News & Politics

Indie Coffeehouses

Washington is in the midst of a love affair with coffee and coffeehouses—and we’re not just talking about the area’s outsize devotion to a certain chain from Seattle.

From suburban strip malls to downtown boutiques, dozens of independently owned coffee shops have been popping up—distinctive, often quirky spaces that go beyond Starbucks’s formula of convenience and quickie caffeine to include heaping servings of community and culture, too.

The variations are as endless as the shakes, smoothies, and espresso-based drinks they concoct: Left Bank–style cafes, “coffee bars” that treat their brews like wines (complete with tastings), kiddie havens strewn with Legos, smoky joints jumping with music and words, and daytime lounges so crammed with laptoppers that they resemble surrogate offices.

“Like it or not, Starbucks created a baseline, a model of what’s possible,” says Nick Cho, founder of the four-year-old Murky Coffee. “People are flocking to all kinds of coffee­houses.”

Starbucks is still king, so we’re not quite ready to proclaim the return of 19th-century Vienna, but it’s not too soon to talk about the emergence of a coffee­house culture. Here are some favorites.

Busboys and Poets

2021 14th St. NW; 202-387-7638;

The Scene: All the many strands of U Street come together in this earnest and energetic multipurpose space. Open until 2 am Fridays and Saturdays.

What to Sip: The espresso drinks are dark and flavorful, with a thick, creamy foam.

What to Eat: Some dishes, like the frittata, overreach; simpler fare (burgers, salads, pizza) is a safer bet. Don’t miss owner Andy Shallal’s grandmother’s lentil soup.

Linger Factor: Very high, although the communal tables and couches are more intimate than at most restaurants—you really might get to know your neighbor.

Wi-fi: Free, but you have to register with the restaurant.

Cafe Monet
10417 Armory Ave., Kensington; 301-946-9404

The Scene: Country chic. Hand-painted tables, elaborate wall murals, and two patios where the neighborhood—old, young, families, friends, and singles—socialize all day.

What to Sip: The rich espresso con panna, the milkshakelike Peppermint Patty Latte, and cafe au lait served in a bowl-size cup.

What to Eat: Tuna with lemon pesto on a knot roll and Turkish spinach borek make for a tasty lunch; choose among the orange sour-cream scones, sour-cherry danish, and cinnamon buns for a quick sweet.

Linger Factor: High. People pass through for coffee, ladies lunch, stroller moms gather with toddlers, solo customers read newspapers.

Wi-fi: None.  

College Perk
9078 Baltimore Ave, College Park; 301-982-0587;

The Scene: A college flophouse with thrift-store furniture, board games, and a communal bookshelf. Open 24 hours Friday and Saturday.

What to Sip: Big, bottomless cups of coffee, including the excellent, dark-roasted French Press. The tea menu—sorted by varietal—is even better.

What to Eat: Whimsical menu includes a side of grapes, s’mores, Spam with fried Twinkies, and weekend brunch. Pastry-case items are plastic-wrapped and a little stale.

Linger Factor: Very high, as befits the group-house mood of the place. There’s even an outdoor seating area with a movie screen.

Wi-fi: None.  

Kirsten’s Cafe
9326 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-495-9686;

The Scene: A recent redo has turned this homey bakery/lunchroom into a sexy coffee bar with plush red chaises, sheer drapes, and brushed chrome-and-glass tables. Happily, the crowd is still local.

What to Sip: Robust Ethiopian Harrar and the bracing sure-to-wake-you-up red eye (American coffee with a shot of espresso).

What to Eat: Irish oatmeal with brown sugar, challah French toast, mango-chutney chicken salad, quiche, a babka-like chocolate-swirl brioche, roast-beef sandwich with caramelized shallots and Boursin.

Linger Factor: Good. One seating area with couches and club chairs is ideal for loungers; tables in an adjoining room are better for laptoppers. 

Wi-fi: None.  

Lake Anne Coffee House
1612 Washington Plaza West (Lake Anne Plaza), Reston; 703-481-9766;

The Scene: A lively mix of singles, couples, and Latin families on weekend afternoons. Poetry readings on Tuesday nights draw a crowd too.

What to Sip: Strong cups of French press, from the ultra-smooth Hawaiian Kona Greenwell Farm to the mellow-yet-assertive Jamaican Blue Mountain to the perfectly sweet iced mocha.

What to Eat: House-made soups, tuna salad on toast, huevos rancheros with beans and ham on a crispy tortilla, and biscotti.

Linger Factor: Good, especially if you set up camp on the patio; you can see the plaza fountain and lake from the front tables.

Wi-fi: Free.  

Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei
3318 M St., NW; 202-965-6005;

The Scene: This glassy, mod Cady’s Alley restaurant/cafe puts a contemporary spin on the Austrian kaffeehaus.

What to Sip: Strong glasses of Viennese-style coffee, heavy on the cream and served on a gleaming silver tray.

What to Eat: Delicate pizettes, tea sandwiches, and a lovely meringue-topped apricot tart.

Linger Factor: Middling—especially during lunch and dinner. And the vinyl chairs aren’t that comfortable anyway. The best seats are by the courtyard fountain.

Wi-fi: None.  

Mayorga Coffee Factory
8040 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-562-9090;

The Scene: Lone laptoppers, small groups dishing over lunch—and live music almost every night. Work­aholics find refuge from the fun in the “quiet room.”

What to Sip: The coffees are more distinctive for being roasted in-house than for being strong. At night, one chalkboard is devoted to alcoholic coffee drinks.

What to Eat: Look for the scones and the biscotti and don’t plan to stay for lunch. The sandwiches, wraps, and cakes are middling at best.

Linger Factor: Even when crowded, there’s room to spare, though the leather couches fill up quickly. Having to wait for the tuxedoed attendant to bring back your valet-parked car will kill the mood.

Wi-fi: Free.  

102 S. Patrick St., Alexandria; 703-548-4089

The Scene: Retro fridges, classic pop and jazz, and a vaguely subversive air. It opens at 6 am daily for early birds and commuters.

What to Sip: House-roasted Route 66 is ideal for mainlining caffeine. For more mellow sips, there’s the Caravan blend or Cocoa Loco, the cafe’s version of a mocha.

What to Eat: Carrot cake, chocolate-chip walnut cake, lemon poppy-seed scones, and hazelnut-chocolate twist.

Linger Factor: High. Old-timers playing chess in the “smoking” room hang for hours, and you could hole up for days on the nonsmoking side of the cafe.

Wi-fi: None.  

Mocha Hut
1301 U St., NW, 202-667-0616; 4706 14th St., NW, 202-829-6200

The Scene: People of all ages, races, occupations, and preoccupations come together at these laid-back coffee shops. Thursday is open-mike night.

What to Sip: The usual fresh-brewed coffees and espresso drinks are pleasantly strong. The iced Americano is a standout.

What to Eat: One of the best breakfasts around features eggs on toasted brioche; pecan waffles; and salmon cakes with eggs and grits. Many cakes are made in-house.

Linger Factor: Decent. More cozy couches would be great. Still, the wood-slatted tables are a comfy place to spend an hour or two.

Wi-fi: Free.  

Murky Coffee
3211 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-312-7001; 660 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, 202-546-5228;

The Scene: George Mason students and laptoppers crowd this Arlington house; it’s quiet as a library during the day. The DC location is small and spare—no couches for lazing.

What to Sip: The espresso drinks are the area’s gold standard. The meticulously sourced drip coffee is surprisingly mild.

What to Eat: Not many choices from the selection of baked goods, but we like the scones and biscotti.

Linger Factor: Some people spend all day camped out at a communal table or sofa in Arlington, but the Eastern Market shop is better suited for takeout.

Wi-fi: Free.  

New Deal Cafe
113 Centerway (Roosevelt Center), Greenbelt; 301-474-5642;

The Scene: A nonprofit cooperative full of communal warmth and bohemian bonhomie: People stop in to talk about the latest movie at the art-deco theater across the way and listen to live music at night.

What to Sip: Steaming, oversize mugs of dark roast. Even better: the coffee milkshake or a fruit smoothie.

What to Eat: Don’t miss a terrific slice of Ellen Siegel’s peach tart or wild-blueberry pie. Or go for heartier fare, like a tasty roasted-eggplant-and-goat-cheese napoleon or the Wahoo Burger.

Linger Factor: How great is it to have outdoor seating that’s nowhere near traffic? Inside is less cozy, but stay as long as you want and join in the conversation.

Wi-fi: Free through the Greenbelt Internet Access Cooperative.  

