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What Makes a Coffee Shop Truly Great?

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Our checklist got a little out of hand. 

counter culture
Counter Culture in New York City.

A coffee shop can be so many wonderful things: a quick pit stop in the morning, a respite from the office around 3:30 P.M. on a weekday, a saving grace when you're hungover on vacation, a place to collect yourself (whether with a book or a fully-charged laptop), and somewhere that fills you with good feelings just because it's so dang cute. In honor of #nationalcoffeeday yesterday, we compiled a list of what we really prize in an excellent coffee shop, from the obvious to the very very persnickety. 

Three things became abundantly clear:

  1. Good coffee matters the most.
  2. Some (okay, most) of our wishes are probably not within the control of coffee shops owners and baristas (see Sarah's desire that there be "no regulars who make it truly impossible to be there, like the guy in Blue State Coffee who shaves his beard in the armchair....")
  3. Opening our dream coffee shop (i.e., checking off all our the things on our wish list) would probably not lead to a very sustainable business model.
black tap coffee  Black Tap Coffee
Black Tap Coffee in Charleston scores top marks for Extremely Good Vibes and a shot of espresso shaken with honey and mint called a "Julep." 

But, still we can dream! Here's what we look for in an excellent coffee shop:

Great coffee. 

For me, the most important test of a coffee shop's coffee is how their drip tastes when it's black (that's also what I drink on the regs, so I test with frequency): It needs to be strong, dark, and stormy (meaning flavorful), in a cup with a lid that doesn't leak. And, ideally, something that basic doesn't take more than a few moments to prepare—here's looking at you, Flywheel Coffee in San Francisco, where I once waited a patient 8 minutes for a no-frills cup of joe. 

If a drink is going to be enjoyed on the premises, Ali notes that the shop need to serve it in real mugs—and Caroline takes that a step further: "I LOVE unexpected mugs/glassware. (Bright blue! Painted pottery! Clear glass mugs! An eclectic collection of teacups dangling from the ceiling!)." 

Our connoisseur of beverages, Sam, hopes that a barista "knows what I mean when I ask for a grind between Aeropress and Chemex," meaning coarse but not too coarse, which leads us to beans. Locally-roasted are ideal, and Caroline notes that it's especially great if a shop sells them by the pound on-site. 

Van Leuween  Cafe Moka
Left: Van Leeuwen in the East Village is actually an ice cream shop, but they sell solid coffee, have plenty of seats, and stoke a strong WiFi signal; right: Café Moka in the Florida Keys, where I never wanted to leave. 

Places to plop down.

Every now and then, we happen upon a good coffee shop that's nothing more than a takeout bar, but in the big scheme of things, we'll come more often if there's a seat or three. Ali and Sarah agree that they prefer a variety of seating, from "couches for conversing" to "comfy chairs for light working." We all agree the seating options should be comfortable—though nothing you're tempted to fall asleep in. 

As for the tables, they should err on the side of large and functional rather than frilly, "not skimpy French-cafe style ones (unless, of course, it is a French café), so you can do work without knocking things over with your elbows," Taylor smartly notes. 

Some snacks, at least.

Leslie raises the point that "coffee shops with actual food (even it it's just a sandwich) are great so you can also grab lunch," and I personally appreciate when a coffee shop's food selection is highly curated—so there are only a few things offered and I can count on what I choose in 5 seconds being very good.

"Treats made in-house are very special," Caroline mentions, raising the bar, and Sarah agrees ("Good pastries!!!! Can't survive on coffee alone."). Gabi takes it a step further (because we are eaters at the end of the day), making the point that "a nice variety of sweet and savory food options is a major, major plus." Thick slices of the olive oil loaf at Seven Grams, our go-to coffee shop near the Food52 office, come to mind.

Kaffe 1668  71 Irving
Left: Kaffe 1668 in midtown doesn't have any seats, but the coffee is reliable for quick pickup; right: 71 Irving Place is my very favorite coffee shop, despite the fact that the baristas refuse to learn my impossibly easy order even though I go there most days.

Extremely good vibes. 

The best coffee shops are feel-good places, with relaxed decor that's not too cheesy-cozy (like so much exposed wood and brick that it feels a little dirty). Our resident urban gardener, Caroline, says that some having some plant friends in a coffee shop is "very important, and bonus points for windows that open so you can get the breeze." Ideally, something in the shop will be so inspiring that it's worth Instagramming, whether that's the exterior facade, a display of pastries, or a specialty drink.

As for what's in the air, it should be temperate and inviting; I am always so happy to be enveloped in good, varied music played at a soft volume (a.k.a. no repeating the same side of a record over and over), and Ali makes the good point that "the temperature needs to be one I don't notice."

Baristas "who aren't too cool, but know their stuff" is important to Sam (because she knows her stuff) and, as Riddley puts it, "if you remember my name after repeated visits, you have my heart (and money)."

Furthermore, I love when a coffee shop surprises me, whether that's because they have beer on tap, a really smart design that makes the line faster-moving and more bearable, because their art is good, or because their WiFi password makes me smile.

And I think we can all agree that good people watching is a major bonus. 

Stumptown  Mama's Boy Cafe
Left: Stumptown in Greenwich Village pours a strong iced brew; right: the snack selection at Mama's Boy Coffee Shop in Phonecia, NY is so impressive that it might not actually be a coffee shop. 

Modern conveniences. 

At the top of Kristen's list is "free, reliable, no-time-limit WiFi," which we realize might be more taxing on a coffee shop owner than is fair to actually insist upon. Yes, it leads to patrons "camping out," as they sip on the free water and take up seats for others paying guests—but it's so great! Non-negotiable, however, is a source of power: "Plenty of outlets!" Sarah pleas (and Caroline and Gabi echo). 

In the same line of persuasion, it seems a requirement that any place with an endless supply of delicious beverages also features a clean, public bathroom


I probably have the strongest feelings about this and I accept that they are not fair, but my dream coffee shop is not in the very coolest part of town, but not outside the outskirts—so that it feels like an attainable adventure to go there. Kristen, on the other hand, simply wishes that all the best coffee shops be "close-ish" to her house. 

What do you look for in a great coffee shop? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Counter Culture photo by Alan Tansey; all others by the author, who apologizes for repeat images of her boyfriend in her favorite coffee shops.  

Tags: Kitchen Design, Home Decor, Coffee, Lunch, Snack, Bake, Restaurants