Saturday, June 12, 2010

coffee love in seattle


Mom claimed that coffee was partly to blame for her petite stature.  “It stunts your growth,” she would say.  She went on to explain how her childhood caffeine habit may have been responsible for prematurely hindering her vertical development.  Mom also warned that our feet would not grow if we wore socks to bed.  Standing at just over five feet tall, her case was convincing.  Had she towered over us like an amazon; or at least been of average height, her warnings might have fallen on deaf ears.  

Throughout my formative years, I heeded this advice, steadfastly avoiding coffee and devoutly slumbering sans socks.  At age twelve, my pediatrician informed me that I was most likely done growing- yet I remained hopeful that I would have a late growth spurt.  I read articles where celebrities touted exercise apparatus which added a good inch to their height by lengthening the spine.  The obscure machines they described were Pilates reformers, at the time available only to the rich and famous.  I considered attempting to lengthen my spine by hanging from a chin up bar but had second thoughts when I visualized myself with arms like an orangutan. 

By my senior year of high school, I acquiesced to the inevitable.  My feet and I had not grown since the sixth grade.  Grudgingly, I accepted my fate, my consolation being that coffee no longer posed a threat.  At last, childish hot chocolate was retired in favor of more sophisticated, caffeinated beverages.  A hazelnut breve was my drink of choice.  The breve is essentially a latte made with steamed half and half, best drunk by those with lightning fast metabolisms, namely teenagers. 

In the spring before graduation, I took a job as a barista and fell in love with making coffee as well as drinking it.  I loved the sound of hot steam gurgling in a pitcher of cold milk, the intoxicating scent of fresh roasted coffee beans, the whirr of the grinder, the give of velvety grounds as they were tamped down in the filter, the weight of the handle when I fastened it to the machine and the resulting satisfaction of creating espresso with perfect crema.  There was a rhythmic cacophony to the whirr, hiss, gurgle, whirr… mingled with the muffled chatter of customers on the other side of the counter.  Mornings were golden, filled with the convivial air shared amongst early risers.  The afternoon crowd was a more subdued lot; but invariably grateful for their much needed caffeine fix.   I have fond memories of my barista days and still harbor a sense of entitlement when it comes to judging a good cappuccino.

favorite seattle coffee by neighborhood

Cafe Fiore- On several occasions, I noticed the back side of Cafe Fiore while perusing the Sunday Ballard Market.  When at last I made my way around the block and stepped inside, I stood in awe.  Upon entering, an embracing warm glow emanates from the backlit amber menu, exposed brick and honey stained wood floors.  The rectangular layout felt spacious due to well- appointed tables and plenty of space between the counter and seating.  The vibe was both modern and vintage with ornate black counters contrasting burnt orange walls.  The lighting, a juxtaposition of the clean lined hurricane lamps overhanging the coffee bar and the medieval-like wrought iron fixtures throughout.  If the ambience isn’t enough to draw you in, go for the coffee.  Seattle Magazine rated them ‘Best Independent Coffee Shop’.  Their organic beans deliver an espresso roast with full flavor and a smooth finish.   A bonus for parents is the tots’ corner in the back.  Cafe Fiore has three locations.


Victrola Coffee & Art- I happened upon this coffee shop when my daughter was enrolled in a nearby dance class.  It has all the trappings of a Capital Hill coffee house: diverse patrons, pierced and tattooed baristas, a standing piano and rotating artwork on the walls.  The common thread amongst  customers is a  mutual desire for really great coffee and a disdain for the conglomerate coffee shop (disguised as an independent), down the block.  My daughter’s class was held in the late afternoon, a time of day when I tend to avoid caffeine.  I was thrilled to discover virtually no difference between their regular and decaffeinated espresso.  Their coffee is both robust and smooth, with a complex flavor.  Victrola roasts their own beans at their Pike Street roastery and brews the best I’ve had in Seattle.  It reminds me of my favorite San Francisco coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee Co.  Victrola has three locations.


Volunteer Park Cafe- With its high ceilings, light-filled interior, vintagey tables and cozy, bench lined walls, Volunteer Park Cafe feels like an extension of your living room.  Although more of a restaurant than a coffee shop, VPC readily support the caffeine habits of their loyal weekday coffee crowd.  Weekends are brunch focused and busy, often with lines out the door.  They serve Stumptown Coffee and baristas here know their stuff.  Cappuccinos have more milk than foam but are delicious.  The hardest part is walking out with just coffee.  While waiting in line, you pass a tantalizing array of quiches, cookies, cakes and scones.  I must stop now or this will turn into a restaurant review (coming soon…).


