Coffee in Seattle

April 14, 2004, 7:15 PM

Coffee is an intensely personal beverage. Everyone has a distinctive story about how they were introduced to the pleasures (or displeasure) of coffee.

I didn't really enjoy coffee until I started to experience good quality coffee. In college I experimented occasionally with aromatized coffees (which I won't touch now), organic Kona, Starbucks, and so on; I used to brew coffee in a cafetiere in my dorm room, and usually beat the quality of what I could find at shops in the rural town where I studied. I've become demanding, but for me, the essentials are: freshly roasted beans, an appropriate roast for the drink in question, and quality of control over the brewing/espressing process. Producers of coffee always emphasize how important the beans are, which is true, but overstated in the present market; in the specialty coffee market, the beans are almost always decent quality in the green state; it's mostly a question of the roast and the actual production. I'm even happy with better-quality robusta beans in blends, which U.S. producers turn their nose up at, but which Italians rely on for extra crema; Vietnamese coffee, too, generally uses some robusta beans.


Vivace's Roasteria (Broadway & Denny Way) and the red-awning covered sidewalk bar down the street are the understated stars of the Seattle espresso scene. When it comes to pouring espresso, David Schomer has the greatest obsession for detail of anyone in Seattle and probably nearly anywhere else. Here, you will find no 24-ounce gut-busting monstrosities of milk with incidental discoloration from charred beans. You'll find short and tall options for milky drinks made with their Seattle-style Vita blend, and you'll get a different, more mellow northern-Italian style "Dolce" blend for straight or sugared espresso. Both are made to exacting specifications with beans that were roasted probably no more than 3 days ago, with hyper-modified espresso machines that, while still operated manually, have modified boilers and thermostats that precisely regulate the temperature to +/- 0.2°F (0.1°C). Vivace's roasts are more complex than what you would find at Starbucks or other chain stores, mostly because of the freshness  and particularly because the roasts are not overwhelmingly carbon-like. The freshness of the beans, which are ground to order, and the temperature control, manifest themselves as a flawless cup of espresso with beautiful crema; should you be inclined to order a milky drink, the presentation features a trademark milk-foam rosetta which may appear as a leaf pattern, a spade, a heart, or other shape depending on the whim of the barista, and is created solely through careful pouring of the milk foam. Schomer's mission is to make espresso taste as good as it smells, and by putting his disciples through a vigorous training regimen, maintaining careful technical controls, and constantly working on new methods of refining the minutiae of the lifecycle of coffee, Schomer has made Vivace's the gold standard for espresso.

Victrola. 411 15th Avenue East, Seattle. I don't live anywhere near this part of Capitol Hill, but the atmosphere in Victrola, combined with the quite respectable coffee, draw me in when I'm in the neighborhood. One of my customers in Phinney Ridge, Fresh Flours, uses their beans with great aplomb, so I no longer need to trek too far from my Fremont home to get it. And they blog!

Icon Coffee. 43rd & Fremont, Seattle. My preferred standby, mostly because it's very professionally made and it's in my 'hood. All organic coffee from Fiori (Vita), made smartly and with above average service.

Caffe Ladro (various locations in Seattle). Nearly every time I find myself in Caffe Ladro, I am lured by the Medici, a mocha enhanced with some freshly-cut zest of orange. It's certainly not their invention, but they do it well, and they are one of the few places to find the drink in Seattle. Ladro serves shade-grown, organic coffee, and the quality is above average and the attention to detail (milk foam patterns, ground-to-order beans) is nearly on par with Vivace's, without as much visible affectation of the obsession for engineering precision.

Uptown Espresso now has various locations, but I've been to the one in Queen Anne, and of late, nearly weekly at their Belltown shop. I have limited experience with the coffee here, but the latte is nice. Their signature feature is a particularly velvety foam. The roast is a little dark, so straight espresso is a bit more bitter than at other places.

Dilettante on Broadway (only this location) is a chocolatier. The espresso quality itself doesn't stand out in any particular way, but is quite respectable and provides the perfect foil for Dilettante's signature Ephemere truffle sauce, and accordingly, some of the nicest mochas in town. For the over-21 crowd, you may also go for the hot "schmocha", a mocha with the  Ephemere truffle sauce and a respectable dose of peppermint schnapps. The schmocha is too sweet for me, but they also have a milkshake version if you'd like to have coffee in your dessert.

Victor's Coffee (downtown Redmond) also roasts its own beans, and has as its signature style a deeply roasted blend which, while not quite charred like most of the chain brews, is more aggressive than the Vivace's style roast. The mostly-wood interior features old church pews and sturdy wood chairs and tables. The crowd is young suburban kids, high-tech workers, and the occasional grandmother; accordingly, the signature drinks tend to be sugary syrup-based flavored lattes. The Irish Nudge, Mandarin Mocha, and the Roca Mocha are worth trying, but I recommend ordering any of the above "light on the sweet stuff." It's open later than most independent coffee shops on the east side (until about 10pm on weekends).

Lighthouse Cafe in Fremont (43rd & Phinney). Somehow, the coffee tastes a little different every time I come here. sometimes the roast brings out a lovely caramel aroma, other times it's a little more bitter. It is, however, nearly always good; I've only had one bad coffee here. I live nearly next door, so if you're in the neighborhood, buzz me and I might join you for your buzz.


Caffe Coccinella in downtown Bellevue, on 10th Ave. between 102nd and Bellevue Way, uses Vivace's Caffe Vita blend. The atmosphere is surprisingly pleasant, considering the location is in a neighborhood otherwise full of bland corporate concepts. Free wireless internet makes this an essential downtown Bellevue stop when I'm doing some work on the Eastside.

Zoka near Greenlake has good enough espresso drinks, and a pleasant atmosphere. If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth stopping by.

Triple J Cafe (Kirkland) has the art of inoffensiveness down; I remember having a decent latte or two here. It's also a cute little place to sit down and relax.

Should you find yourself in the mood for corporate coffee, Torrefazione is one of the better chain-style coffee shops. It's now a wholly owned subsidiary of Starbucks, purchased from the franchising conglomerate AEC Enterprises in 2003. Alas, it's on the chopping block, as it was only moderately profitable, not spectacularly profitable, as

Not Recommended

I've encountered a series of places with metallic tasting espresso, most likely due to inadequately cleaned equipment. Still Life in Fremont. If it was just a question of atmosphere, I would wholeheartedly endorse the comfy environs of Still Life. (Still Life has recently closed and opened under another name, apparently under the ownership of the person who bought the place about 2 years ago; noted 19 May 2004). I would definitely go there for food or maybe pastries. But the espresso drinks in my experience were metallic tasting or unpleasantly bitter, suggesting that they don't take care of their equipment very well. I had the same problem at Uncle Elizabeth's (First Hill). I sampled a passable drip coffee here once, but Uncle Elizabeth's needs to aggressively clean their espresso machines.

Tully's. The "Charbucks" moniker serves Tully's even better than it does the ubiquitous company it was meant to slam. I can't figure out the appeal of Tully's, but the shops are usually strategically located next to other Starbucks locations, so one can tell their real estate and facilities planning team is reasonably good at following someone else's lead.