Being a great coffee shop isn't just about the quality of your espresso or the ratio of baristas generally interested in your day compared to condescending coffee snobs. It's about those special touches that weave a humble purveyor of warm beverages into the fabric of a community's everyday life. Like free Wi-Fi.
Since nearly every community has at least one caffeine hotspot that serves as a "third place" for people who "can't get work done at home," compiling a list of the 21 best was not an easy task. So to separate the gold from grounds we polled our nationwide staff of city editors as well as some of the biggest names in the coffee world.
In the process we had to cut some iconic local haunts, new-school barista breeding grounds, and roasting titans, so your favorite might not be on the list. If we missed your home away from home, let us know in the comments, and the most popular suggestion will be added to the list as the people's choice. But don't let your vote be swayed too much by a tip flirt.
Grand Rapids, MI
Clocking in at number three on our list of best roasters in the country, Madcap's put Grand Rapids on the coffee map and set themselves apart from other shops by offering tasting flights, serving espresso in snifters to emphasize the intense aromatics, and implementing a zero-waste policy by trading trash cans for bus bins and sorting all of their trash into compost and recyclables.
Kansas City, MO
Oddly Correct stands out in the surprisingly coffee-rich city of Kansas City for their bags of beans letter-pressed with sketches from the owner, excellent cups of pour-over made with Kalita Wave drippers, fun one-off events like soul brunches, and enough humility to remember that, despite all the artisanship, they're “just caramelizing cherry pits in a glorified clothes dryer.”
Santa Barbara, CA
Equal parts coffee roaster, bakery, and a community center, the French Press is such a large part of Santa Barbara that they actually hold a farmer's market in the parking lot. And even though they've got one of the top baristas in the world behind the bar, they still pride themselves on customer service over coffee knowledge.
New Orleans, LA
You won't find any bespectacled hipsters debating the virtues of the AeroPress at Cafe Du Monde. The New Orleans landmark is a snobbery-free zone, and earned a spot on our list thanks to their status as one of the oldest shops in America (est. 1862!), a unique embrace of Chicory flavoring, and their legendary beignets. Pro-tip: Avoid the half-hour wait by heading to the take-out line.
The slick, Scandanavian-influenced design of Heart comes courtesy of their Finnish owner, who used to be a pro snowboarder before going into the bean biz. Heart's serious enough about their coffee that they don't serve cold-brew because it doesn't meet their flavor standards, and they're so transparent with their roasting practices that their cafe is literally built around a black Probat roasting machine that allows customers to get a first-hand look at their craft.
From the birthplace of second-wave coffee giants like Starbucks, Seattle Coffee Works claims to be the only active roastery in the Emerald City's downtown, and takes their service as seriously as their beans. For regular Joes, they offer an express side loaded with cafe pressing pots of international roasts. But the real magic happens in the Slow Bar, where patrons can pick from a variety of beans and brewing methods to compare the tastes of single-origin brews and test the cutting edge of coffee technology.
As close as you're going to get to an authentic Italian coffee bar in the Mile High City, Little Owl serves locally roasted, small-batch beans from Sweet Bloom and Commonwealth. The espresso drips from a serious La Marzocco Strada MP machine. The pastry selection is also top notch, with offerings like ham and cheese quiche.
Although many shops on our list roast their own beans, no other can claim to have farmed them. Eternity Roasters in the heart of downtown Miami is the last stop in the founder's family's "seed-to-cup" vision that started on their Colombian coffee farm 60 years ago. When they're not brewing their own Colombian fare single-cup pour-over style, it's single-lot harvests from around the world that have gone through a rigorous blind taste-testing process to ensure beans never waver from the farmer's standard.
The guy from Ristretto literally wrote the book on home brewing (How to Make Coffee Before You've Had Coffee: Ristretto Roasters' Spectacularly Simple Guide to Brewing at Home), but while he prescribes a wide range of at-home options, the star of his three shops are their Steampunk brewing systems. The most Portland-sounding machine ever, the Steampunk is a variation of syphon brewing that results in a faster and more consistent product than most any other single-cup system. Ristretto also roasts in-house, allowing them to tune-in their flavors to specifically complement the experimental brewing method.
San Francisco, CA
While many big-city coffee shops double as people-watching sites, Saint Frank is all about a serene coffee experience enhanced by blonde oak walls, skylights, and the fourth wall between barista and patron broken down by sinking the stylish Mod Bar espresso machines into the countertop. The founder entered the coffee world through local roasters Ritual, and he's still sticking with them, using the espresso in everything from lattes with housemade almond milk to a rarely seen espresso and tonic.
