I usually like to avoid the must-do touristy stops when I travel. I would rather walk the neighborhoods where the locals live. But sometimes the touristy things and the local favorites are one and the same. I don’t skip eating a few pains au chocolat in Paris because it’s cliche – they are delicious – and I marvel at the Louvre every time I visit. Similarly here in Seattle, sitting at a coffee shop with a laptop, a scone, and a cup of coffee is what Seattleites do. Sitting at Ballard Coffee Works working on this post, listening to Of Monsters and Men and sipping on a cafe au lait? My dream Saturday morning.
When I arrived here, I googled “best coffee shops in Seattle” and found this list. Starbucks made that list, I thought it strange even though Starbucks was started here. Drinking Starbucks in Seattle is not cliche. Starbucks is ubiquitous. At Seattle Children’s Hospital, there are 2 Starbucks and I found myself at one of them yesterday being interviewed over a latte. There is a large Starbucks directly across from Ballard Coffee Works and it is bustling. An equal number of folks seem to be going to Starbucks and coming here to Ballard Coffee Works, where the 3 baristas, and they are perpetually on the move. Not a typical set up at your independently owned coffee shop. It may seem like direct competition, but there is enough coffee consumption going on to sustain Seattle’s 1600 or so coffee houses. Seattleites do drink a lot of coffee.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to check out all 15 “best” coffee houses around town. So instead I picked based on neighborhoods I wanted to visit. Today: Ballard, a previously blue collar area north of downtown now highly sought-after hip place to live. Driving on NW Market Street from the UDub district, I was granted a majestic view of the Olympic Mountains. The cloud cover was hanging just above the snow-covered summits. Ballard Coffee Works has that hip coffee house feel. It is located on a busy street corner, with expansive windows and a long counter with bar stools where one can sit and stare. Which I did. I felt I was in a fishbowl, with a steady stream of hiking book equipped and NorthFace puffer jacket clad pedestrians walking by; the perfect observation spot to soak up the neighborhood. The music is a little loud, as is the humdrum of polyphonic conversations, but they fill the place with a vibrant vibe and steady energy. At one point the sun came out and bounced off the golden brown painted walls and countertops to fill the coffee shop with a glorious warmth. The playlist was a quirky mix of Moby and smooth jazz.
Thursday, I went to Cafe Zoka in the Greenlake district. It is nestled in a quiet neighborhood and it was nearly identical to my imagined quintessential Seattle coffee house. A large open space coffee house with dark-paneled walls throughout, the kind that are reminiscent of an academic library and command a certain reverence. A guy sat near my table was reading The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. Nearly every patron was working away at individual tables on their MacBook Pros, so I did too. I half expected Ben Gibbard to walk in.
I also walked past the flagship Starbucks shop in Downtown Seattle, founded in 1971, which is located across from Pike Place Market, but I couldn’t bring myself to going in. Instead I had breakfast at a fabulous “Very French Bakery” two doors down, Le Panier, where the pain of chocolate tasted of Paris – is eating a pain au chocolat in Seattle French bakery cliche? I also visited the Tully’s Coffee Shop in the hotel lobby where I was staying near UDub, out of convenience. There is comfort in the familiar, and we humans are creatures of habit. We go to Starbucks because we known we’ll get that same predictable taste whether we’re home or at the Dulles airport. Every store is laid out in a similar way, we know the bathroom are usually clean, even the pastries taste eerily similar whether in New York or LA. And that is a-ok. Unless that little voice in your head tells you to live a little bigger and you want to try something new. If so visit the local coffee house and feel the pulse of the neighborhood and its people. Especially when in Seattle.