What Makes a Coffee Shop Truly Great?

September 30, 2015

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!)." 

Shop the Story

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.  

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


Alexandra M. September 20, 2016
extremely helpful and lovely to read article :)
Jenny March 15, 2016
A coffee shop has almost everything I love: Dainty mugs, Good coffee, people come and go and interactions, the options to sit and chill or plug in and do work surrounded by just a slight buzz. It is my dream to have a coffee shop that people visit and leave wonderful memories. This article is so great and offer some points to consider! :D Thanks
louie February 21, 2016
We open at 6am, catching those charming dog walkers, surfers and lycra squad. We need gentle music, great views, happy staff, delicious food and drink...We figure that's what our customers need.
AntoniaJames October 5, 2015
I like a coffee shop that conveniently also offers excellent motorcycles, custom surfboards, and related kit, with beautiful outdoor seating: In fact, this place--Deus Ex Machina in Venica, CA--sort of opens up one entire side of the building, so you just walk through the outdoor seating area out back into the shop. Excellent pastries and great staff keep us coming back for more. Bonus points for branding as "The Emporium for Postmodern Activities," and little succulent gardens planted in driftwood that decorate the big picnic table seating. ;o)
henandchicks October 4, 2015
I own a little coffee shop/bakery, and really liked this article. I try to create an environment, and of course products, that our customers will enjoy. So many of the elements listed in the article seem like give and take to me, customer to owner. Example, I play some music, someone comments on it, so that goes on our playlist. When we experiment with a new bean, beer or pastry constructive customer input is great. I honestly don't mind people working at a table for 6 all alone...when they realize that they are taking 6 seats and using the WIFI that I pay for, and purchase items accordingly. The dislikes on the list seem to come in the same way- rude customers do not get sweet service. Most of our customers are great...its the person who asks for a cookieccino like at Starbucks, or cashew milk and then sighs at me with pity, because I am just a poor ignorant little mountain girl who doesn't understand that cashew milk is ESSENTIAL that tend to get short service.
The B. October 2, 2015
Great article. Having just moved from the Northwest, I'm in search of the perfect coffee shop as well. The coffee is paramount, of course. I have a list I go through with new places. If I enjoy a simple black coffee on my first visit, I'll go back and order a Cappuccino. If that passes the test (which I realize is arbitrarily subjective), I consider it a worthy regular stop-in. After that I explore Americanos, Chai Lattes, other roasts, house blends, etc... I agree about the mugs; eclectic is cool and ceramic, essential. I even have a hard time taking paper when I'm on-the-go because it's wasteful. And any place who uses a second cup or a Styrofoam sleeve to protect from the heat doesn't get a second look from me. I'll do my best to not even use a cardboard sleeve if possible. A place to plop is great and some snacks make the whole experience great. I'm not one to spend more than a couple hours there, even if I am plugged in electrically and wifi-ly, because I hate when someone sits at a table in a full café for an hour and a half with an empty espresso cup. Always have a drink or something to eat. If I'm done, I give myself about 10-15 minutes to finish my conversation and give my table to someone else.
fredcheese October 1, 2015
Coffee: Dark strong and stormy is one person's idea of one kind of good coffee. Variety suggests a honey-process coffee or a complex Ethiopian as well. Mugs: I'm infatuated with heavy diner mugs. Food: Bear in mind that in-house puts a heavy burden on the coffee shop's infrastructure. And the baker will usually leave. Order the pastry from a good bakery. Wifi+outlets: Don't camp out. Again, that's a burden on the shop and somewhat selfish. Would you expect to hang at your favorite restaurant for 4 hours sucking down their electricity and paying 10 bucks? When you battery goes, you go. Buying beans to order is great. Sometimes I don't want a 12oz bag. Or sometimes I'd like to try a 1/4 lb a week of different coffees.

I'm also partial to late hours but I know that's not always feasible in this day of "no caffeine after 2pm" habits.
marie October 1, 2015
The staff makes a big difference too. I've been to cafes that had pretty much everything else I would want (great coffee, plenty of seating, great ambiance), but didn't return since the staff was rude.
mcs3000 October 1, 2015
Ditto on real mugs. Check out Pinhole Coffee in the Bernal Heights hood of SF. JoEllen shop mural is by her brother; the bake goods by Little Bee (baker is ex-Chez Panisse) and ceramic cups are made by a Berkeley artist JoEllen met as one of Blue Bottle's first employees. And, the coffee is excellent. She makes kiduccinos for little people.
Rebecca A. October 1, 2015
Love love LOVE this post. I am slightly obsessed with finding the 'perfect' coffee shop for me (although good coffee isn't one of my requirements - I drink tea - but generally, if somewhere serves tasty coffee that's a good sign, admittedly!). I lived in Belfast a year ago, and they had SO many great places to go. One of my main gripes with Edinburgh coffee shops is that none (really, none) are open late. If they are, they are a cafe-bar, and things get too 'bar-y' after about 4pm. I also like somewhere where I can work without feeling like a spectacle. My work is often making jewellery, and truly, I don't do it to get noticed! So table space, and a comfy corner I can tuck myself into, and several others who are there, alone, working at something or other. Not much to ask, surely?!
Amanda S. October 2, 2015
A comfy corner is an excellent find!
Wendy J. September 30, 2015
Great article! Being able to buy the coffee freshly ground is another sign of a great coffee shop. You can enjoy the coffee at home when you can't get to the shop.
Tereza September 30, 2015
Amazing coffee, dairy alternative "milks", great music, wifi and that cozy feeling