The Best Coffee in Seattle Has Been Here for a Really Long Time
The city that changed coffee in North America is still functioning on a level many others have yet to reach.
One of America's best cappuccinos comes from a kiosk in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Espresso Vivace's Sidewalk Bar, as it is formally known, has been a presence on Broadway for decades now, a stealth enabler of civilized habits in a part of the city that for years had been regarded as a center of the counterculture, a place for the lost to find themselves, or not, a place where misfits might easily fit in.
The Sidewalk Bar, often referred to as The Stand, is an entirely modest affair, a sliver of a space adorned with ample amounts of red and green neon, tucked between an actual building and a parking lot; a few chairs and tables scattered out front function effectively as a community gathering place. Caffeine-deficient commuters in a hurry, locals on coffee dates, panhandlers trying their luck, pre-gamers out for a night on the town, the occasional reverent tourist—it all comes together here, in a loosely-organized environment bearing no resemblance to the minimal, carefully-programmed spaces in which we increasingly find our coffee being made.
Co-founded in the late 1980's by a technically-minded ex-Air Force man who'd done a stint at Boeing, Espresso Vivace is nearly old world in its simplicity. The stars of the show are the giant silver machine, and whichever barista is operating the thing when you show up, one no doubt highly trained at coaxing the perfect ristretto shot, at foaming milk to the absolute right temperature, and even at creating latte art. (Vivace is widely credited, by the by, for the rise of the now-ubiquitous craft.)
There's china—cups and saucers, aren't we fancy—and you can order whatever you want, these people really aren't bothered, but do yourself a favor make it a classic cappuccino, at least at first. Both smooth and bracing all at once, rich and bold without a hint of excess acid or bitter char, this one's a welcome kick in the pants, straight back to the 1990's, when, if memory serves, things were just a little bit less chaotic than they are now. Be patient—there's often a line.
Considering how much work was done early on, at a time when so much of America had yet to wake up to the idea of asking for more from their morning coffee, it fits perfectly that a city like Seattle should still treasure its classic shops, one of which you will find in pretty much any neighborhood you visit. For a good while, it was actually quite rare to find anything like the cafes and espresso bars associated with what is often referred to as the third wave of coffee. Not that Seattle needed any of that—the dangling Edison bulbs, the stark, white interiors, the lab equipment—they'd already pretty much perfected the thing. Why would you mess with perfection?
And then, everything changed. Seattle, if you have not heard, isn't what it used to be—there's a whole lot more of it, for starters. With each passing year, the distance between this once-remote outpost and the wider world shrinks just a little further, to the point where the region is starting to feel a lot like any other metropolitan area on the West Coast—eye-wateringly expensive, impossibly congested, wall-to-wall with recent arrivals.
With these new imports comes the culture of everywhere else, and Coffee 2.0, or whatever version we're up to now, is right in that mix—after years of largely contenting itself with the status quo, the lid has all but been blown off, with new cafes and roasters at the forefront of yet another revolution. You have the nearly elegant Elm Coffee Roasters in Pioneer Square, say, or the very good Milstead & Co., a multi-roaster operation over in Fremont. Not far from there is Slate Coffee Roasters, a science lab-like setup where staff take a nearly evangelical approach to their work; espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco now has a slick café not far from the Space Needle; even Starbucks, that modest local outfit you may have heard of, has recognized the need to take things to the next level. The company's first Reserve Roastery, a multi-experience venue on Pike Street, debuted to much fanfare in 2014; the concept has since been exported as far away as China.
Seattle may be growing, but it is still a relatively small city, hemmed in on two sides by water—with such seismic shifts in an already saturated coffee market, it was no surprise that some of the old-timers would attempt to evolve as well, at least so far as they could, without entirely betraying their roots. Logo redesigns, streamlining of bar areas, new espresso machines, new menu boards—you name it, some of the classic spots have tried it on for size, apparently without sparking too much a revolt among their customer base. For whatever reason, the coffee at these places begins to feel less and less essential; pilgrimages to original locations, often in neighborhoods most visitors would never otherwise pass through, seem less necessary.
But then—getting back to the important bit—there is Vivace. There are a couple of other places (the original Monorail Espresso kiosk on Pike, for example, or Victrola Coffee's three locations) that are safe bets, offering something like a direct line to the glory days. But if you're just looking to get straight to the good stuff, you're always going to be well-served by a visit to Espresso Vivace. Whether you patronize the kiosk, or their two sit-down cafes, it's always going to be good. It's always going to be among the best.
You order old-school style, at the machine, only then moving down to pay; your drink will typically be ready for you once you've done so, that's how quickly they move here. Don’t get it to go, never to go—stay. If you're in one of the shops, lean up against the bar; at the kiosk, try to claim a table. Drink from a real cup, shut your life down for a minute, relax. This isn't just a cappuccino, or whatever you're having—it's a connection with the old Seattle, the city the world fell in love with so long ago now, a brilliant retort to this sparkling new Seattle, the one creeping ever closer to becoming the only Seattle too many visitors will ever know. Enjoy it while you can.
Five dates with Seattle coffee history
Opened in 1975 and known as Seattle's first espresso bar, proprietor Dave Olsen served Starbucks Coffee here, back before Starbucks had their own retail location. He went on to become their head buyer, selling off the spot in 1990. Tucked into an alley across from the UW campus, it remains a lively student hangout, and every bit the throwback you're hoping it will be.
This glorified alcove on Pike Street convenient to Nordstrom began back in 1980 as what was considered to be the world's first coffee cart, it's now owned by a former barista—there's a second location, much newer, in the lobby of the Columbia Center.
David Schomer was pretty sure he was late to the game when he launched his coffee cart back in the late 1980's—Schomer then went on to influence an entire industry with his attention to detail and passion for technique. (It's been said that Schomer, more than anyone else in Seattle, more than Howard Schultz, helped usher in the evolution of American coffee.) Along with business-savvy partner Geneva Sullivan, he built a modest local empire that includes a roasting operation, turning out what Emeril Legasse once called the "best coffee in the world."
Starbucks was one that got unleashed onto the planet, but there are other names that were quite successful back in the day, some of them opening multiple shops in town and around the region. Ladro, which began on upper Queen Anne back in the mid-1990's, has mostly stayed true to its roots, remaining a neighborhood favorite in more than a dozen locations.
A brash young upstart by Seattle coffee standards, this very good roaster and café came onto the scene in 2000, quickly proving themselves destination worthy. Still great at what they do, and they do it in three locations, with a fourth one on the way.