Friday, June 01, 2012

Top 15 Seattle Coffee Shops (1 through 5)

Seattle is known best known for four things: Coffee, Airplanes, the Space Needle, and Software. While Starbucks is the biggest coffee name in Seattle, it's certainly not the only game in town and it is certainly not the best. Anyone visiting Seattle deserves a proper cup of coffee and to help you find your way to the best coffee in Seattle, here are the top 5 coffee shops on my top 15 list. You cannot get better coffee than you can at these places and almost all of these places are distinctly Seattle.

1. Espresso Vivace

Vivace is a quintessential Seattle coffee shop. Started in 1988, this is the shop that I remember introducing me to espresso, latte art, and the Seattle coffee house atmosphere. In fact, the hearts and leafs that are ubiquitous on top of all good espresso drinks started at the original Espresso Vivace location (which, sadly, was forced to close when the building was demolished). I remember that location as being this wonderful place, hidden behind a Godfather's Pizza, where high ceilings and exposed brick met the best coffee I have ever had.

Fortunately for you, there are now three locations. The most authentic and original is the sidewalk bar on Broadway, but the location a few blocks north provides a better experience and the location in South Lake Union in the Alley 24 building is also a great cafe (pictured above). These last two locations are new, fresh, and even provide separate spaces for either quiet study or meeting to talk with friends. Espresso Vivace buys and roasts there own beans to ensure quality and any espresso drink here will be perfect. One drink stands out and is unique to Vivace: The Caffe Nico. It's a rich combination of two shots of espresso, steamed half-and-half (not exactly diet friendly), orange, and cinnamon. It's simply fantastic.


2. Trabant

Trabant is another favorite of mine. There are two locations: one located next to the Smith Tower and another in the University district with the former being the one most easily accessible to visitors. The coffee here is top notch and in addition to their standard espresso blend, they also offer up premium single origin micro-plantation coffees that are brewed on a per cup basis.

"Single source micro-whatha?", you ask? It's a Seattle thing, or at least it really started taking off here. Single source coffees are coffee beans that come from just one farmer or small area and are often purchased directly from the farmer at higher than market prices on the basis that quality should be properly compensated. Most beans that you buy in the store are purchased through middle men who mix all the beans together (the good and the bad) and then sell that at bulk prices, which results in coffee tasting like.. well.. bland airplane coffee. Direct trade single origin coffee, in contrast, tastes shockingly different. The last machiatto I had there tasted like a mix of lemon, chocolate, and coffee, with all the flavors coming from the beans. At Trabant, they have a selection of these specialty coffees which promise a cup of coffee, as below, with flavors like "blueberry, grape, and lemon drops" which are brewed to order in their clover machine.

"Clover machine?"Again, it's a Seattle thing, or at least it started here. A clover machine brews cups of coffee with fresh grounds on a per cup basis. It was created by a Seattle company, which was then bought up by another little known Seattle company, Starbucks, but Trabant was an early adopter of the technology.

Besides the single origin coffee selection, they serve up a mean espresso drink, including another one of my favorites: The Mexican Chocolate Mocha. The chocolate used here is imported from Mexico and gives the drink an extra kick of cinnamon. It's well worth a visit, and both locations have great atmosphere (although I prefer the University location for the traffic and mix of customers).


3. Bauhaus

...Keep reading the next three top coffee shops after the break!

Bauhaus provides another insight into what Seattle used to be like, and today it's still one of the most popular  and most urban cafes we have. Located in the Pike/Pine Corridor heading towards Capitol Hill, this cafe is well worth a visit but not with a car. The parking in the neighborhood can be difficult (and expensive) but with the shop so close to downtown and in one of the densest neighborhoods on the west coast, no one complains. You walk, bus, or bike here just like everyone else.

The interior feels like a library and you can feel the age of the building, which adds to the ambiance. Unlike some other cafes which have high design and try to evoke past eras, everything here feels authentic as it if it had always been there from the start. Two sides of the shop are nearly floor to ceiling windows, which gives a connection with the activities outside. Inside, you'll find a combination of younger adults who are new to the Hill and hip regulars who grew up there, usually either talking or working on their laptop. The feel of the coffee shop is half library, half bauhaus coffee shop which is exceedingly appropriate given the name.

The espresso bar offers the standard assortment of espresso drinks served up by talented baristas and a selection of pastries, including foil wrapped ding-dongs for a buck. Again, the coffee you get here will be impeccable. If you are visiting Seattle, I would drop by and do it soon. The building they are in was sold recently to suburban developers who are planning on kicking Bauhaus out of the building for at least a year sometime soon. It's a shame to see such an important part of the community removed to make way for more condos when there are so many properties that are better choices for development in that area.


4. Victrola Coffee

Victrola Coffee has a couple locations, but my favorite is the one on 15th Ave. This area is a small neighborhood "main street", which geared towards locals with a quiet setting and a collection of restaurants and shops that maintain a fairly low profile. Unless you live nearby, odds are you won't come here, except to pass through. Tourists might drive past it on their way to Volunteer park, but otherwise it's not likely to make it on to any must-see list. That said, the neighborhood and this coffee shop in particular deserve more attention. This particular location is billed as a local art house, and there's a chance that you'll see an opening here or perhaps some live music in addition to the art hanging on the wall.


5. Cupcake Royale

The Cupcake Royale is actually one of my favorites and the cafe I frequent most. There are several locations, but in my opinion the West Seattle shop is the best of all. The coffee here is crafted by friendly and excellent baristas, and almost all of the regulars are on first name basis with them. Especially at the West Seattle location, your cup of coffee will come out perfectly every time, but the real reason the Cupcake Royale is so high on this list is actually for the complete package. They offer great cupcakes baked with local ingredients when possible, the music is usually spot on, and at this location there is ample room to sit down with a laptop. Many people use the cafe as a place to study, meet with clients, and of course to socialize. To give you an idea, I have seen architects working on schematics, web developers writing code, among film makers pitching movies to investors among much more. The walls are also adorned with local artists that rotate once a month or two.

The Cupcake Royale earns mention on this list because of how successful they've been in placemaking: In some other places I've been in the world, cafes are seen as a means to change numbers on a spreadsheet. You are expected to drink and leave once you're done, but here in Seattle they seem to start with the premise that if you can create a place where people want to be they'll naturally need coffee (and cupcakes). The cafe becomes a facilitator for social activity and work. Plus, in the case of the Cupcake Royale, the owners have been very proactive in giving back to both the community and their employees. Employer paid health and dental is the standard and they are open to sponsoring non-profits and community events with a dozen or two cupcakes just 'cause. Basically, it's a great place to be, no matter what side of the counter you're on, and the coffee is some of the best here.

Most recently, the Cupcake Royale is starting to offer "bakery inspired" ice cream at their cafes. So far, I've only seen it at their shop in Ballard. It's actually pretty good! They are opening a new shop on Capitol Hill called "Cupcakes and Creme" in July that will offer both varieties of treats.


Continue reading the Top 15 Seattle Coffee Shops (6 through 10)


  1. Coffee shop hopping! Can't wait to do this when I get to visit Seattle in the future.

  2. I have been on some of the coffee shops that has been mentioned in here and they are worth it to visit. Cafe Fitouts Sydney

  3. That's a great idea! Coffee shop hopping sounds like fun! One should just make sure that you have plans for the night because of all the caffeine. :)

  4. Nice post. I read total Post. It’s really nice. Thank you for sharing.........

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  5. Yummy! These pictures of coffee watered my mouth now I have to make a plan to visit Seattle because it is difficult now to stop myself from coming there and drinking a big cup of coffee. Thanks for making me lip-smacking by your post.