Washington DC Coffee House Journey

This coffee journey was written in November 2000.

In the spirit of political debate, I throw the following question out to the field: Are there good coffee options in the Washington, D.C. area? It is an issue upon which many in the area have tenacious opinions, be they Democrat, Republican, Green, or Libertarian. And like a politician on the campaign trail, I find it necessary to reach out to friends on either side of the aisle to conduct the necessary research into the coffee scene in and around D.C. Is it the best coffee town in the United States? Highly unlikely, but I sure had fun finding out.

Do as Washingtonians Do

Many a traveler suffers from Anti-Tourist Tourist Syndrome, an affliction causing the traveling victim to exhibit symptoms of extreme denial that he/she is indeed a tourist. Those afflicted will do anything to avoid looking like a tourist. They want for all the world to live like locals wherever they may roam. If you are an out-of-towner paying a visit to the U.S. capital, rest assured that good coffee spots are a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s primary tourist attractions. When in Washington, it is not difficult to do as Washingtonians do – even if you want to combine it with doing as tourists do. Those with connections in high places might take their coffee in the White House while our executive leader lends a sympathetic ear, but even we the coffee-drinking commoners have options aplenty in D.C.

Pledge of caffeine allegiance
Pledge of caffeine allegiance!

If you are hoping to stress the independent coffeehouse experience, be forewarned that the Starbucks chain thrives every bit as much in downtown D.C. as it does nationwide in Suburbia. I share the mixed feelings that many coffee lovers have about this phenomenon – while habitually leery of McDonaldsesque chain franchising, I still think that Starbucks makes great coffee, and it bears all the privileges of its many prime locations around town. One of my favorite spots is within two blocks of the National Gallery of Art and National Archives. Right near the original U.S. Constitution, you may feel good in knowing that your right to drink good coffee shall not be infringed – so long as you’re willing to pay Starbucks prices.

Food courts may often be home to low-grade and overpriced food, but the one at Union Station isn’t bad. Amid many touring school groups and other out-of-towners, real live Washingtonians actually patronize the food court. Trust me. Bucks County Coffee caters to a steady line of regulars each weekday morning, and has a sit-down bar for the patrons with a bit of time to linger. Queuing up here is an opportunity to rub elbows with mid-level executive government bureaucrats and Capitol Hill interns! Monica buffs should be forewarned that White House interns work across town and probably take their coffee elsewhere.

If you can manage the six-block walk from the Capitol, walk on down to the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, where a quick left will bring you to Stompin’ Grounds. It is at the edge of the Capitol Hill area of town, amid residential neighborhoods that seem worlds away from the political buildings just several blocks down the road. I commit the cardinal regional sin of going while the city’s most beloved sports team, the football Redskins, are playing their conference rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. I belly up to the bar, and have company among the minority in town who opt not to watch the football game. Two women to my right talk excitedly in French, while a married couple to my left quietly read books. The manager charges out from behind the counter, down the sidewalk, then reappears a couple of minutes later announcing that the Redskins have just beaten Philadelphia. Coincidentally or not, a stream of patrons enters shortly afterward. Among them is a man who sports a Redskins jacket and cap, orders a large coffee, takes it to a corner table, and sits back contentedly reading the Sunday Washington Post. The cappuccino I am served here is the best of any place I visited. The ‘Skins victory, even if I didn’t see it, makes my drink all the sweeter.

The Nation's Capitol
The Nation’s Capitol

Coffee-Flavored Nightlife

I meet with a couple of friends at Tryst coffeehouse in the Adams Morgan part of D.C, the capital of the District’s nightlife and increasingly popular area for the town’s younger working minions to live. Somehow, a lounge bar culture coexists side-by-side here with a coffeehouse culture on the perimeter, even on this busy Saturday night. With poor peripheral vision, you could spend a few hours in Tryst without realizing that it is any different from the ubiquitous lounge-theme alcohol bars that have sprung up in Washington in recent years. A bouncer cards you at the door, a busy bartender scurries to accommodate the two-deep crowd surrounding his domain, and occupying the many armchairs are well-dressed twentysomethings slowly working on martinis, cosmopolitans, microbrews, or Manhattans.

And oddly enough, on the fringes of the bar activity, a more brightly lit cafe culture endures undisturbed. Two women play a contemplative game of chess, and a nearby man sits in a comfortable chair, immersed in a book. All of them sip from large coffee cups as time seems to unfold at a different pace for them than it does for the rest of Tryst. There are most certainly quieter options for these three, but they don’t even seem aware of the alcohol-based scene a few steps away, let alone bothered by it.

Tryst embodies the mixed blessing of the coffee lover seeking nightlife in D.C. On one hand, Tryst and Xando are cafes that are thriving and packed throughout prime-time. They are great places for coffee aficionados to socialize. Be forewarned, though, that they are not what some people have in mind when they think of coffeehouses. The atmospheres are something of a fusion between those of a coffeehouse, a lounge bar, and a dance club.

Clarendon/Courthouse Caffeine Crawl

While coffeehouse chains frequently flex their muscle in the District and the outer suburbs, right across the river in Arlington, Virginia are seven spots to get quality coffee, all within a 10-minute walk of one another, a majority of which are independently owned. It is the perfect setting for a “caffeine crawl.” For those interested in logistics of this crawl, the route is simple: begin at the Clarendon Metro station (Orange Line), and begin walking east down Wilson Boulevard. In the interest of consistency, I put in the same order at each cafe I hit along the crawl: a grande cappuccino. Full disclosure: I do not visit all seven locations on the same day, and INeedCoffee bears no responsibility for any caffeine jitters you may incur from trying this. To avoid pressuring the easily persuaded, I will highlight only my three favorite places.

