Things are really perking up in the nation’s capital

By David Landsel
May 24, 2019
The Wydown

Part of being a good reporter, I am reliably told, is that you always go the distance for the story, which is why I woke up extremely early last Saturday and drove nearly forty-five minutes to a section of Washington, D.C. that I had not visited in years. For a cup of coffee.

In a decade and a half, the Petworth neighborhood had clearly changed—like, a lot—and right at the heart of all the happenings was the neighborhood's weekly farmer’s market. I was not there for the first produce of the season, or for the guy slicing brisket, or the piles of puffy cheese danish that had people lining up patiently; I was here because the day before, I’d tasted a very specific coffee from a very specific local roaster, name of Lost Sock, and I liked it a great deal. Upon further investigation, I learned that this market (and one the following morning, across town) would be, for the time being, the sole direct retail opportunity, and so I got up and I went, with pleasure. 

My options that morning were hot coffee or iced coffee—simple, straightforward. I went for the pourover Colombian, a sparkling bright, crisp, citrus-forward and—most important—thrillingly precise coffee, sourced through the Direct Origin Trading collective from a woman-owned finca in Colombia's Tolima region. Very soon after that, I immediately regretted not getting the iced coffee (Guji, Ethiopia) as well. I also regretted not being able to drink the entire cup of the coffee that I did buy, knowing just how many stops there would be before the day was over.

When The Best Coffee In Every State 2019 survey was released back in March, there were more than a few D.C. readers wondering—what about our nation's capital? Great question, and I’m glad people asked—while we typically have not included the city in these nationwide surveys, there’s no reason why the District shouldn’t get its share of the attention. Realizing that it had been nearly ten months since my last visit, last weekend, in town and eager to right past wrongs, I took a memorable ride through the district’s sprawling scene, visiting more than a dozen cafes, and sampling a ridiculous amount of coffee. Initially I thought I’d just drop a list of five of my favorites, and call it a job done well enough, but this time I thought I might bring you inside the process, giving you the great, the good and the sometimes less-than, just to give you an idea how the Best Coffee in Every State 2019 survey was conducted. 

The details: Almost without exception, I will visit each cafe anonymously, ordering a drip coffee, an espresso, and a cortado or a cappuccino, in order to cover as many bases as possible. In order to experience the shop just as any novice customer would, I do not ask for remakes—besides, with all the competition in most cities these days, and certainly in this one, I don’t feel it’s all that unfair to expect them to do it right the first time.  

While thirteen cafes (actually, there were a couple more, but I’ll spare you the details) might seem like too many for two days, bear in mind that I had been to more than half of them before, sometimes many times over. The best part—nearly everything new to me was usually far better than I expected, a terrific development for a city that often feels like it has so comfortably settled on the same brands (both behemoth and boutique) now seen in cities all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Right, enough—let’s get to the good stuff.

FRIDAY

Elle

Hidden away in Mount Pleasant’s Lamont Plaza commercial district, this sweet all-day cafe has been one of the more talked-about dining destinations in the city for some time now, and when I walk in, I can immediately see why—the space, from the front seating area in the big windows to the cozy back dining room, is the sort of place you might like to spend a few hours, and people do—from creative breakfast sandwiches in the mornings to well-reviewed dinners at night, Elle does it all. Coffee, on the other hand—well, they’ve got that, but I’m not sure they’re all that committed to this being a destination coffee shop, not with two out of town (as in, way out of town) roasters on offer—good ones, but I’m standing there, thinking about all the terrific options they overlooked to get to the ones they chose. An espresso drink and drip coffee (one Stumptown, the other Tandem, from Maine) are decent enough, but I can't imagine the coffee ever being the main attraction here. 

