The scoop on the coolest coffee houses in America
By Kristan Schiller
Much like the English pub or Parisian café, American coffee houses have historically been places where people gather with friends and neighbors to unwind, converse and connect. At many coffee houses, you’ll find music, poetry readings and spoken word performances as well as local artwork on display to enjoy while you sip. Of course everyone knows the big chains, but what about those great independently run coffee houses which are thriving in cities and towns across the U.S.? Your Chevy Spark provides a jolt of bold, vivid color, but when you’re craving a dose of java to perk things up, check out some of these cool spots.
Coffee By Design
Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear started this little coffee shop in Portland, Maine almost two decades ago, when they felt that the city needed a place for the community to congregate. And though the shop has burgeoned from their original Congress Street location to three other area outposts—as well as a micro roaster where they process all their beans—Coffee By Design remains independent to its core. On any given day, you’ll see Mainers pouring in and out of the shop on a constant basis as baristas pour one cup of tasty coffee at a time.
Saratoga Springs, New York
This Saratoga Springs, New York coffee house is famous the world over for being the oldest continuously running coffee house in America. Opened in 1960 by young couple Bill and Lena Spencer, it features regular folk music concerts and arts-related events throughout the year. Lena holds an important place in the history of American folk music, too: by frequently hosting shows by these artists, the cafe helped launch the careers of legendary songsters Bob Dylan, Peet Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. Since Lena Spencer’s death in 1989 (before which she received an honorary degree from nearby Skidmore College), Caffè Lena has been a not-for-profit organization run by loyal volunteers determined to keep this cultural institution—and great coffee house—alive.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
A boutique coffee bar smack in the center of the North Carolina woods on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, Caffe Driade takes the prize for uniqueness. With several patios surrounded by greenery on multiple levels, the place almost feels more like a treehouse than a coffee house, though visitors will be pleased to know Driade makes an excellent cup of coffee with beans from the local Carrboro Coffee Company. There’s even an in-house humidor for those who want to smoke a cigar outside with their cup a Joe.
Café du Monde
New Orleans, Louisiana
A required stop for anyone visiting New Orleans’ French Quarter, Café Du Monde has been serving chicory-spiced coffee and famous French-style beignets to grateful patrons for over 150 years. Introduced during the Civil War to stretch coffee supplies, chicory—which adds chocolate undertones to the coffee’s flavor—is still used here. The famous New Orleans hotspot is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (During Hurricane Katrina the shop closed for two months, though it suffered only minor damage.)
“Espresso Vivace” translates loosely from the Italian as “great enthusiasm and excitement” about espresso. And Espresso Vivace’s motto is “una bella tazza di caffe,” which means “a beautiful cup of coffee.” Since 1988, owners David Schomer and Geneva Sullivan have made the art of espresso their life’s work, constantly researching roasting methods, pouring styles and grinding techniques. Famous for their Northern Italian espresso, Vivace has three locations throughout the Emerald City, including a funky sidewalk coffee bar.
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Kristan Schiller is a New York-based travel writer and blogger whose articles have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and Fodor’s, as well as on Forbestraveler.com and Salon.com.