Key to the City

Where to Find the Classic Coffee Shops That Made Seattle World Famous

There was a time (pre-Amazon, of course) when if you told someone from anywhere in the world you were from Seattle, they would grin and say, “Coffee!” And Seattle's coffee scene is truly as good as its worldwide reputation -- but not necessarily for the reasons people assume.

Seattle’s stature as a coffee town came, in large part, thanks to a little chain that opened in '71 called Starbucks. But for locals, Starbucks is the least "Seattle" of coffeeshops. It’s the coffee houses of the '60s in the U-District that started it all -- whose laid-back, home-away-from-home, art-loving vibe inspired an entire city's coffeehouse culture.

As the story goes, Seattle's first coffeehouse was Cafe Encore, opened in 1958 on the Ave, followed by contemporaries nearby, like The Place Next Door and the Last Exit. Folk musicians stopped by to play, artists displayed their work on the walls, and, in an era of Vietnam War protests, hippies, and drugs, places like these served as local gathering spots. It's that tradition of serving as community hubs for budding creatives that gives these cafes the storied feel -- be it the folk musicians of the '60s, the grunge musicians of the '90s, or today's writers, huddled over laptops.

But one thing that's always set Seattle's shops apart is that those creatives wouldn't settle for Sanka. The biggest leap in Seattle's coffee quality came when a tinkerer and sandwich shop owner named Kent Bakke started fiddling with his espresso machine. He traveled to Italy in search of a better machine and discovered the potential of delicious espresso and the machines that make it. Bakke eventually started importing La Marzocco machines to Seattle (and would later go on to be the CEO of the company).

Bakke made one sale in 1984, to a man named Howard Schultz, that changed the course of the coffee industry. Schultz, armed with the new espresso machine, switched Starbucks’ focus from roasting beans to making drinks -- and serving as a “third place” for customers, not too different from that '60s scene in the U-District. And thus, a chain was born.

There's no doubt Starbucks dominated the national conversation, but outside of it, the espresso machine revolution ran rampant. At the time, coffee's ubiquity in Seattle was more than any single shop or chain. “Everywhere was getting an espresso machine: the dry cleaner, the video store,” says Dani Cone, who owns Fuel Coffee in Seattle. Espresso, the Seattle Times pointed out in 1993, was “in parking garages, furniture stores, car washes, dental offices, life insurance, drive-thrus, fast-food joints.” It was sold from carts on the street, parked every few blocks, which was how Boeing engineer-cum-espresso expert and Espresso Vivace owner David Schomer got his start. Vivace and the shops that came after it would define an era in Seattle and Seattle coffee: places that created a comfortable, all-are-welcome environment, but were also devoted to creating the perfect cup.

“[They] were a whole subculture,” Cone remembers, aptly calling them addictive. “You never know who you’d run into, but eventually you’d see everyone.” She chalks Seattle’s coffee shop love up to the sad, grey weather pushing people inside. This was also a time when not everyone had access to a smartphone or computer, and the peak of Grunge-Era Seattle in the '90s -- a bunch of flannel-clad slackers sitting around on comfy couches sipping espresso.  

Cut to today. Shiny new shops abound, with their lighter roasts and sleek, sharp angles, but these older places -- the ones that earned the city its reputation -- have also stuck around, keeping up the quality and the culture that made them so noteworthy in the first place. They remain the kinds of places you're as likely to run into the mayor, a struggling writer, or even the next Pearl Jam in the making. We've rounded up the places that have withstood the test of time -- or descended directly from shops that did -- where you can clutch a cup where Kurt might have, slip into a scene from the '60s, or drink under the original Starbucks mermaid.

Café Allegro

U-District

An original that's stuck around
The last of the Ave’s famous coffeehouses that pioneered the genre, this laid-back roaster also owns the title of the city’s oldest coffee shop. The espresso drinks are good, but the atmosphere -- and the old-school poster wall -- are iconic and historic.

Uptown Espresso

Various

Laid back and comfortable, like a pair of old jeans
The “Home of the Velvet Foam” was one of the first local shops to stake their reputation on producing better quality espresso drinks. The original location (in Uptown, naturally) opened in 1984, and the mini-chain is now seven stores strong and has produced many future coffee shop owners -- though the shop itself was owned by the great-grandson of Oscar Delaloye, Seattle’s first coffee roaster until his death in late 2018. Now, the mostly spacious, comfortable stores are managed by Fonté, who roasted their coffee -- meaning they are still both a great place to do work or take a meeting, and to order any drink latte-style drink for a taste of that velvet foam.

comfortably numb
Original Starbucks store at 1912 Pike Place. | f11photo/shutterstock

Starbucks #1

Pike Place

History in a cup
To clarify: This is not the first Starbucks. That was a block away on Western Ave. But it is the oldest currently operating store in the chain, and it does have lots of old logos, a special signature roast, and almost 45 years of history (plus the occasional epic line). The narrow space with vintage-style espresso machines doesn't invite people to stay at all -- the opposite of later stores -- but it's worth a linger at the worn-wood counters and a browse of the original brass bean-bin labels.

Bauhaus Strong Coffee

Ballard

A classic, remade
Bauhaus’ current location is barely a shadow of its one-time glory as the epicenter of Capitol Hill’s coffee culture -- a place where people spent entire days whiling away time over cups of coffee under the watchful eyes of the book-lined walls, and where soon-to-be-famous bands would meet. But the more polished current version does its best to evoke the library-like original location, just in a more polished, modern way. It may lack the musicians meeting-and-dreaming of the original, but honestly, so does all of Seattle.

Monorail Espresso

Downtown

Get a feel for cart culture
When Chuck Beek opened Monorail Espresso’s original cart in December 1980, it was the first espresso cart in the city and opened the floodgates on the trend. Later, it morphed into more of a sidewalk window and Beek has since sold it to a former barista, but the business continues on. Grab your drink and sit at the tables in front to watch the world go by--just like everyone did in the '90s.

Espresso Vivace

Capitol Hill and South Lake Union

An espresso master makes his ideal shop
When David Schomer opened his espresso cart on Broadway in 1988, he was just getting started in the espresso industry. Today, he’s revered as one of its foremost experts -- and the guy who made latte art a trend -- but he also still runs shops that pull some of the city’s most perfect shots. The sidewalk bar retains the old-school feel better, but the large, warmer store up the street also has a mural of the company’s history wrapping around the counter. Order anything with an espresso shot to get a feel for Schomer's precision.

La Marzocco

Seattle Center

Museum, radio station, coffee shop
The KEXP Gathering Space and La Marzocco café only just opened in 2016, but the Italian espresso machine manufacturer’s role in Seattle’s coffee scene earns its showroom a spot on the list. Seattleite Kent Bakke began importing their machines in the late ‘70s, eventually buying the company and supplying them to Starbucks and just about everyone else in town. The sprawling, modern open space with killer tunes -- thanks to the radio station housed there -- is one of the most lovely places in town to sit and hang out for a few hours. The menu changes monthly with the various roasters rotating out, so have the barista make you whatever that month's featured signature drink is.

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Naomi Tomky has been drinking Seattle's best (little "b") coffee since she could barely see over the espresso cart. Watch for her food adventures on Twitter @gastrognome and Instagram @The_Gastrognome. Find more local food history in The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, now available for pre-order.