Perk Up Coffeehouse
829 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-838-2812

The Scene: Faux-painted walls, Coldplay on the sound system, and Zen thoughts of the day on a pad on the counter.

What to Sip: Shots of bracing-yet-smooth Illy espresso in a real cup and a smooth, soothing white-chocolate mocha.

What to Eat: The best of the sandwiches is turkey with chipotle mayo. Forgo muffins and scones for the lush bread-pudding cake.

Linger Factor: The postcollege crowd hangs outside, unrushed, at all times of day. Inside, the small lounge area is the place to be, with small tables snatched up by the studious.

Wi-fi: None.  

Modern Times at Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-362-2408;

The Scene: If you pine for your old college coffeehouse, this lively, chaotic bookstore—full of laptoppers, students, families, even local authors—should help.

What to Sip: Smooth, creamy—if sometimes sedimentary—espresso drinks, as well as loose-leaf teas, juices, and smoothies.

What to Eat: The pastries are from Firehook, except for a luscious cake doughnut from Heller’s—easily the best sweet here. Salads and sandwiches boast gourmet ingredients—and too much dressing.

Linger Factor: Fair. The place is crammed all day; the aisles are unnavigable. If you succeed in finding a table, there’s almost always someone hovering.

Wi-fi: Free.  

Rappahannock Coffee & Roasting
2406 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-271-0007

The Scene: Serene, with celadon walls and soft classical music. There’s a sunlit roasting room in back along with a couch and a few esoteric board games (Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars Edition, anyone?).

What to Sip: House-roasted Peruvian beans make a strong, heady drip coffee. Cappuccinos are topped with a mountain of foam, and vanilla-honey lattes are just sweet enough.

What to Eat: Sandwiches made with fresh Spring Mill bread, plates of tiramisu, and dark chocolate cakes.

Linger Factor: High. There’s a leisurely pace to everything: Espresso drinks may take ten minutes to arrive.

Wi-fi: Free.  

St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub
2300 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-739-9268;

The Scene: An unlikely mix of stroller moms and laptop-toting students finds a haven at this whimsical, clouds-in-your-coffee cafe.

What to Sip: The Mochaccino made with Ghirardelli’s chocolate is the standout. There’s also organic house espresso. Want a shot of one of the Monin syrups? They’re only 50 cents.

What to Eat: Quiches, turkey-and-smoked-Gouda sandwiches, chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, cappuccino muffins, and guava-and-cheese turnover.

Linger Factor: High. With tables both outdoors and in and couches and club chairs, there’s plenty of room to spread out and chill. There’s live music Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Wi-fi: Free.  

Stacy’s Coffee Parlor
709 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-538-6266

The Scene: Mohawked teens and quiet novel-gazers coexist happily at this folksy, friendly neighborhood hub, where you’ll see more New Yorkers than Powerbooks.

What to Sip: Santa Lucia coffee is mellower than most, but the iced latte packs a buzz.

What to Eat: Robyn Savage’s adorable pink cupcakes, baked fresh daily, and a bowl of Moxley’s ice cream.

Linger Factor: Very high. There are throw-pillow-strewn sofas aplenty.

Wi-fi: Free.  

2459 18th St., NW; 202-232-5500

The Scene: It’s laptop central during the day, but at night more buzzes are caught with vodka tonics than with lattes. Open until 2 am Sunday through Thursday, until 3 Friday and Saturday.

What to Sip: Well-pulled shots of espresso, coffee blended from three beans, and milkshake-thick iced mochas.

What to Eat: Seven kinds of waffles, sandwiches on crusty bread, and sharing-friendly plates of hummus, warm brie, and strawberries with Nutella.

Linger Factor: Good—if you can find a spot on the crowded couches.

Wi-fi: Free Monday through Friday.  

W. Domku Bar & Cafe
821 Upshur St., NW; 202-722-7475

The Scene: Chandeliers and concrete floors, thrift-store tables and antique plates set a mod European vibe at this restau-lounge.

What to Sip: The standout of the small but tasty coffee menu is the Polish-style coffee—it’s strong, dark, and almost chalky. The bar also serves an interesting selection of aquavit drinks.

What to Eat: The food, which mingles Eastern European and Scandinavian dishes, is reason enough to go: pierogi, meatballs, Swedish waffles, and cold smoked fish.

Linger Factor: So good that sometimes the service can come across as slow. Relax: You’re not being neglected, just left to linger.

Wi-fi: Free.  

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.