafes, this part of the country offers up a host of truly quality cafes from you to choose from. The same problem presents itself here as it does in other sections of the U.S. – there is too much good stuff. Consider visiting, if you can, places like Peregrine Espresso in D.C for instance.
Cafe Du Monde
This New Orleans institution is far from being a third wave coffee shop as you can get. All the same, it is hard not to recommend this historic cafe. It has been around since the mid-1800s and keeps a simple but tried and true menu. They offer only dark roasted coffee with chicory and beignets – a fried square piece of dough covered in powdered sugar.
Located in downtown Miami Eternity coffee roasters serves up directly sourced beans from Columbia as well as Ethiopia and Guatemala. Their modest little shop features a few seats in front located just across from their San Franciscan roaster.
Black Tap Coffee
A top notch cafe located in Charleston, South Carolina, Black Tap Coffee offers up a laid-back vibe, creative flavored lattes that manage not to come across as sticky sweet, and even better pour over brews. A solid no-frills shop.
Coffee is great, but one cannot live on coffee alone. That is Ascension Coffee’s conclusion, at least. The motto of their cafe, located in Dallas, Texas informs their menu choices – full of both quality roasted coffees, lattes, and espressos as well as a broad food menu and even sparkling wine.
A third wave cafe through and through, Crema sources and roasts all of their own beans and brews them up expertly at their downtown Nashville, Tennessee location. Their cafe has a large front deck for enjoying a bit of sun with your coffee, as well as ample room to sit and talk inside.
Like a lot of different third wave coffee shops – Panther started out humbly as a coffee cart serving their brews up at food truck roundups and farmers markets. The company has grown substantially since then, now with two locations in Miami. They serve up specialty coffees, iced and cold brew coffee, and even beer and wine.
How To Brew Pour Over Coffee
Ok so going out to cafes is good and all – but it isn’t really the most cost-effective option when it comes to getting a good cup of coffee. Save yourself some dough and learn how to brew your own cup of pour over coffee.