Los Angeles, CA
The champion baristas and overall coffee gurus behind G&B (Kyle G. and Charles B.) take the term "coffee bar" literally. Tucked into LA's Grand Central Market, G&B is just one long bar at which they encourage patrons to mingle while enjoying espresso drinks served in reusable glass jars. Their second shop, Go Get Em Tiger, flips this standing-bar idea for more diner-style bar service in which patrons are circled around the barista area in order to encourage a more friendly environment.
Rocking a wood-handled Slayer espresso machine, Barista Parlor's always serving beans from at least three different roasters, from up-and-comers like Minneapolis's Dogwood to nationally renowned caffeinators like Intelligentsia and Stumptown. The vibe is all-artisan-everything -- from the uniforms to the furniture -- and they've just entered a partnership with one of the guys from the Black Keys to open a second location, which will feature a roastery enclosed in glass and framed with wooden beams reclaimed from the original George Dickel Distillery.
The only spot on the list where you can both get your bike fixed and score a caffeine fix, Heritage is run by a fifth-generation Chicagoan who cut his teeth building vintage-inspired bikes in the East Village before moving back to the Chi to dedicate himself to custom-crafted bikes and serious coffee, including a pour-over station and cold-brewed Stumptown Hair Bender.
New York, NY
Pretentious-quality coffee without the pretentiousness, Everyman opened in 2007 in the cramped corner of the lobby of a theater near Union Square and expanded in 2012 to an equally-cramped storefront of their own. The owner has coffee tattoos on his knuckles, single-origin roasts on the brain, and no menu on the wall: instead of awkwardly gazing at a chalkboard, customers are encouraged to awkwardly converse with the baristas to settle on their order, forcing a bit more humanity into the transaction and encouraging experimentation with AeroPress and Chemex.
San Francisco, CA
Part-coffee shop, part-fixie parking lot, Four Barrel is housed in a former industrial warehouse in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, where your coffee is literally made bean-to-cup in the coffee version of an open kitchen, right smack dab behind the register. Not only is the coffee some of the best in the caffeine-rich 7x7 (credit partners that include Stumptown and Ritual vets), but it's also just generally an awesome spot to enjoy an affogato; large bay windows face people-watching-rich Valencia Street, they only play vinyl, and they're the home of the infamous Great Four Barrel Boar Burglary, which was about as awesome as it sounds.
By day, Ascension’s using a $20k espresso machine to brew beans from the largest privately owned plantation in Rwanda, because the owner just happens to sit on the board. At night, they move all the tables -- which are made from former bowling alley lanes -- to form an intimate wine bar with a killer menu. Pro tip: Go for the Kyoto drip.
If ever an indie coffee house captured the eclectic character of its 'hood -- from Harvard grad students and journaling hipsters, to Spanish tourists and aging hippies who ask you to use your laptop in the back of the cafe because they need some "technology free" time (not even kidding) -- 1369 is that place. With two locations a stone's throw away from one another (one Inman, one Central), this bustling, always-hard-to-find-a-table-at Cambridge icon's been pouring high-grade java for over 20 years, serving it alongside tasty scones, tons of teas, and occasional live tunes. And that's to say nothing of the chipotle-spiced Mexican hot cocoa. They even deliver growlers of their popular cold-brewed iced coffee… by bike, of course.
New York, NY
Neither snow, nor rain, nor sleet, nor massive lines at the Supreme store next door can keep SoHo loyalists from this sleek, high-ceilinged caffeine Mecca. One of four NYC outposts of the premium roasters (who got their start in Philly 20 years back), this one has a special place in our hearts... because it’s right around the corner from Thrillist’s headquarters. Well, that and the rich house blends. And the almond croissants. Alright, so there’re a few things. Don’t be daunted by the line, either: it moves quickly thanks to the professional-as-hell barista corps.
George spent 20 years building his brand of Coffee Connection shops to 24 locations, then sold out to Starbucks to focus on traveling the world to help strengthen the international coffee-sustainability infrastructure. After earning every coffee award ever, he threw his hat back into the coffee shop ring in 2012 to reopen a cafe outside of Boston serving his own roasts to dedicated coffee pilgrims.
New York, NY
Making Greenpoint cool before it was New Williamsburg, Cafe Grumpy opened their first shop on Meserole in 2005, back when the neighborhood was mostly Polish immigrants with just a salt and peppering of hipsters. The success of the shop has grown it from a quiet study spot with an adorable book exchange to a six-location giant with its own roastery and cameos as Lena Dunham's place of employment in the HBO show Girls.
