[Guest post by DAB Contributor, Jacob Dirr]
Preamble: For years I secretly scoffed at what I perceived to be pseudo-intellectuals reading or working in coffee shops. You know who I’m talking about: Frasier Crane types who say things like “preamble” “scoff” and “perceive.”
Then about two years ago today, I quit my day job and struck out as a contractor, in the process developing an appreciation for coffee shops. To me, it is a place to get work done, but do so close enough to humanity that I don’t feel like a hermit. It needs three things: free wi-fi, coffee and seats to qualify as a “coffee shop” in my book (Caveat: I drink black coffee. It makes me feel like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, whatever that means.)
Here are my personal top picks in Austin.
Nestled into a little shopping plaza on the south shore of the Colorado River, DomJoe is my go-to joint for breakfast meetings or getting work done on my laptop. Although it can get a little crowded, there is usually a seat available. It is a good balance between being vibrant, but calm enough to focus. To reap the full rewards, come on a nice day and enjoy the outdoor patio (where you can smoke, if you are a smoker-writer). The line is not always the quickest, especially when customers want a sexy drink. However, the employees are all totally cool, down-to-earth folks. Overhead music is usually a chill mix, and the coffee is good enough to drink. They sell Taco Deli tacos, which hands down are the best breakfast tacos in town, if not a little pricey. They also sell other food. Pro-tip: If parking is full, head south on Congress (opposite direction of downtown). Not far away there is free on-street parking at the Texas School for the Deaf.
Caffé Medici has multiple locations, but the one I frequent most often is on the ground floor of the Austonian condos. (Finding it is easy: 1) Locate Austin skyline, or if you are downtown then simply look up. 2) Identify the tallest freaking building in Austin. 3) Travel there by car, bike or foot.)
The atmosphere at each Caffé Medici varies by location. Even though I most often go to the one in the Austonian, I do so out of convenience more than anything. The vibe there is okay, the patrons and the employees are not unfriendly, but are often are too cool to smile. The coffee is hands down the best I’ve found in Austin, and among the best I’ve had anywhere. In addition, the upstairs seating is very often chill and a great place to get work done or whathaveyou. Pro tip: For a traditional “coffee shop” experience, visit the Medici in West Lynn. For a college vibe, visit Guadalupe. (Ed note: The coffee there is Cuvee Coffee, from a local Austin roaster. Props to Cuvee for providing a product that rocks.)
Summermoon’s shtick is wood fire-roasted beans. It adds a distinctive flavor to their brews, which is pleasant, but not good enough to warrant a special trip to buy beans to brew at home. They sell an assortment of food items. I’ve only tried out the breakfast tacos, which are edible if you’re hungry in the morning, but not especially tasty. Summermoon is a super place to hunker down with a laptop though, and the outdoor deck is a great place to have a conversation during the cool mornings. In particular, I tend to come here every time a good friend visits from Ohio, and find that our best time together is spent bull-crapping with coffee on the porch. Pro tip: Invite someone to join you, set up camp on the comfy rattan outdoor furniture, caffeinate and get to know them better.
Blasphemy. I know. If I wanted to drink coffee to fund publicly-traded corporations, I might as well join the Republican Party. But hear me out. Whole Foods has all the hallmarks of a coffee shop: tables, coffee, wi-fi, young people. Whole Foods is a great place to people watch, probably one of the best places in Austin, and people watching is also among the reasons people go to “coffee shops.” It’s a place I go to work when I want to feel connected to humanity, but when going to a typical coffee shop feels a bit too Strong Sad. The downtown Austin flagship Whole Foods is accessible by bike or car, and offers a plethora of outdoor and indoor seating options. Coffee and food are also good. Pro tip: Find a seat in view of the escalator and document the absurd variety of people who buy expensive organic food.
Thunderbird (on Manor)
Thunderbird Coffee (there is another one up north, too) is about as hipster as I can tolerate, but adds points for people watching elements. Unlike some other coffee shops, Thunderbird sells beer too, which makes it an equal-opportunity place to meet-up with someone to brainstorm, flirt or collaborate. They offer good food (Taco Deli tacos here too) and the coffee is also good enough to drink. This place, more than any other on the list, has a regular live-music line up. This is a good and bad thing depending on your objectives for the visit. Fortunately, there are outdoor picnic tables which can offer peace and quiet, weather permitting. Pro tip: If you just moved to Austin, visit a Thunderbirds, snag one of their logo tickers and slap it on the top of the laptop clamshell. You’re a “local” now and permitted to talk trash about all the people moving here.
Cherrywood is often very crowded parking-wise. If you live in anywhere in the upper east side relative to downtown you can get there comfortably by bike. Cherrywood has coffee, beer and legit food. I seldom do work here, but what makes it standout is the atmosphere. The two or three large palm trees in the gravel-lined courtyard transport you to another place, someplace tropical, where Hunter Thompson and Earnest Hemmingway would hang out. When the weather hits that supreme zone of 70 to 85 degrees fahrenheit and it is sunny, do yourself a favor and visit. If you are too anxious to relax, then get a little drunk. If you are too depressed to feel appreciative, then get caffeinated. Pro tip: Bring a notepad, so you can jot down ideas know you will never follow-through on.
Located on East Oltorf between I-35 and Congress, in an area practically impenetrable without a car, Curra’s offers homemade Tex-Mex food, and probably better qualifies on a Tex-Mex restaurant list than coffee shop list. However, it offers free wi-fi and covered outdoor seating and superb coffee, so I’m counting it as a coffee house. It’s a great place to eat a little breakfast, and putz-around on your tablet of choice on a lazy weekend morning. Behind Café Medici, they offer the best cup of Joe in Austin. Unlike Café Medici, refills are on the house and the employees are not indignant. I don’t know who makes the coffee, but I’ll drink enough to have a heart murmur. Enough said. Pro-tip: There is overflow parking somewhere nearby. Not sure where, though.
Austin Java (multiple locations)
Austin Java is an Austin staple, primarily because it was clever enough to incorporate “Austin” into its name before Austin was a global brand. I can’t say a lot about it, other than there are multiple locations, plenty of outdoor seating, beer, coffee, wi-fi, good service and good, filling food options. Austin Java is like a CD investment: safe, stable, but not super exciting. If you’re risk adverse or short on patience, Austin Java is a safe bet. Pro tip: keep an eye on the artwork at Austin Java, and you might have an experience like Jude did.
Technically a museum, La Peña is the antithesis of the modern snobbishness, and it is serendipitous that it is across from the Austonian Caffé Medici downtown. For starters, they only take cash. La Peña has coffee, but it is pot-brewed and of gas station quality, served in styrophom cup. However, its saving grace is the breakfast tacos are tasty and hella-cheap, something like $1.17 after tax. Pro tip: Grab a coffee at Café Medici, walk across the street and get tacos at La Peña, sit on bus stop bench outside and enjoy.
Lavazza is among the newest editions to the downtown coffee shop landscape, and is a franchise of an Italian company. There are shirtless men photos on the wall. However, don’t not check it out because it isn’t very “Austin”. (Double negatives, anyone?) The local franchise owner is as Austin as you can get: 24-year-old Christina Hales, an entrepreneur who graduated from St. Edwards University down the way. If you are a pastry fiend, this is the place to go, they make all their offerings from scratch in the back and on Saturday mornings they are coming out of the oven, onto the display rack and can happily end up in your stomach. Pro tip: Park downtown in the San Jacinto Capitol Visitors garage for free, walk to Lavazza, get a coffee and pastry, then walk back up to the Capitol and enjoy the best public space in Austin.