Call Your Mother

Approaching this joyful (and much talked-about) Georgia Avenue corner bagel shop/deli, I had zero expectations for the coffee, even though I was certainly going to try some; making my way through the line, which spilled out the door upon arrival but moved quite quickly, I saw people walking away with cappuccinos in ceramic diner mugs and I figured, why not—I ordered one to stay, while I waited for my bacon egg and cheese bagel, as well as a drip coffee to go. This turned out to be my first encounter with Lost Sock Roasters, easily the buzziest of the local roasters that have popped up in very recent times. Specifically for Call Your Mother, they custom roast a “Just Coffee” blend, designed to be a modern tribute to the diner and bodega coffee of olden times. It is just that—rich enough but still clean, not bitter or musky, not in the slightest. Better still, they had a dedicated barista on duty, who worked with a speed (and near-precision) that reminded me very much of my favorite classic places in the Northwest, producing what would end up being one of the best cappuccinos of the trip. The service was unfailingly friendly, the bagel sandwiches are the sort that will haunt every single morning you end up eating something less desirable or delicious, and I will be back.

Harrar Coffee & Roastery

D.C.’s Ethiopian expat community—famously the largest in the United States, and said to be the largest outside of Ethiopia—has long been a part of the regional coffee culture; long before there was much to talk about here, there was H Street’s Sidamo Coffee & Tea, or Sankofa on Georgia Avenue, offering at least a partial immersion in the greatness of the country’s ancient coffee culture. It’s on Georgia Avenue—not far from Sankofa, actually—that this relatively modern shop sort of hides out, mid-block. The Ethiopian cafes tend to march to their own beat, not terribly fussed by whatever a bunch of brash young American upstarts have decided are the new rules of coffee, and that’s perfectly fine—from a line of roaster-adjacent metal canisters, truck stop style, offering a selection from light to dark, I select an heirloom coffee (their words), the Yirhama Yirgacheffe; these are supposed to be bright and light, and this one definitely is, but also smooth and crisp, all at once. If I put milk in coffee, ever, I certainly wouldn’t do so here. The cafe seating up front was filled with gentlemen of a certain age busily chatting, and I wished I had an hour or two to hang around and soak up the vibes.

Compass Coffee

With nine locations (and counting, probably) scattered around the District and Northern Virginia, this Shaw-based roaster is one of the biggest local coffee success stories in recent memory; their cafes are appealing, modern s inviting long stays, and to many locals, Compass is about as good as it gets. Visiting the original 7th Street NW location, I found myself wishing I could turn back the clock, to when there was just this one shop; this time, the service was passive, disinterested—it’s not a contest, but I do tend to tally the number of blank stares from behind the bar, and this one was really aiming high—and the coffee tasted exactly how it usually does in these types of places. Both the drip coffee and the cappuccino had that vague char note on the back end—at this stage in the game, that just shouldn’t be. Even though the cafe was bright and busy with lots of great seating, I couldn’t help but feeling that my relationship with Compass had reached the end of the road.

Seylou Bakery

For the longest time, Peregrine Espresso was one of the more reliable addresses in town for a good coffee drink. Well, they’re still at it, and they’re full-on into the roasting game now, too—besides Lost Sock, Peregrine’s Small Plane Coffee is the name that lately seems to be coming up the most. I’d heard that Seylou—a minimal-mod, shades of Copenhagen bakery and cafe in the Shaw district, selling whole wheat croissants and loaves of einkorn bread—was also a great place for a coffee, and it certainly appeared this would be the case. A bright corner of the shop is set up as a coffee bar, but on my arrival, it didn’t seem to have any takers; the same person that took my order on the bakery side soon showed up behind the bar to prepare my cappuccino and pour a cup of coffee, both Small Planes. My cup of coffee—definitely on the lighter, modern side, nothing wrong there—showed promise, and it was perfectly well prepared; the cappuccino, made with Small Planes’ Gateway roast, which currently is 100% Peruvian Puno, however, wasn’t worth the wait. (Weak, flaccid, lukewarm.) I’d have to try my luck at Peregrine, later on. 