In a space that formerly housed Houston's most iconic gay bar, Blacksmith sets itself apart from the rest of the Houston coffee scene thanks to its all-star cast of city veterans, including the roaster of Greenway Coffee and the guys behind Beard-lauded establishments Anvil and Underbelly. Expect meticulously sourced beans from African farmers' collectives paired with special pop-up food offerings like smoked bologna tacos.
Editor's Pick: the fine coffee shops of Austin, TX
Having lived in Austin for 15 years, and spent countless hours coffee-shop camping, it's impossible to choose a singular best in the city without losing my Wi-Fi privileges everywhere else. But the city is also loaded with so many great shops! Despite the proliferation of places pulling single-origin cups, it can still be nearly impossible to find a seat, let alone a power outlet. My favorite changes like the weather.
For pure espresso excellence, I've gotta tip my hat to Caffe Medici and Houndstooth for their ability to give you 10 adjectives for every one of their beans; Thunderbird for being a perfect neighborhood meeting ground; Once Over for their lower-key, oasis-like vibe; Brew & Brew for their love of the AeroPress and emphasis on craft brews; and Cenote for attaining a well-tuned balance of all the above qualities.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. In the course of compiling this list, he drank at least 21 cups of coffee. Pray for his sleep cycle and follow late-night tweets at @Dannosphere.
1. Madcap Coffee98 Monroe Ctr. NW, Grand Rapids
2. Oddly Correct Coffee Bar3940 Main St, Kansas City
3. The French Press528 cota street, Santa Barbara
4. Café Du Monde800 Decatur St, New Orleans
5. Heart Coffee2211 E Burnside St, Portland
6. Seattle Coffee Works107 Pike St, Seattle
7. Little Owl Coffee1555 Blake St #150, Denver
8. Eternity Coffee Roasters117 SE 2nd Ave, Miami
9. Ristretto Roasters3808 N Williams Ave, Portland
10. Saint Frank2340 Polk St, San Francisco
11. G&B Coffee at Grand CentralC-19, 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles
12. Barista Parlor519B Gallatin Ave, Nashville
13. Heritage Bicycles General Store2959 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
14. Everyman Espresso136 E 13th St, New York
15. Four Barrel Coffee375 Valencia St, San Francisco
16. Ascension Coffee1621 Oak Lawn Ave, Ste A, Dallas
17. 1369 Coffee House1369 Cambridge St, Cambridge
18. La Colombe Torrefaction270 Lafayette St, New York
19. George Howell Coffee Co.311 Walnut St, Newtonville
20. Cafe Grumpy13 Essex St, New York
21. Blacksmith1018 Westheimer, Houston
Madcap's put Grand Rapids on the coffee map by offering tasting flights, serving espresso in snifters, and implementing a zero waste policy by trading trash cans for bus bins and sorting all of their trash into compost and recyclables. Oh, and they serve a might good cup of coffee to boot!
Oddly Correct stands out with their bags of beans letter-pressed with sketches from the owner and excellent cups of pour-over made with Kalita Wave drippers.
Besides being a neighborhood coffee shop, the French Press is also a coffee roaster, bakery, and community center, plus they actually hold a farmer's market in the parking lot.
Originally established in 1862, Café Du Monde is the place to go for a quintessential New Orleans pick-me-up in the form of a beignet and cafe au lait. The patio, marked by a striped green-and-white awning, is a landmark in itself and the perfect place for people-watching in the French Quarter. The café gets busy during peak lunch and dinner hours, but its 24-seven schedule allows for plenty of opportunities to stop by, whether it's for a late-night sugar fix or an early-morning breakfast. Take-out orders can be placed through a quick-serve window, just be sure to take extra napkins -- those sugar-coated beignets are messy.
Burnside's Heart lets you see the roasters in action, as workers operate gigantic bean-sorting machinery right in the middle of the cafe, which means you're sipping your cappuccino while watching some dude work. C'mon, man. Pitch in! The sleek minimalism of the interior makes you want to stay there for hours, but they do focus more on quality coffee rather than providing a place to study.
Forget Starbucks. This unpretentious coffeehouse Downtown is a longstanding Seattle mainstay, serving up a variety of blended brews and other buzzy drinks. Grab a great espresso at the "Express Bar", or indulge your inner coffee geek and visit the science lab-esque "Slow Bar" to observe the skilled baristas as they model various brewing methods.
This authentic Italian coffee shop's pouring espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, and macchiatos that you can side with fresh Italian pastries and bagels.
This downtown roastery is laudable if for no other reason than that they offer free parking downtown. On top of that, they custom-brew each cup with their single cup pour over the bar, and brew the beans in small batches daily.
