Let’s be clear: Incredible coffee is everywhere in this town, from neighborhood roasters to perfectionist downtown espresso carts. Consider this a representative sampling of big moments, or movements, in our local coffee culture—a caffeinated history lesson, if you will.
Downtown, Pike Place Market, Bellevue
It’s the best of all Seattle coffee worlds: more inclusive than a coffee temple, more restrained than a full-menu cafe. The housemade quaffle (essentially the pastry love child of a croissant and a waffle) provides an enlightened pairing to Anchorhead’s dialed-in espresso drinks. A traditional table setup mixes with bar seating to encourage lounging, laptop sessions, or morning meetups—all without losing the sense that this is, in fact, still a specialty coffee shop. No wonder the Seventh Avenue location has spawned siblings in Pike Place Market and Bellevue (with a two-story bakery and training lab coming this winter to 12th Avenue).
Central District, Renton
The espresso drink usually known as an Americano goes by the name “Africano” here, a subtle clue that Eritrea-born owner Efrem Fesaha wants Africa’s vast and varied coffee culture to get the recognition it deserves. Boon Boona sources coffee from small farmers across Africa, and roasts their beans at Fesaha’s Renton facility. A second location near Seattle University offers the same dazzling coffee lineup, fun seasonal drinks, and a small patio.
Participate in the decades-long tradition of academic caffeinating under the tall ceilings of the self-proclaimed oldest continually running espresso bar in Seattle. This UW-adjacent hub, accessible through an old alleyway—a real old-cafe-in-Cambridge sort of situation—has strong coffee, tons of tables, and overflow seating upstairs for finals week.
In 2012, owner Solomon Dubie turned a mini mart into a Rainier Valley haven for Ethiopian coffee traditions in Seattle—a city whose coffee landscape was woefully lacking in Ethiopian coffee culture. Grounds steep at the bottom of the pot, called a jebena, and produce a surprisingly clean—and strong—cup. The avole, the first taste of the first pot, begins Ethiopia’s traditional coffee ceremony. The original location closed in May, but Cafe Avole will open a new spot this fall in the Central District’s Liberty Bank Building.
The name translates to “coffee thief,” a nod to the days when the original location on Queen Anne dared to open next to the mighty Starbucks, intending to steal its customers. Ladro arrived in 1994, when Seattle was riding a flannel-wearing, Frasier-watching wave that crested with its burgeoning coffee culture. Today, 16 understated locations offer a reliable network of exacting coffee.
Once an upstart second-wave coffee shop that catered to musicians, Vita grew into one of the nation’s largest independently owned coffee roasters, poured locally everywhere from Lark to Linda’s. In 2020, Deming Maclise (a longtime coffee guy, also co-owner of the restaurant group behind Rhein Haus, Stoneburner, Sabine, and Poquitos) bought Vita from cofounder Mike McConnell, a guy whose life would make an excellent prestige Netflix series. Nine locations in Seattle and beyond have an invigorated emphasis on customer service, while coffee director Samantha Spillman, a 2019 U.S. Barista Champion, takes quality to even higher levels.
Capitol Hill, South Lake Union
Forget Howard Schultz. David Schomer is the guy who shaped Seattle’s coffee scene. Vivace’s co-owner set up his Broadway espresso cart in 1988 and trained a generation of future baristas and roasters on the finer points of Italian-caliber extraction. Today Vivace has three locations—including a cart just down the street from the site of the original—all serving textbook-perfect espresso. (Schomer even helped make latte art a thing in America.)
Yenvy Pham, who runs Pho Bac with her family, is also behind this coffee counter inside the Little Saigon Creative community space. She and her business partner, Nghia Bui, tapped into family connections to source high-quality robusta beans from Vietnam. This variety contains a face-punching amount of caffeine, and usually only leaves the country as commodity-grade filler for blends. Hello Em runs its own tiny roastery and garnishes the resulting coffee with condensed milk, plus lots of salty, pudding-like egg cream.
The early 2010s gave rise to multi-roaster cafes, coffee shops who trade fealty to one reliable roaster for the tightrope thrills (and logistical hassles) of rotating through different roasters’ beans. This roomy Fremont spot, with its big windows and soaring bridge backdrop, was part of Seattle’s vanguard. Milstead is a pilgrimage for some, a reliable neighborhood cafe for others.
Denny Regrade, University Village
This pair of coffee houses encapsulates Seattle’s pre-pandemic all-day cafe movement: sharp interiors full of plants, Stamp Act Coffee beans plus a guest roaster (currently Brooklyn-based Sey Coffee), a menu of fancy toasts, grain salads, wine, and happy hour snacks by evening. On top of all this, the downtown and University Village cafes have a particular knack for specialty coffee drinks that appeal to coffee snobs and sweet enthusiasts alike, from cereal milk cappuccinos to matcha lattes.
Bao Nguyen’s Little Saigon coffee shop has no espresso machine. Every drink gets brewed via phin, the four-piece metal filter ubiquitous in Vietnam. The technique resembles a French press crossed with a pour over, so it makes sense the result is slow and strong. Nguyen serves drinks with various ratios of housemade condensed milk, or iced with a fantastic, tangy yogurt that’s also his creation.
Few coffee shops illustrate that whole “third place” thing better than this slim spot on Plaza Roberto Maestas. The Station hosts a neighborhood-wide block party every year, lets popups like ice cream sensation Kryse set up shop, and remains unfailingly vocal in support of artists and activists. What’s more, the Mexican mocha is one of the city’s finest.