Lifestyle & Culture

Coffee Shops with Character

October 19, 2015

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iStockWHEN I WAS growing up in D.C. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, people brewed coffee at home in a percolator, Chemex or Bialetti, poured a mug from the office carafe or grabbed a styrofoam cup of corner-store brew. These days, a D.C. pedestrian — like John Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, swimming his way home through backyard pools — can caffeinate block-by-block through the city at cafes simple and swanky.

So, where to go? I’ve selected 10 places in the city that have character, a quality as essential for a successful pick-me-up as a perfectly timed pour-over or a buttery croissant.

1. Jolt ‘N Bolt
1918 18th St. NW
202-232-0077
Mon. – Fri. 7 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Sat. 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sun.  7 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.

In the ‘90s, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area where Peet’s Coffee & Tea ruled the roost. On a visit home to D.C., my big brother treated me to breakfast at Jolt ‘N Bolt. It’s still here! In business since 1994, this unassuming spot predates the dissemination of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts as well as more refined choices. Hide out at a small table in the clean alleyway with a generous piece of coconut cake.

2. Coffee Nature
4224 Fessenden St. NW
Mon. – Sat. 7:30 a.m. -6 p.m.

“I walked in and really liked the vibe,” says barista Kirstyn Rowen, who was working the counter during one of my visits. “We get a lot of regulars.” When I moved back to D.C. this spring after more than 25 years in California, I was over the moon at discovering Coffee Nature. Such a down-to-earth feel is uncommon in the nation’s capital. Homemade flyers announcing music shows and writing groups flutter in the breeze of the open door. There’s no rushing.

3. Lourdes Bakery Coffee Shop
3419 14th St. NW
Hours vary
202-332-0002

A visit to Lourdes Bakery and Coffee Shop in Columbia Heights is a Saturday morning breakfast ritual for John Sanchez, who sits outside on the patio to read the newspaper. “I come from Maryland,” he says. “It’s good for a healthy breakfast.” Enjoy fresh sandwiches on homemade bread, like hot ham and cheese with peppers, tomato and onion, as well as Salvadoran pastries. Basic coffee conjures nostalgia with its styrofoam cup.

4. Bakers and Baristas
501 7th St. NW
Mon. – Fri. 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Sat. – Sun. 9 a.m. – 11 p.m.

At $1.65 for a small drip with 59-cent refills, you can afford a few minutes to catch up on email or meet up with a colleague at Bakers & Baristas in Penn Quarter. Add a Viennese-inspired pastry or personal-sized quiche to your order and make it a meal.

5. Filter
1726 20th St. NW
Mon. – Fri. 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Sat. – Sun. 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.

“We have high-quality coffee and people appreciate that,” says barista Ben Phillips. I know I did. Split a pot of French press with a friend on the small brick patio after a trip to the Dupont Circle farmer’s market. Or power up with an espresso while lined up on a stool tapping at your laptop. Phillips adds, “We have a lot of regulars and we know them by name.”

6. Open City
2331 Calvert St. NW
Sun. – Thurs. 6 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Fri. – Sat. 6 a.m. – 1 a.m.

From dawn past dusk, Open City welcomes locals and tourists alike. It’s a great place to people watch and to strike up a conversation. Dog lovers appreciate outdoor benches, bowls of clean water and dog biscuits. Buy a pound of coffee (I do every week) and get a cup to go on the house.

7. Bayou Bakery
901 Pennsylvania Ave. SE
Mon. – Fri. 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sat. 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sun. 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

“It’s not exactly like all the others,” says long-time Capitol Hill resident Lynn McDonald on a visit to Bayou Bakery. Ample and comfy seating is distributed throughout the cafe’s restored carriage house and garden. This is a place for a mother-daughter outing or to linger long with a good friend.

8. Baked by Yael
3000-F Connecticut Ave. NW
Mon. – Thurs. 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Fri. – Sun. 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Baked by Yael is a cheerful place popular with kiddies for the cake pops. The small neighborhood bakery also offers simple, fresh coffee. Grown-ups will appreciate the raspberry bars, available in a vegan version. Sit outside or near the big window and observe National Zoo visitors coming and going from the main entrance right across the street.

9. Little Red Fox
5035 Connecticut Ave. NW
Tues. – Sun. 7:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.

In addition to the city’s best apple pie, Little Red Fox cooks up a variety of fresh soups, salads and sandwiches to satisfy all. Charge up with a snack and caffeine while you ponder questions for author readings a few doors up at Politics & Prose.

10. Soho Tea & Coffee 
2150 P St. NW
Daily 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.

Bright art creates a funky vibe, encouraging patrons who come for coffee to stay for soup. Gaze out the large windows to rest screen-weary eyes. Or pop over to Books for America on your way to Soho and settle into the welcoming space with a good read.

–Alexa Mergen
Alexa Mergen teaches private lessons in yoga and meditation in Washington, D.C. and edits Yoga Stanza.



3 thoughts on “Coffee Shops with Character

  1. Nancy McKeon says:

    Now adding:
    Wydown Coffee Bar
    1924 14th Street NW
    202-507-8411

    Baked & Wired
    1052 Thomas Jefferson Street NW
    202-663-8727

  2. Anna says:

    Where is Wydown on this list?! Baked & Wired? I live near Open City and don’t go there unless it’s an emergency. It’s jam packed with tourists pretty much all the time, taking away any character they might have had.

  3. Jen says:

    As a self proclaimed coffee lover and blogger this makes my heart happy to see a few places that close after 11pm! I am a New Yorker so I will have to try each one of these places out. Today I think I’ll try filter out. I enjoyed this post.

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