A classic example of Portland's coffee obsession, Ristretto's beans are hand roasted (hands put them on the fire… Johnny Blaze isn't palm-roasting them) to perfection and best enjoyed with a dog on the chill sidewalk tables.
While not the buzziest (!) of SF coffee shops, if you haven’t made it into Saint Frank on Polk, you’re missing out on some of the city's best sneaky-fantastic coffee in a serene and simple environment. This modern and stylized shop serves Ritual Roasters beans in a refreshingly minimalist space. Don’t miss the homemade almond and macadamia nut milk that makes for a fine a cappuccino whether or not you're a non-dairy type, plus the rarely seen espresso and tonic (just try it).
Inside DTLA's Grand Central Market, G&B's coffee bar stall is helmed by baristas who take a calculated but fun approach to espresso. Aside from supplying your regular caffeine fixes, G&B whips up speciality drinks like house-made chai and an eponymous shake made with vanilla ice cream, two shots of espresso, and whole milk. There's also a small but mighty selection of yeast waffles topped with maple syrup, ricotta, or house-made jam.
Barista Parlor's always rocking beans from at least three different roasters from up-and-comers likes Minneapolis's Dogwood to nationally-renowned roasters like Intelligentsia and Stumptown.
Heritage Coffee is Chicago’s original bike café, a hybrid space that at once fixes flats and serves up homemade coffee and sweet and savory treats. With West Town Bakery goods, Mast Brothers chocolate bars, loose-leaf teas, and hot chocolate you’ll find plenty to eat and drink while you await your repair (or just watch the mechanics work their magic). You can also peruse the retail space, which features brands like Brooks, Levis Commuter, Upright Cyclist, and more.
The owner has got coffee tattoos on his knuckles, single-origin roasts on the brain, and no menu on the wall: instead of awkwardly gazing at a chalkboard, customers are encouraged to awkwardly converse with incredibly informed baristas to settle on their order.
Four Barrel is not only the best coffee in San Francisco, but it’s earned praise as some of the best in the country with sustainable practices and tasty beans. It’s all about the coffee at this Mission shop (with locations in Portola and The Mill on Divisadero), so don’t expect a laptop-friendly, camp-out-all-day vibe. Since 2007, Four Barrel founder Jeremy Tooker has carried the flag for light roasts, single origins, and a soundtrack dominated by vinyl instead of carefully curated Spotify playlists.
If you have a serious obsession with coffee, you'll find kindred spirits at Ascension Coffee. The stylish coffeehouse in the Design District sources its high quality beans from around the world and roasts them in house for top-notch lattes, espresso and cold brew. But as Ascension's house's credo helpfully points out, "one cannot live on coffee alone," so be sure to peruse the well-curated menu of small plates and hot entrees. When’s the last time you went to a coffee shop and ordered lamb meatballs? Or Wagyu steak and a glass of Cava?
Do you enjoy quality coffee? Scrumptious pastries? Aging hippie customers asking you to use your laptop in the back of the cafe because they need their "technology-free" time? Well you're in luck, as Cambridge coffee icon 1369 has all of these things and more. Kick back in the chill, communal atmosphere with a cup of joe, and take in the monthly live music acts. Best of all? It has a delivery service that brings growlers of cold brew right to your door via bicycle.
Founded in 1994 near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, La Colombe Torrefaction sold its coffee beans wholesale to New York restaurants before bringing its retail cafes to the area. This high-ceilinged, light-filled Soho stop is one of a few downtown outposts known for its third-wave coffee and croissants made by local bakeries. Walk in anytime of day and you'll see well-dressed (and usually beautiful) customers flipping through The New York Times as they sip brews that range from the chocolatey Corsican to the nutty Nicaraguan.
After earning every coffee award ever, George Howell threw his hat back into the coffee shop ring in 2012 to reopen a cafe outside of Boston serving his own roasts to dedicated coffee pilgrims.
Cafe Grumpy opened its first spot in Greenpoint in 2005, and the success of the shop has grown it from a quiet study spot with an adorable book exchange to a six-location giant. And although this Lower East Side outpost isn't Lena Dunham's brief place of employment on Girls (that's the Brooklyn location), it is, at least, adjacent to the equally delicious Grumpy Bakery.
In a space that formerly housed Houston's most iconic gay bar, Blacksmith sets itself apart from the rest of the Houston coffee scene thanks to its all-star cast of city veterans, including the roaster of Greenway Coffee and the guys behind Beard-lauded establishments Anvil and Underbelly. Be sure to pair your java with scratch-made biscuits with a side of creme fraiche and marmalade.