Trip Magazine
May/June 2005


Seattle Coffee: Are You Experienced?
(Note: this is the original, unedited text, which varies slightly from the published version)

 


Isn't this a handsome
magazine? Pity some free-
lancers aren't being paid...


Seattle –  the emerald gem of the Pacific Northwest – was once known for slugs, squalls and the Space Needle, the flying-saucer folly remaindered from the 1962 World's Fair.

Now it's all about Starbucks.

In between, the city had some good moments, as local writer Ivan Doig pointed out in Mountain Time: “Seattle, the consummate doodler on the margin of America. The place had given the world some dervishes of the electric guitar, connoisseur lessons in coffee, The Far Side, airplanes by the stratosphereful, and now the alchemies of software.”

Forget Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Ignore Bill Gates, even if he's the planet's arch plutocrat. The split-tail mermaid overshadows them all. Starbucks announced record revenues in January 2005, bagging $1.6b last quarter (a 24% jump on this period last year). This demonstrates the global relevance of the Starbucks Experience,” crowed Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist.

This Starbuck's Experience may not be, well, everyone's cup of tea, though. A sarky comment from a barista made writer Carolyn Ossorio rethink her patronage: “My husband, two kids, and I are now spending over $600 a month at various Starbucks locations across the city,” she admitted. “Under other circumstances, we could live comfortably, maybe even save some money for our future. But we can't due to our collective Starbucks addiction.”

Ossorio walked away. But after a year sans chunky mochachinos, she caved. “But I went back on my own terms. I went back for me; I learned from therapy to have no expectations,” she joked.

Many Seattlites aren't so forgiving. Weary of $4 double-shot, grande, cinnamon, soy-milk, double dry lattes, they're returning to the bean machine's humble roots: neighborhood cafes.

Roaster Neal Brown observed: “John Q Public in middle America, in the heartland, is just starting to discover coffee. And Starbucks is bringing it to him. But the more experienced people want a local roaster for freshness and they want a distinctive atmosphere.”

The trendy upper middle-class folks, he continued, disdain Buckys. “It's the Safeway of coffee ... of McCoffee, really. In the shadow of its success, smaller squirrels have picked up nuts left behind by the corporate chains.”

He's certainly stockpiling for winter: Brown & Co's organic, fair trade java is wooing clients from Starbucks ... and weaning customers onto politically correct coffee. “This is the fastest growing segment of the market. I can barely keep up with the demand,” he admitted (www.brownscoffee.com).

As unique blends gain steam, Washingtonians are spoilt for choice. The state has the highest concentration of roaster-retailers, about 20 percent of the 1,400-odd in America, according to Mike Ferguson, spokesman for the Speciality Coffee Retailers Association.

The Grande dame is Cafe Allegro in the University District. This classic, exposed-brick student hangout celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “It was the first espresso bar in Seattle. Nathaniel Jackson's been there since it opened in 1975. He's probably pulled 10-15m shots. I call him the Iron Barista,” Brown marveled.“Allegro is a mecca. Everyone tries to copy it, but no one can compare.” The ivy-swathed entrance is down an alley, basically behind Bulldog News and Magus Books (4214 University Way NE; 206.634.2310; www.cafeallegro.com).

Espresso Vivace Roasteria is heavier on science than scene-setting, given the 1950s-diner decor. Yet this cafe introduced “latte art” –  the signature swirl patterns – to America. “Now it's the benchmark of any halfway decent coffee house,” Brown explained. “To create a carmelised rosette the shot must be perfectly extracted and the milk steamed flawlessly.” Indeed, Vivace wins praise worldwide, even inspiring the Financial Times to declare it “the finest coffee bar in the US” (901 East Denny Way; 206. 860.5869; www.espressovivace.com). Other artisan roasters include Zoka, popular among the slouchy student crowd (2200 North 56th St; 206.545.4277; www.zokacoffee.com), and Caffe Vita with its iconic neon Punchinello sign (1005 East Pike St; 206.709.4400; www.caffevita.com).

Set high on Phinney Ridge, Lighthouse fires up vintage cast-iron roasters daily, supplying a slew of boho cafes, as well as its own unassuming and airy space. The long outdoor bench and rock garden perfectly compliment the smooth bean buzz (400 North 43rd St; 206.634.3140; http://lighthouseroasters.com).

Deco art, gypsy jazz and poets preen at Victrola, a creative, community-minded coffeehouse (411 15th Ave East; 206.325.6520; www.victrolacoffee.com). Bookworms prefer the Elliot Bay Cafe, a mellow nook in the city's premier bookstore, just off touristy Pioneer Square (101 South Main St; 206.624.6600; www.elliottbaybook.com). Ancient Grounds steals all the glory downtown, however. Steps from the Seattle Art Museum lies this gallery-cum-cafe, showcasing curios like jewel-bright insects and Northwest Coast Indian masks (1220 First Ave. 206.749.0747).

Religious kitsch presides at Coffee Messiah, where a neon cross declares “coffee saves” and 25 cents ignites the famous Disco Loo (1554 East Olive Way; 206.861.8233; www.coffeemessiah.com). In contrast, El Diablo dances with dark side: devil murals decorate this Cuban enclave atop Queen Anne hill. Carmelized sugar sweetens the speciality double-shot, closely rivaled by batidos (fruit shakes). Splashy, silly and sensuous, this cafe features funky furniture and a bookstore downstairs (1811 Queen Anne Avenue; 206.285.0693; www.eldiablocoffee.com).

Café Besalu evokes a European neighborhood bakery. Small, bright and always bustling, this cafe-patisserie draws a thick crowd around 10am, when the feted puff-pastry quiches emerge (5909 24th Ave NW, 206.789.1463, closed Mon). Just down the street, Nervous Nellie's serves butter-soaked, cheese-topped Swedish Toast, along with wheat-free vegan treats (2315 NW Market St, 206.706.1095).

The Scandinavian barista has Wild West-style cheesecake photos of her mother on the walls. The hole-in-the-wall cafe has two tables and six stools. Nellie's may be nervous and the size of a gnat, but it's the perfect antidote to the global gloss of the Starbucks Experience.



 

 

 

“Seattle, the consummate
doodler on the margin
of America. The place had
given the world some
dervishes of the electric
guitar, connoisseur lessons
in coffee, The Far Side,
airplanes by the stratos-
phereful, and now th
alchemies of software.”

–Ivan Doig in
Mountain Time




"The state has the
highest concentration of
roaster-retailers, about 20
percent of the 1,400-od
in America."

"The hole-in-the-wall
cafe has two tables and
six stools. Nellie's may
be nervous and the size
of a gnat, but it's the
perfect anidote to the
global gloss of the
Starbucks Experience."

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February 2006


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