Maketto

Erik Bruner-Yang’s concept shop, restaurant, cafe and bar—it’s a whole thing, way out the tail end of an absolutely heaving H Street—was where I realized there was reason to be hopeful for Washington coffee culture, back in 2015, months after the place opened. From the start, it offered an entirely different experience than you would have expected to find in the city, at the time. Too often, even the best cafes have their moment, and then it passes, the early, exuberant days a happy memory. Here, there was no such drop-off—the space has certainly been lived in a little, but the upstairs cafe is just as good as it ever was, baristas still doubling as bartenders, still highly trained not only at the craft, but customer service, as well. A cortado—using a lovely coffee from Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, roasted by Grace Street Coffee, over in Georgetown—was rich and sweet, bright and finely-tuned. Now, as in the early days, it comes with sparkling water and two little shortbread-like cookies, on a wooden tray; all very picture-worthy. This turned out to be the perfect civilized break for any hectic afternoon, and I enjoyed the coffee so much, I broke my sample-only rule, and downed the whole damn thing, along with the cookies. No regrets. 

SATURDAY

Lost Sock Roasters 

Nico Cabrera and Jeff Yerxa had been talking about starting a business together, ever since they graduated American University back in 2014; their original idea didn’t quite pan out, but after my introduction to their coffee the day before, I’m awfully glad they ended up roasting coffee. Considering what they’ve managed to accomplish in a relatively short period of time, you can very likely expect big things from them, and they’re coming—the duo will reportedly open their first retail space in the historic Takoma Theater later this year. For now, it’s worth doing what you can to track down their product, and the Saturday (Petworth) and Sunday (NoMa) farmers markets are a fine choice—who doesn’t love a good farmers market, anyway. As previously mentioned, the Colombian pourover, from the woman-owned Finca El Oasis was an absolute winner—head and shoulders above the competition, so far, but right on par with the coffee I’d tried at Call Your Mother, the day before. (Roasted by Lost Sock, no surprise there.)

The Wydown

After a great run in pop-up mode, this very successful coffee bar found their forever home on 14th Street, right near the busy U Street corner. On a bright and beautiful Saturday morning, I wasn’t surprised to see the line out the door, and the back of the diminutive (and highly-styled, very moody-chic) shop full of people waiting for their drinks. The cashier was extremely knowledgeable, patiently walking me through all of the options; their sources are essentially a who’s who of coffee, from Scandinavia to the not-too-far-away Passenger Coffee, the best roaster in Pennsylvania at the moment. Clearly, Wydown knows how to buy coffee; that morning, unfortunately, the staff seemed less than adequately equipped to cope with the sort of rush they were experiencing. (When you’re using beans from a place like Passenger, 75% of the way there just isn’t good enough.) Tough? Maybe, but when you’re charging $3.50 for a medium-sized cup of drip coffee, no bells, no whistles, you must know you’re setting yourself up for extra scrutiny. Don't send it out tasting even the slightest bit old.

Qualia Coffee

Back before Petworth became New Petworth, the one we see today, I was well-acquainted with Joel Finkelstein’s pioneering (for these parts) roasting operation; his shop has been a presence in the neighborhood for roughly a decade now, and that morning I couldn’t even get in the door—better, I thought, to try the inevitably less-rushed shop over on a quiet corner in Eckington. I probably should have been more patient. Arriving at the empty second location, I was served the dregs from a a carafe of Colombian coffee (no details provided) made at 9:30 that morning; it was nearly noon. A shot of espresso, made very quickly, was so bitter, almost chemical—I couldn’t even down the first sip. This didn’t feel like the Qualia I remembered, at all.  

The Village Cafe

Just as I’m busy being impressed by the continued presence of so many of the businesses that characterized the city’s wholesale district (rebranded, it seems, as the Union Market neighborhood) for generations, or at least long before it became fashionable, I realize that my next destination—a smart new cafe opened late last year by a trio of community-minded DC natives—is right in the middle of everything, the produce vendors, the halal butcher, the Caribbean market, and the old-school Italian deli and wine shop. The cafe is located immediately adjacent to a branch of Dupont Circle’s famed Politics & Prose bookstore; the two are well connected on the interior, and the place is full of people leafing through books and sipping coffees, like it’s the 1990’s all over again, and I’m already a fan. The cup of Tanzanian coffee handed to me by the cashier wasn’t good or bad, but then the clearly knowledgeable barista pulls out a bag of Lone Oak coffee—from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley—to grind and prepare a cortado, made with the first great espresso of the day. Things are looking up. 

