Cafe Cities of the World :: Seattle

As a coffee destination, Seattle is a city with a big reputation. On the one hand, Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks, that behemoth of all coffee chains, but on the other, Seattle is also home to a sophisticated independent specialty cafe scene. Quite a dichotomy, some might say. But then Seattle is a city which comfortably embraces the creativity and inherent diversity that thinking ‘outside the square’ can bring — two of its most famous children, Jimmy Hendricks & Bill Gates are perhaps testament to that.

Surrounded by lush evergreen forest with the snowy peak of Mount Rainier in the distance, Seattle is a vibrant city in a magnificent setting. Located on Elliott Bay, Seattle was founded by white settlers in the mid 19th century and went on  to become a primary hub for fishing (think Chinook salmon) and logging with a large number of immigrants attracted to the area. By 1910, about one-third of Seattle’s foreign-born residents hailed from Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Finland.
They played a strong role in defining the young city’s identity — a legacy that can still be seen today.

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During its early days it endured many hardships including a major flood, which forced the city to be relocated from Alki Point to its present day location and the ‘Great Fire of 1889′ which caused the destruction of much of the city’s predominantly timber-built structures. But its people were resilient, accustomed to the hardships of a life of physical labour; they set about rebuilding the city under a new ordinance of brick and stone buildings to replace the timber structures. In the year following the fire, the city’s population actually grew with the influx of people helping with the reconstruction. Seattle was soon back in business but it wasn’t until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 that Seattle found itself on the national map as a transport and commercial hub. Still somewhat a ‘boom or bust’ city, the blue collars have been largely replaced by white as Seattle has gone on to become one of America’s major economic, cultural and educational centres. Its hard physical labouring heritage bears little resemblance to its modern day industries, with such omnipotent names as Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon.com as well as, of course, Starbucks.

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Like it or loathe it, the great Starbucks has been instrumental in popularising coffee houses as a place to work, rest, meet and hang-out. That ethos is very much a part of the fabric of Seattle. Starbucks opened its first store in the bustling Pike Place Market precinct in 1971 as a wholesale supplier of freshly roasted coffee beans, leaf teas and equipment. It wasn’t until the 1980′s, after Howard Schultz had joined the company , that he returned from a buying trip to Italy with the idea to offer espresso to customers in a cafe-style setting but the idea was not fully supported by the founding owners of Starbucks. Frustrated but not discouraged, Schultz left Starbucks and started his own coffee shop, il Giornale, in 1985. When the original Starbucks management decided to focus on their mentors’  brand, Peets Tea & Coffee, they sold the Starbucks retail unit to Schultz for $3.8 million. Schultz moved quickly to rename Il Giornale with the Starbucks name, and  the rest is the stuff of stock market legend. But we didn’t come to Seattle to expound the history of Starbucks. We were on a quest to seek out the artisan roasters and specialty cafes for which Seattle is renowned but we had one major problem to overcome before we could head off, leaving our incredibly stylish digs at Hotel Andra [see panel below]!

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Eventually dragging ourselves away, it soon became evident that style is an element that pervades Seattle, largely, it would seem, as a result of its European settlers with elements of post-modern European design frequently appearing, for those who know what to look for. Perhaps it’s also this early European influence which has helped shape Seattle’s inherent coffee culture.  As we marched up Olive Way toward our first coffee destination, we hung a left instead of a right and found ourselves in Capitol Hill, on the corner of Denny and East Olive Way. Deciding to check our location, we popped into the cafe on the corner to ask directions. It was to be a serendipitous moment, as we entered Arabica Lounge and immediately felt the desire to stay awhile. Furnished with a casual array of Eames chairs, vintage lounges, carefully arranged Objets d′art and acoustic guitar tunes wafting on the air, it oozed modish repose. Eyeing off a sumptuous slice of chocolate cake, we took the plunge and ordered a coffee and to our delight, it was excellent. Serving the House Blend by Stumptown Coffee Roasters, it was well balanced and sweet with a floral aroma and delicious choc-nut flavours. It wasn’t until we’d had our second espresso that we decided we had better head off before we were completely bewitched and settled in for the day.

Back on course and this time, heading in the right direction, our next coffee stop was the iconic Bauhaus Books and Coffee on East Pine Street. Since it opened in 1993, it’s developed somewhat of a counter-culture following, with the retro faithful coming to immerse themselves in the atmosphere. With its quirky, shambolic decor and floor to ceiling bookshelves lined with a heady array of vintage texts, it’s a place to be yourself; to contemplate, to meet, to work uninterrupted, or of course to read (although these days it’s as likely to be on a computer as it is on paper). The coffee was by local artisan roaster Lighthouse Coffee and whilst not amazing, was very pleasant with notes of chocolate and berry. But it’s as a cafe destination that Bauhaus makes its mark — it’s uniquely individual and well worth a visit; you’ll probably find yourself walking out with one of their really cool t-shirts, just so you can show-off that you’ve been there!

