The leather club chair at Northside Social is practically swallowing me whole. My knees are higher than my butt, my computer is balanced on my lap, and every time I want a sip of my hand-poured Kenyan coffee, I have to turn awkwardly and reach up to the cup on the side table. It has the effect of transforming the sensual/stimulant pleasure of coffee drinking into something mechanical. Turn left. Secure cup in hand. Turn right. Place cup to mouth. Turn left. Fix cup back to table.
I’m not complaining.
Northside Social is overrun with customers on this early Sunday afternoon, and this man-eating chair is my only option. I’ve driven 12 miles from home to come here and solidify my argument that coffee shops, like restaurants, have different personalities. Proximity to home need not be the single most important requirement for singling out a particular java house as your personal favorite. The time has come to start talking about destination coffee shops.
Bear with me here. I know what you’re thinking. You’re tired. You’re overworked. You just want to stop at Starbucks for that quick fix of caffeine to make sure you can maintain some semblance of I-give-a-rat’s-ass attention during the 9 a.m. managers meeting. I hear you. I often treat coffee shops as counter-service drug dens, too. The problem comes, I think, when we only think of them that way.
Northside Social in Arlington, for instance, is far more than a Joe-slinger. Under the direction of Liam LaCivita, the same chef behind sister restaurants Liberty Tavern and Lyon Hall, Northside is one of those rare places that combines serious coffee service (Counter Culture beans, with hand-pour options) with a menu of freshly prepared sandwiches, soups, and salads. The breads are baked in-house. The pastries are made-in house. The sausages are made in-house. The granola’s made in-house. There’s not a pre-packaged chicken salad wrap anywhere in sight, and more to the point: LaCivita dares to think that coffee drinkers want more than your daddy’s diner fare. His maple sausage and Polyface egg on English muffin is a long way from the IHOP eye-opener breakfast.
As good as Northside is, I still don’t turn to it for all my java house needs. The joint has a Type A jittery-ness that makes me want to flee when I’m done eating. If coffee is the fuel for work, then Northside is the place where the well-fueled work. The operation practically needs its own coal-fired plant to keep all those laptaps humming in its various rooms. I don’t find the vibe all that relaxing.
If I’m looking for a place to chill, I turn to Stacy’s Coffee Parlor, a neighborhood spot off West Broad Street in Falls Church. I’ve just made the 10-minute trip from Northside to Stacy’s for a little peace of mind, and I’ve found it quickly. My computer is back on my lap, but my legs are propped up on an old, water-stained coffee table, my back supported by a soft, khaki-colored couch. The steel-gray light that pours in the window on this overcast day has a narcoleptic effect. If I wanted to take a nap, I could just collapse to my left and plop my head on one of the pillows. (Well, if I brushed the crumbs away first.) There’s no one else on the couch. Nor is there anyone squatting on the sofa that’s perpendicular to mine. The only other customers here are situated on the couches on the other end of the thread-bare shop. Stacy’s is equipped for comfort.
Stacy’s isn’t equipped, however, for coffee-nerd questions. When I approach the counter, I ask the man what kind of coffee he serves. He laughs at the question and says, “You mean regular?” I clarify that I’m curious about what kind of beans he serves. He tells me they’re French roast. I ask where the beans are from, and he says they’re Santa Lucia imports from Latin America. Having exhausted the poor man’s patience for wonkiness, I stop the inquisition. I take my coffee (rather bitter and stale) and retreat to the worn, couch-intensive comfort that draws me here.
Maybe you think it’s strange to seek out a coffee spot for its animal comforts. I don’t. Life feels both compartmentalized and sterile these days. The post-collegiate crowd lives in group houses, bound to each other by economics, not by love or sex or family. We spend more time communicating via a machine than we do by touch or voice or feel. Stacy’s is the kind of place that lets you experience life in the neighborhood via the comforts of home. If you don’t want coffee, you can have ice cream, scooped straight from one of numerous cartons. Or you can watch as a grandfather slowly walks in, holding his grandson’s hand, and buys them both a cone to share in cross-generational silence.