Peregrine Espresso

There’s no coming through the neighborhood without stepping into the shiny new Union Market, the food hall that overnight turned a relatively obscure corner of the city into a bona fide destination. After my positive experience at Maketto, I was less surprised to find the market feeling just as essential and fun as it did back in the beginning—a surprising number of the original businesses were just as I’d left them, while a number of new s (including Kwame Onwuachi’s Philly Wing Fry) were keeping very busy. At the front of the building, Peregrine’s popular counter has become a showcase for their Small Planes Coffee. As is to be expected on a Saturday during the peak brunch hours, the place is a little bit rushed off its feet, but I manage to sample the iced coffee, a shot of espresso and a cappuccino, the latter prepared by different people. The cappuccino is nicely done; the same espresso—using Small Planes’ Gateway, which I immediately recognize from yesterday at Seylou—falters in a different pair of hands. The iced coffee, however, is the winner—50% Colombia, 50% Ethiopia, all class, crisp and light but not a hint of weakness. Delicious. 

Little Pearl

Aaron Silverman can’t lose, at least it doesn’t feel that way—the bright mind behind Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple & Pearls has brought immense buzz to DC’s Barracks Row, an appealing area that for years was rather far off the beaten path, south of the Eastern Market Metro station. Those days are over, and Silverman’s empire keeps growing—on the shaded property of the old Naval Hospital, hiding in plain sight along Pennsylvania Avenue, the historic carriage house has become this smart—like Silverman would do any other kind—cafe by day, plus wine bar and restaurant by night. (It’s like Pineapple & Pearls used to be, but with a more low-key evening experience, by all reports.) Walking through the gates into the garden, seeing everyone relaxed and happy under the trees, this seems more like a cafe in an Anglican church yard in a more desirable English town than a coffee bar down the street from the United States Capitol. At least the day of my visit, the outdoor seating appeared to be the extent of the experience, though it must be said that the indoor bar itself was beautifully designed, a sensitively modern aesthetic that complemented the handsome, well-preserved building. What can be said about the coffee—both brewed and cappuccino—other than that this was the time I encountered Pennsylvania’s Passenger Coffee was the one where it lived up to its considerable potential. Quick, lively service, but also very serious, very precise, as at Call Your Mother & Maketto yesterday—who could ask for anything more.

Grace Street Coffee Roasters

With yesterday’s Vietnam Dalat espresso at Maketto still fresh in my mind, I knew I was going to be trekking to the source before leaving town, even if the source was Georgetown. While any trip involving M Street in the middle of graduation weekend (or any weekend) seemed like an incredibly risky proposition, I really liked the coffee that I’d tried, it was my first encounter with this clearly up-and-coming operation, and there was no way I wasn’t going. Grace Street happened to be on a back street south of the C&O Canal, amidst some extremely high-value real estate, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the shop, with its hyper-masc, slate-colored Kees van der Westen machine on the counter, sharing real estate with other businesses, most notably an absurdly popular juice bar—come here on a Saturday afternoon, apparently, and expect to be battered by the odd yoga mat. As hectic as the place was, the two baristas on duty were engaged, friendly if a bit prone to barista-splaining when I asked my usual dumb questions. (At least they were eager to talk.) They must have been as excited about the Vietnam Dalat as I was, because a shot of espresso, a cortado and a cup of drip coffee—all came out cut from the same cloth. All, predictably, were superb. The space, with less chill, at least that day, than some bus stations I’ve hung around, made me hope that other cafes like Maketto keep sourcing their coffees, because they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on.

THE FINAL VERDICT

Best local roaster

Lost Sock Roasters, no contest.

Best drip coffee

Lost Sock Roasters, again. I lived here, I’d want a steady supply of their coffees on my kitchen counter. 

Best espresso drink

Effortless perfection, aided by the typically perfect Passenger Coffee, in a beautiful environment—no question, the award goes to Little Pearl.

Best overall experience

Experienced pros, great work, thoughtful presentation, and a visually appealing space, optimally designed to make you feel welcomed—that’s the industry at its best these days, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that Maketto was still the one to beat. 

For the latest coffee intelligence, follow the author around the country—and beyond—via his Instagram feed.

 

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