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Feeling like we could squeeze in one more cafe for the day we made our way over to Victrola Roastery & Cafe, one  block over on East Pike Street. As we approached, we were met by an impressive 1920′s converted warehouse, beautifully restored to house their roastery, training facility, cupping room and showcase cafe. The space inside was light and airy with expansive windows, exposed brick walls and a clear view into the roasting room. It epitomised the post-modernist philosophy of form and function with industrial elements influencing the design of the space. The post-modern theme is of course integral to the Victrola image, with the stylised 1920′s phonograph as their logo together with coffee blends such as Streamline Espresso, Empire Blend and their Deco Decaf. We were served the Stremline blend which had a luscious caramel aroma with juicy berry flavours ahead of toasted hazelnuts and dark chocolate with a smooth buttery mouth-feel. It was a fantastic way to end our coffee explorations for the day.

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We couldn’t help but feel we’d been on a stylish caffeine time-warp, with each of the cafes we visited capturing an aesthetic element of post-modern style and working it into their cafe space with incredible finesse.

As we went off in search of liquids of a different genre, we were to soon realise that coffee isn’t the only beverage that Seattle is passionate about with possibly more independent boutique beer brewers than any other city on the planet. If you’re short for time, you can head downtown to the Tap House Grill – what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in beer, with 160 beers on tap from all over the globe! Each with its own pull-handle, they line the long wall at the rear of the bar in an impressive display – order a selection of 6 sampler glasses to get into the spirit. For a more authentic Seattle ‘exbeerience’ we suggest you head to the little bar at the back of the Athenian Seafood Restaurant in the Pike Place Market. Famous for its ice-encrusted beer mugs, it’s a local haunt and  a great way to enjoy a seriously cold local brew.

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Next morning we awoke to a serious downpour with the forecast to be much the same for the remainder of the day, but that wasn’t about to dampen our spirits as we’d arranged an audience with royalty, coffee-royalty that is. David Schomer, world-renowned coffee luminary and another of Seattle’s eminent children, had invited us to meet with him for a coffee at Vivace Espresso Bar, his legendary East Broadway Ave cafe. As we entered, we were met by a busy congregation of coffee faithful, patiently awaiting their morning ritual served up from one of the three Synesso espresso machines on the counter. In fact, a chalk board sign above the counter implored you to look upon your coffee as a transcendent experience and savour it standing at the bar before its fragile flavours dissipate, such is the passion of the Master. The cafe itself is spacious with a very relaxed atmosphere. Its signature Italian style stand-up bar is tempered by plenty of small tables and chairs for those wishing to hang out a while. Dominating the space is a huge original artwork, ‘An Italian in Algiers’ by eclectic artist Kurt Wenner, which Schomer commissioned expressly for the cafe. David has contributed significantly to the pursuit of coffee perfection; for him, it’s an art-form in itself. He had just been cupping a new blend and we were fortunate enough to have David make us an espresso. The coffee was sweet and full -bodied with subtle floral notes and delicate berry flavours – a defining highlight of the trip, I wished I’d had the gumption to ask if he’d make us another!

With the threat of any further coffee destinations paling into insignificance we decided to put one more essential stop into our Seattle coffee quest, the famed Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Whilst not originally hailing from Seattle, it set up operations here in 2007, in addition to its Portland home base and has been accepted into the fold, for very good reason. Their cafe on 12 Ave is stunning with a Kees Van de Westen ‘Mirage‘ on the counter and a Poul Henningsen light shade hanging from the ceiling, it was clear we had entered a space dedicated, not only to coffee, but to coffee in style. As the rain continued to pour down outside, we were very happy to settle in and watch the rain drops cascade down the expansive windows as we sipped on yet another excellent coffee. Their house blend was a Latin American and East African blend with a nutty fragrance and smooth milk chocolate flavours; easy on the palate with a sweet finish.

Cafes are an integral part of life in Seattle with a true symbiosis between its people and its cafes. Cafes always provide a space to meet and talk but most notable in Seattle were the number of people purposefully seated alone, deeply engaged with their computer or working with papers strewn across a table top. There was no presumption, by either the cafe nor the people occupying its seats, of staying only for the time it took to consume food and drink. The cafe is considered an extension of the home or the office; a space for study, work, relaxation, even solitude amongst the buzz of others coming and going. And with that, the cafes shares in the sense of community, more than a business, it’s a way of life.

Given only two days to explore Seattle’s cafe offerings, we were feeling cheated as we returned downtown to grab a bite to eat before packing our bags in readiness for our departure. There was so much more to see, do and experience and we hadn’t nearly scraped the surface of the city’s coffee offerings. But we did feel that, in our short time, we’d experienced the essence of Seattle’s coffee culture. There was only one solution, we’d have to come back — it’s a city where you don’t have to go in search of a good coffee, it finds you and yes, it’s served with defining style.
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Writer and Photographer stayed at Hotel Andra

Stylish, urban and sophisticated, Hotel Andra’s design celebrates the strong elements of the Northwest – water, woods and stone – along with a Scandinavian design influence. Entering the hotel’s living room, guests are greeted by distressed plank floors with hand-knotted wool rugs, warm walls, and rich brown woods. Relax in style in one of the hot orange Arne Jacobsen ‘Swan’ chairs or let the cares of the day melt away as you sit by the magnificent fireplace, made of local split-grain granite, with floor to ceiling golden maple bookcases on either side.

The 119 guestrooms and suites are decorated in warm tones set-off with striking alpaca wool headboards, and warm minimalist dark wood furniture.  The bathrooms are Icelandic blue with FACE Stockholm bath products to complete the indulgence.
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Hotel Andra
2000 Fourth Avenue, Seattle  WA 98121
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