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New Coffeehouses Offer Choices to Washington's Caffeine Crowd

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

Paris, Rome, New York, San Francisco, even Austin are coffeehouse cities, teeming with places for chic office workers to quickly sip demitasses of espresso and students with laptops to camp out with steaming lattes.

For all its urbanness, Washington, on the other hand, has always been a little bit of a cup-to-go town. Till fairly recently, there have been few upstarts trying to spring up in the shadow of Starbucks or Caribou Coffee. But that is changing, and now there is a new spate of cafes serving a truly special cup of coffee.

Since July, three coffeehouses have sprung up in Washington: Mid City Caffe, Chinatown Coffee Co. and would-be chain Bourbon Coffee.

"I'd only just mentioned a month ago, on my last trip to D.C., that it was shocking to me how few independent coffee shops there were. This is the big trend in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, despite the recession," says Trevor Butterworth, a former D.C. resident who visited both Mid City and Chinatown Coffee on a visit to Washington last month. "Cafes have always been integral to developing a cultural life. . . . I'm really excited for the city."

Big Bear Cafe in Northwest (which eschews skim milk and doesn't stock artificial sweeteners) opened in 2007 and is among the trailblazers in this new coffee world, where baristas pull out timers to make just one perfect cup and everyone wants to talk about things like integrity of flavor.

"What we're doing is we're on the same level as the slow-food movement or the craft cocktail movement," says Lana Labermeir, co-owner of Big Bear.

She couldn't be more pleased about the new additions to the city's couture coffee movement. "It's wonderful not to be alone," she says.

Mid City Caffe
1626 14th St. NW, 202-234-1515, http://www.midcitycaffe.com.

Try: a cappuccino, $3.25.

After Sparky's Espresso Cafe closed in the summer of 2007, its neighbors on 14th Street mourned: Sparky's had toasted bagels and brewed coffee for weekend-morning crowds for years, and like Cafe Saint-Ex and Busboys and Poets, it was a symbol of the street's renaissance after decades of blight.

Mid City Caffe, which opened in an upper-level space Aug. 15, is filling the Sparky's void and then some. It serves drinks made with beans from cult North Carolina roaster Counter Culture Coffee, along with two house-made flavoring syrups (vanilla, made with sugar steeped with real vanilla bean; and a Nutella-based chocolate syrup for mochas and the like). An assortment of old-fashioned cakes (lime chiffon, spice) is as hunger-inducing as a Wayne Thiebaud painting.

But here's the thing: Mid City serves its coffee in a way that will require a little adjustment for those accustomed to Starbucks.

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