DeLaurenti- Whenever I shop in the Pike Place Market, I stop for coffee at the cafe in DeLaurenti.  They serve smooth and supple Caffe Umbria coffee and their well-trained baristas are among the best in the city.  Their cappuccinos have the perfect balance of espresso, milk and foam.  Lunch fare is simple and delicious but the line often snakes out the door.  The staff is friendly and efficient and did I mention how much I love their coffee?

Peet’s Coffee and Tea- Although I tend to advocate local businesses, I love San Francisco enough to consider it my home away from home.  Peet’s got their start in Berkeley, in the 60’s.  The founder was from Holland, like my husband.  I first tried this coffee while visiting the Ferry Building, in San Francisco.  As far as big companies go, this one has managed to remain true to their roots and to operate like a small business.  The staff are friendly and efficient and the espresso is flavorful and consistently good.  In summer months, I love their iced cappuccino, a refreshing combination of espresso, foam, milk and ice, unique to Peet’s.  There are four Seattle locations and one in nearby Redmond.

Essential Baking Company- Lunch and breakfast menus are extensive at this bustling cafe but they also cater to a loyal coffee crowd.  The coffee has a burnt caramel quality, like toasted marshmallows.  The cappuccino, with its ring of golden brown espresso circling perfect white foam, even looks like a toasted marshmallow.  It makes me happy.  The Wallingford location was their bread baking facility until they recently moved the baking off-site.  It is situated in an old brick building that has operated as a bakery since the 1920’s.  There is a third cafe in Georgetown. 

Fuel- This neighborhood coffee shop has an underlying road trip theme to tie in with their moniker.  Located in the old Montlake Library, the decor is a mix of contemporary tables and chairs and original wood floors and built-ins.  The staff are generally friendly and the espresso is robust.  Most baristas make a good cappuccino; the lack of consistency is my one caveat.  Typically, about half the cafe is comprised of laptop users.  Fuel has three locations in Seattle.

Caffe Umbria- Before it was Caffe Umbria, it was Torrefazione Italia.  The crowd is mostly the nine to fivers.  It’s hard to beat the location, on a cobblestoned terrace in the heart of Pioneer Square.  If you traipse across the way, you might catch the glassblowers at work in Glasshouse Studio.  Caffe Umbria’s backdrop is decidedly minimalist with pale yellow walls, mahogany stained tables and chairs and stainless steel accents.  The coffee is outstanding, very smooth and drinkable.  Coffees are served with a square of dark chocolate, the European way.   In addition, they offer Gelatiamo gelato and baked goods.  My husband drinks the Gusto Crema Blend at home, using his Bialetti stovetop espresso maker.  Caffe Umbria has one location in Seattle and one in Portland.

Espresso Vivace Alley 24- Two winters ago, during Seattle’s record snowfall, my family got a bad case of cabin fever.  We decided to drive our Volvo to REI to pick up a camping stove, in case we lost power.  We bundled up and fortuitously parked right in front of this coffee mecca.  From the espresso art mosaics to the pleasing shades of brown on the walls, floor and counters, there is the distinct feeling of being inside the perfect cappuccino, awash in a sea of milk, espresso and billowy white foam.  Vivace roasts their own beans resulting in a coffee that is sweet and smooth.  Baristas have mastered the perfect foam and crown it with artful espresso swirls, resulting in drinks that look as amazing as they taste.  Vivace has two stores and one sidewalk bar.

Caffe Ladro- When I worked on Queen Anne, I often stopped here for coffee. The setting is cave-like with dark, textured walls and eclectic stained glass arches.  The coffee is full bodied and intense but balanced.  Laid back baristas are friendly and focused.  Baked goods are delicious, particularly the ginger cookies, pumpkin pie and quiches.  An expansive bulletin board takes the boredom out of waiting in line.  The cafe on Upper Queen Anne is the original Caffe Ladro.  Their website states that there are now thirteen locations!

Macrina Bakery- Crusty loaves of bread, mouthwatering pastries and an inviting staff greet you as you enter this charming neighborhood cafe. Tucked away on the northwest edge of upper Queen Anne, the place is always bustling.  Square tables are intimately spaced and hard to come by but worth the effort if you can secure one.  The setting is soothing with cool blue walls and ethereal light streaming in through floor to ceiling windows.  The espresso drinks, prepared by counter staff who double as baristas, are consistently good.  The roast is full bodied with a round finish and cappuccinos are classic affairs with a balanced foam to milk ratio.   Macrina has three locations to choose from.


  1. Sarah, this is such a great picture! Oh, and I agree with all your recommendations. Patrick has been wanting me to try Aster Coffee in Ballard, too. Have you been there?

  2. No, I haven't heard of it. I will have to check it out... ps. i like your new table next to the bed where you put it.