Has it ever been easier to find a decent espresso in North America? Good coffee shops are everywhere these days. Unfortunately, in too many cities, enthusiasm still trumps expertise.
Seattle, which pretty much started us on this path, does not have this problem. It is still, by far, one of the best places to drink coffee in North America. From old-timey coffeehouses that were thriving before many of us were born to so-hot-right-now, laboratory-ish cafes, the nation's coffee capital truly has it all.
One problem: Nobody has enough time left on this planet – or at least enough leisure time in Seattle – to drink all of the coffee that's here. Sure, even the most mediocre shot around these parts can be better than the best in other cities, but if you're pressed for time and want to go straight to the top of the pile, here's a handy guide.
THE BEST ONE: Espresso Vivace
Going strong since the 1980s, Vivace successfully bridges the divide between nostalgia (a huge thing in this fast-changing city) and modern standards at three different locations within easy reach for most visitors. I prefer the unpretentious sidewalk bar in busy Capitol Hill for maximum Seattle-ness, but at all three, they're pulling some of the best damn shots in the country. You will travel far and wide and often pay more money for a cappuccino, but you will usually find yourself wishing you'd just been able to come here. At least I do. Years after Vivace was being talked up as one of the best coffee shops in the United States, it remains so.
532 Broadway Avenue E, 321 Broadway Avenue E (Sidewalk Bar), and 227 Yale Avenue N
THE BEST NEW ONE: Slate Coffee
The style-over-substance ethic sweeping the national coffee scene has not left the Emerald City unscathed, but minimalist spaces, sleek machines and baristas in cool aprons are, as any coffee snob knows, only part of the equation. This pint-sized roaster café on a side street between Ballard and Fremont is often packed out for a reason: It may have that sleek, natural look that's so popular these days, but coming here is like going to your friendly corner bar, if your friendly corner bar took an almost scientific approach to the art and enjoyment of coffee.
5413 6th Avenue NW
THE BEST NEIGHBORHOOD CAFÉ: Analog Coffee
There are so many, but this one sources from Herkimer – one of the best local roasters – and serves it up in a retro-cool space that's unfussy and welcoming and thriving, almost in the shadow of a massive Starbucks.
235 Summit Avenue E
THE DOWNTOWN ONE: Monorail Espresso
Swamped with work or a busy convention and don't have time for exploring? Start your mornings at this walk-up bar on Pike Street that began as what's said to be the world's first coffee cart back in 1980. Monorail moved to its current location in the '90s and still pulls solid shots for a faithful clientele of bike messengers and local business people. Cash only.
520 Pike Street
THE HISTORY LESSON: Cafe Allegro
If you're looking to trace ancient Seattle coffee culture, start with a trip up to the University District. Here, the city's oldest coffeehouse is still going strong in a back alley near the gargantuan University of Washington campus. Now in business for nearly 40 years, Allegro's original owner helped Starbucks, then a supplier, develop the espresso roast you taste at their cafes around the world today – he actually went on to become the head buyer and roaster for the company. Starbucks honcho Howard Schultz even called Allegro a "prototype" for the sort of café they eventually hoped to open – and did.
4214 University Way NE
A FEW MORE
For some of the best drip coffee in town, it's still Victrola Coffee, one of the best local roasters for a long time now. There are three locations – the pleasant Pike Street café is most convenient for visitors. In Pioneer Square, drop in on Caffe Umbria, if only to honor the part they played in local coffee history – I've had better experiences around the corner lately at the new Elm Coffee Roasters, getting great notices for their own roasts and one of the city's best modern café spaces. While Fremont's Milstead & Co. is popular for a reason (very nice place to hang out, competent baristas), their decision to source from out-of-town roasters makes it less essential for visitors. (That doesn't mean you shouldn't go, just be aware.) Finally, for those interested in what Starbucks is up to these days, head for the company's sparkling new Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room, walking distance from pretty much any downtown hotel. Presenting as something like a nightclub for coffee nerds, you're here to have them pour over (or Clover brew) something small batch and/or single estate, right out of the on-premises roaster. It's a far cry from your friendly neighborhood Frappuccino factory.
The author just completed an eleven-month stay in Seattle attempting to drink all of the coffee. Do not try this at home.