Besides, if I want a good cup of coffee, I know where to go. I head straight to Qualia Coffee in Petworth. Listen, I know the District’s coffee culture has made tremendous strides in the past few years. You can find really good hand-pours at Peregrine Espresso on Capitol Hill, at Chinatown Coffee Co. on H Street NW, at Filter Coffeehouse on 20th Street NW near Dupont Circle, and at Mid City Caffe on 14th Street NW. But if you truly love roasted beans and the sweet liquid stimulant extracted from them, Qualia’s Joel Finkelstein is your guy. Finkelstein believes in serving only the freshest beans, which are all roasted in the back room of his small shop on Georgia Avenue NW.
Here’s what Finkelstein seems to understand better than the other coffee pushers around: that every step in the process affects the quality of your cup. The freshness of the beans. The shade of roast on the beans. How finely ground the beans are. How those beans are extracted. The temperature of the water pouring over the beans. He monitors and manages and manipulates every step of the process. If he could grow his own beans in the backyard, I’m sure he would. When I’m off the clock, this is where I go for coffee.
For long as I can remember, coffee has been the antidote to an evening well spent at the bars, even if it meant you had to drive across town to find some all-night rat trap that served industrial strength, Bunn-brewed mud to bring you back to your senses. A few coffee shops are changing the rules of the late-night imbibing, however, mixing their depressants with their stimulants to excellent effect (and safer streets). Case in point: Northside, with its fridge full of killer craft beers and Alison Christ’s thoughtful wine list, can keep your brain sweetly balanced between sober and stone-dead drunk.
But the place that intrigues me most on this front is Chinatown Coffee. The owners secured a liquor license recently and rebranded their place as an all-purpose mood elevator. The draw of the trendy establishment is not necessarily its small sampling of craft beers and French and Argentine wines, but its insistence on serving absinthe, the once forbidden liquor that could make a grown man mad enough to murder his entire family. At least that was the urban myth in the early 20th century before anyone called them “urban myths.” Absinthe’s crazy-making quality has since been widely discredited, leaving drinkers to determine whether they actually enjoy the liquor without the illegal and possible lethal dangers attached.
You get the sense Chinatown is trading on whatever shred of danger still clings to absinthe. After my afternoon respite at Stacy’s, I make the drive to Chinatown Coffee just in time to catch the place before closing. The music on the sound system is hard and fast and definitely not for the old acid-head hippies who used to define the coffee-shop denizen. The guy behind the counter is bald and tattooed on almost every inch of flesh exposed from the elbow down. He knows absinthe. He grabs a bottle of La Clandestine, a Swiss product based on a 1935 recipe, and preps for the water dripping ceremony. He pours a healthy amount of the liquor into my glass, props a sugar cube onto a slotted spoon, and briefly torches the square with a long-necked lighter. He guides the glass under a fountain spigot and lets the icy water gently drip onto the sugar cube until it dissolves into the liquor at a ratio of 60-40, water to absinthe.
The ceremony is more fascinating than the milky drink known as louche. It has a faint herbal quality but its dominant flavor is anise. As I sit next to an exposed brick wall and listen to the hard rock worm its way into my brain, I admire Chinatown Coffee’s attempt to resuscitate absinthe’s moribund cachet, as if the shop wants to transform the District’s grinding army of office and government workers into 21st-century boulevardiers. It strikes me as a smart play, but all I really want now is a good cup of coffee to wash away the licorice taste.
Northside Social, 3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 465-0145
Stacy’s Coffee Parlor, 709 W. Broad St. Falls Church, (703) 538-6266
Qualia Coffee, 3917 Georgia Ave. NW, (202) 248-6423
Chinatown Coffee Co., 475 H St. NW, (202) 559-7656
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery