Local coffee shops like Big Bear Cafe, Chintown Coffee Co. and Sankofa offer more than just craft beans

pleasantpops
In addition to craft coffees, Pleasant Pops cafe offers a selection of locally sourced sundries. Photo by Caroline Whiting.

Back when people were toting flip phones and bumping *NSYNC on their Walkmans, the lure of free Wi-Fi at a cafe was revolutionary enough to get customers in the door. Nowadays, the coffeehouse landscape is flooded with specialty shops where Internet service not only comes standard, but is also served alongside high-quality beans from craft roasters. How can a cafe stand out from the pack?

“Getting coffee is something most people do every day, and if you can improve the experience it can make a big impact,” says Ryan Fleming, who (with his fiancee) is in the process of opening a coffee and cocktail bar in Logan Circle called Slipstream, projected to debut in April. Like Fleming’s hybrid concept, other local shops are experimenting with the classic coffeehouse model — by serving restaurant-quality food, offering booze and setting up retail shops within — to keep things fresh.

Most people know Bloomingdale’s Big Bear Cafe as the inimitable neighborhood haunt where hipsters pour French-pressed Counter Culture beans from
El Salvador and beyond. But Monday through Saturday after 6 p.m., the casual spot transforms into a full-service restaurant. Executive chef Rebecca Hassell describes her fare as “healthy comfort food,” so you’ll see dishes like celery root soup ($6) and seared swordfish with rosemary polenta ($18). And Kafe Bohem is bringing both Austria-based Julius Meinl coffee and Czech food to Shaw. The cafe serves traditional Eastern European items like borscht ($9) as well as dishes with a Czech twist like chicken and waffles made with schnitzel ($14).

Cremeschnitte (vanilla and custard cake) and other central-European specialties are served at Kafe Bohem. Photo by Tracy A. Woodward (The Washington Post)
Cremeschnitte (vanilla and custard cake) and other central-European specialties are served at Kafe Bohem. Photo by Tracy A. Woodward (The Washington Post)

Flying Fish opened in Mount Pleasant in May 2011 with Counter Culture coffee and tea from Art of Tea. Recently, the tiny cafe began offering a small collection of craft beer and wine that rotates seasonally. “We saw a drop-off of business around 5 p.m., and we were looking for a way to boost sales in the later hours,” Mike Visser says of his decision to offer something a little harder. Meanwhile, Chinatown Coffee Co. serves three varieties of absinthe alongside direct-trade coffee from Intelligentsia and beans from Portland-based Heart Coffee Roasters. “Most people don’t come in on their lunch break to drink absinthe, which is probably a good thing” owner Max Brown says. “But on Thursdays and Fridays at happy hour, you can smell the rich scent [of absinthe] when you walk in the shop.”

Sankofa, a coffee shop by Howard University, wears a lot of hats: In addition to serving mostly Ethiopian coffee beans, Sankofa produces and distributes films about the African-American experience and sells books and videos about the Third World diaspora. You can get completely engrossed in the cafe’s bookshop, which is exactly the point: “We wanted to better educate folks that come to our establishment, and to let them know that these [filmmakers and authors] were out there,” proprietor Tensae Berhanu says. Pleasant Pops in Adams Morgan shares a similar community-oriented vision. “We view ourselves as serving the neighborhood,” says co-owner Brian Sykora, who stocks shelves with artisanal foodstuffs from mostly local producers. “We saw a need for a good coffee shop and a small grocery store, so we combined the two.” Additional reporting by Alison Baitz

Big Bear Cafe, 1700 First St. NW; bigbearcafe-dc.com. (Shaw-Howard U)
Kafe Bohem, 800 Florida Ave. NW; 202-735-5895, kafebohem.com. (Shaw-Howard U)
Flying Fish, 3064 Mount Pleasant St. NW; 202-299-0141, flyingfishcoffeedc.com. (Columbia Heights)
Chinatown Coffee Co., 475 H St. NW; 202-320-0405, chinatowncoffee.com. (Gallery Place)
Sankofa, 2714 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-332-1084, sankofa.com. (Columbia Heights)
Pleasant Pops, 1781 Florida Ave. NW; 202-558-5224, pleasantpops.com. (Dupont Circle)

Holley Simmons is the dining editor of The Washington Post Express. When she’s not reporting on local restaurants and tastemakers, you can find her sewing a dress from a 1950s pattern or planting a windowsill herb garden. Contact her at holley.simmons@wpost.com.
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