Java Shack barista at work
Java Shack barista at work

Proceed down Wilson Boulevard for five blocks and just to your left at the intersection with Franklin Road, you will the Java Shack tucked right where a residential neighborhood meets the commercial strip along the boulevard. This is my favorite of the stops on the Caffeine Crawl. The Shack has seniority over the rest of the competition, now nearly five years old, and enduring a steadily increasing amount of rivals. A sign inside apologizes for succumbing to a slight raise in its prices, but a giant cup of cappuccino sets me back a mere $2.80. I’m not inclined to complain, especially on a perfect fall night like this one. Depending on when you arrive, you may receive table service, or you may order at the counter. Drink at one of the indoor tables, one of the sofas indoors, or take it to the tables outside, which remain populated even on cool November nights. Indoors or outdoors, the atmosphere at Java Shack is homey and friendly, and has a diverse clientele from the neighborhood and beyond.

Palladio’s Cafe is just a block further on your left. It is a nice, small, quiet nook to read, study, or maybe meet a new person. Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection” and Bob Marley’s “Legend” are the soundtracks on the night I’m there. A soccer game is playing on a TV in the corner, volume muted. A grad-school-aged woman studies, a twentysomething man orders a sandwich and a coffee, sits at the table next to her, and asks her about what she’s studying.

Immediately beyond the Courthouse Metro station, you will find yourself at Xando, a moderate-size chain that once again proves it has a nose for sniffing out prime locations in the D.C. Metro area. If you have actually had a coffee at each of the previous spots, you may actually find yourself thinking about ordering a decaf. Like its sister locations in Dupont Circle, it is nearly too popular for its own good. Looking for a table to call my own at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night, I see there are none available inside, and that a few groups of people endure cold temperatures outside and sit, drink, and converse at the sidewalk tables.

Xando
Xando

PermaTransients

Rebecca and I are both Washington PermaTransients. We grew up in the same Massachusetts town, were in the same high school class, and settled down in the Washington D.C. area after graduating college. Rebecca is now pursuing a Ph.D, while I recently left a government job for a tech-based job out in the Virginia ‘burbs. Even after a few years have gone by, neither of us is inclined to answer “Washington” when asked where we are from, but we have both lived here awhile, and neither of us plans on leaving anytime soon. We are two of the many PermaTransient Washingtonians who come from all around the U.S. and, for an indefinite time, hang out hats in Greater D.C.

It’s been a good while since we last got together, and we agree to meet at “Lower Xando”, one of two Xando cafes that flank the north and south sides of Dupont Circle. The opening of the north side cafe proved to be highly necessary in light of the popularity of the original location. The two venues attract different crowds, and some patrons who live nearby gravitate strongly toward one or the other, seeming to believe that each is miles apart. Tonight is a rare night when a prime patio seat is readily available. Xando probably tries a bit too hard, and it is nearly impossible not to think of its latent trendiness when reading its menu, which includes roast-your-own-marshmallow s’mores. But the bottom line for most of us is the quality of the drinks, and like Starbucks, the bottom line at Xando is that the coffee is damn good. Rebecca and I both give our drinks enthusiastic thumbs-up.

The atmosphere is good tonight, too. Rebecca and I remain there for a couple of hours, and a spectrum of Washingtonians pass us by. A movie finishes at a nearby artsy cinema, and many of the patrons begin to fill the tables around us. A homeless man comes by and asks us for some; sadly, we tell him no a few times before he moves on. Our server is a funny, quirky guy who gives us a few laughs, brings our coffee, and doesn’t bother us again until it’s time to pay the check. It is a nice atmosphere for a pair of Inside-the-Beltway PermaTransients to catch up and enjoy good coffee.

java shack
Women at Java Shack

A Capable, if Not Capital, Coffee City

A coffee-loving friend of mine has long been underwhelmed by the coffee options in the D.C. Metro area. “The coffee shops offer more ‘scene’ than substance,” she said, “and almost all have really bad service.” While there is an inescapably trendy vibe at many of the more social coffee spots, I know of too many exceptions to agree with this friend.

Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States, and arguably the capital of the free world, even if it is not the North American coffee capital. Coffee lovers who wind up here may have to do a bit of homework, but no matter what their preferences, I am confident they will eventually find a cafe to their liking. Even if it is a bit reluctantly, D.C. has little choice but to offer good coffee options to its residents and suburbanites. After all, Washington State has federal representation like all the other 49 states, and there are thousands of workaholic lobbyists, lawyers, and congressional staffers who need their caffeine. Like the most adept legislator, savvy Washingtonians often have ways to get what they want, and I am here to assure them that their search for a satisfactory coffee spot will ultimately prove fruitful.

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Alex Scofield

Alex Scofield is a freelance writer who lives in Cape Cod, Mass. He is a longtime writer and former editor and technical writer for INeedCoffee. He was Editor and Sports Editor of the Potomac Almanac newspaper covering Potomac, Md. from 2002 through 2007.

Although Alex no longer drinks coffee until 3 a.m. as he did in college, he starts each day with two giant servings of drip-pot coffee in his New England Patriots mug with the old-school logo.

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