Spending my adolescence in the sleepy college town of Raleigh, N.C., I became used to independent coffee. There was Third Place, the hippie joint with extensive tea offerings, or Cup-A-Joe, the working man’s coffee shop – a room was devoted to smokers, where I’d sit for hours, drinking strong coffee tempered with whole milk and real sugar, smoking cigarettes and reading.
Then, at 19, I moved back to DC – boy, what a surprise to see that the competition lay between two behemoth corporations: The ubiquitous Starbucks and the “underdog,” Caribou. A word on Caribou: Who buys into the notion that a corporate chain is edgy and hip? For this reason alone, I have more respect for Starbucks, which unabashedly chases the dollar, than any chain that feigns an independent spirit.
Living on the Hill, I was thrilled to see the inception of Murky Coffee (Nick Cho’s brainchild, which became defunct due to a fittingly murky confluence of events spearheaded, purportedly, by his failure to pay back taxes). Where Murky once stood now stands Peregrine which, while a respectable espresso bar and coffee shop, is overpopulated by cool kids on Macs. Where’s the place where you can feel cool even if you’re not wearing TOMS Shoes?
Chinatown Coffee Company. Located at 475 H St., NW, it is the consummate coffee shop, replete with tattooed, sometimes snarly baristas, quality products from espresso to wine (they even have absinthe!), and a long, narrow space which lends itself to work, yes, but also to conversation. I met my friend Haley there this morning for coffee and scones, and they were playing deliciously cheesy hip-hop songs (Color Me Badd’s ‘I Wanna Sex You Up,’ TLC’s ‘No Scrubs,’ and Naughty by Nature’s peerless ‘O.P.P.’), and that’s probably the feature that appeals to me most; unlike the lion’s share of hipster meccas (see Peregrine, above), they don’t take themselves too seriously. You’ll never be faced with an employee who rolls her or his eyes when you ask what a cortado is, or if you ask what distinguishes a latte from a cappuccino (although, frankly, any self-respecting adult should know the difference).
The shop itself is tucked into a long, narrow building with low ceilings and partially exposed brick walls. There’s no garish art on the walls nor unnecessary decorations; simplicity reigns. Bodum French presses are offered, along with handcrafted granola (at nine bucks a pop, natch), but these extras are not the point. The baristas rotate daily the scrumptious, varied French press options (today they were serving high-quality joe from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and Bolivia); and espresso comes from Intelligentsia Roasters (the Chicago-based artisanal coffee supplier). The staff discusses the characteristics of each offering with the flair and knowledgability of a seasoned sommelier. At Chinatown Coffee Company, you are never rambling orders to a stiff in a green apron. You are having a conversation.
Along with the lovely coffee drinks, a glass case displays hordes of pastries – the always-tempting sticky bun, croissants of every stripe (butter, almond and chocolate), muffins, scones. And, because of the company’s conscientious nature, there are plenty of options for the famished vegans among us.
Unlike so many coffee shops these days, you will not walk in to see human zombies staring into the infinite abyss of their laptop screen (well, you will see some, but not everyone). There’s a casual, warm feeling in Chinatown Coffee Company – great for a date, interview or, yes, to get some work done. Go!
|Address:||475 H St., NW Washington, DC 20001|
|Parking:||Public Lot and Street|
|Serves:||Weekdays (7 AM-8 PM); Weekends (8 AM-7 PM)|
|Specials:||Happy hours posted on Web site|