Seattle/ /Portland: Too Cool For School.

Author: george Posted: July 11, 2008

We just went to Seattle and Portland and did some quality crawls.  Both cities have their own vibe and style but in the end it’s clear – coffee is king.

The first night we arrived in time for dinner and then had time for one cafe before they all closed – anyone care to guess where the first stop was?  Here’s a hint:  It rhymes with tamagotchi.

We went to the “new” Vivace just off the I-5 and it was great as usual.  We didn’t end up making it to the roasting location on this trip, which is too bad because it’s closing down next week, but what can you do.  I’ve been there enough times to know of it’s greatness.  I believe a new Vivace will be opening up in September though

Next day the real crawl began, and it started at Stumptown.  It was the first Stumptown experience for most of us so I was pretty pumped, and it didn’t let down.  Stumptown is just so ahead of the gang in coffee culture.  You could cut these guys and espresso would bleed out – although I do need to say I didn’t like the fact that we walked in and pretty much every table had one person to it on their mac laptop, or pc laptop with a mac sticker.  Not exactly the cafe vibe I like to hang out in myself, but I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

Next up was Victrola.  Cool interior, relaxed environment – I like Victrola.  Who doesn’t?

The poster above was on the door window and it’s of a reporter interviewing a Victrola Barista and says

“Can Starbucks win back Seattle?”
“I don’t think so.”

I’m pretty sure I first heard the quote in a tv interview some Seattle station was doing after Starbucks announced it would have bad quarterly earnings for the first time or something of the sort.  

We all sat at the giant table in the middle and enjoyed all the drinks, as usual.  We had all been a to Victrola enough times to know the drinks were going to be good, it’s just become part of the Seattle routine now.

Next up was Vita – at first we went to the one just up the street from Victrola and Stumptown but we hadn’t been to any of the other locations, so we decided to go there instead.  After a 20 minute drive through the maze that is Seattle, about 8 wrong turns, and cursing at the GPS, we found it.  Or, it found us. 

It was in a pretty funky Seattle neighborhood that seemed to be made up of just houses and cafes and little eateries.  Very nice.

This Vita location was particularly special because they had a 5 group lever espresso machine.  It’s the one in the title picture, and below as well.  It is beautiful, and massive.

The barista calmly made about 5 espressos and a few macchiatos while chatting and he guided us to Lighthouse, which was the next stop.

Lighthouse was smack dead on the corner and gives a new definition to the word “neighborhood” cafe.  It was so close to houses around it and had that kind of vibe to it where I bet the baristas knew almost everyone who came in by name.  But I could be way off.  They roast their own beans, and had bags stacked upon bags right there by the seating area.  While Alistair was over at crema servicing the Synesso this week, he said Lighthouse had a lot of history.  We didn’t talk much about it, but this is where the founder of Stumptown Duane Sorenson first roasted.  I had no idea. Knowing that now, every time I think of Lighthouse I keep thinking of it as some kind of magic, eery, sacred place.  Somewhere you go for coffee enlightenment or something before a journey – like visiting the Oracle in the Matrix.

 

After Lighthouse my dad and I headed to a place we didn’t know much about, called Stickman Cafe.  The others were too caffeinated and opted to stay in line for must have been the busiest Caribbean sandwich place ever.  It was a 25 minute wait after you ordered, and there was about a 10 or 15 person line up when we went.  I think the whole neighborhood was eating there.

Back to Stickman.

The fun thing about Stickman is that it’s almost impossible to find.  It’s tucked away sort of at the bottom of this alley way that much resembles Diagon Alley from Harry Potter – only replace the wizards with baristas.

Stickman is the smallest cafe I’ve ever been in, and was awesome for a few reasons.  Number one was that they had a pour over station.  The second was that they were using a Mazzer for their regular espresso, and an Anfim for their decaf.  Yes, you read that right.  And the 3rd reason was their patio, which was actually in the back and surrounded by 4 art/graffiti filled walls.  It was hard to capture it with the lens I had on my camera, but you can see some pieces of it.  

Lighthouse was the end of the Seattle crawl, and we were so over caffeinated at that point that it took everything I had not to pass out from the nausea.  We even pre warned the barista at Lighthouse before we ordered that we would not be finishing the espresso/macchiato we were about to order.

Fast forward 2 days through a baseball game, some shopping, and a 3 hour drive on the I-5 South to Portland.  Add in 2 cousins of mine who drink at Stumptown at the Ace Hotel regularly, but had never been on a coffee crawl, and repeat.

We started off at Stumptown:  Ace Hotel.  

There is no need to say much about it.  It is the best espresso bar (note:  it’s not a cafe, it’s an espresso bar) I’ve ever been to.  The Ace Hotel creates this kind of haunting ultra cool retro atmosphere that you could only understand if you go, so I will leave it at that.  

Stumptown's Counter Panels
Stumptown's Counter Panels

The picture below is of this communal table in the lounge area of the Ace Hotel, about 20 feet from the bar at Stumptown.  You can take your coffee wherever you like around the hotel lounge, and there are plenty of public, and private spots.

Extracto was next on the list.  I liked it.  Ritual Coffee’s website recommended it, and it turns out they had just started roasting their own beans about 2 months prior.  I couldn’t see it for some reason at the time, but looking back at the pictures I took, the cafe really has a playground/school design to it.  

 

Above is the front patio/entrance.  Right across the street were houses, as it was smack dead in the middle of a Portland neighborhood.

I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself
I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself I Will Not Serve What I Would Not Drink Myself

All I can think of when I see this menu is Bart Simpson writing “I Will Not ___________________” a hundred times from The Simpsons intro.  (This is the 3rd film comparison I have dropped in this post, don’t ask where it’s coming from).

Anybody starting to see the classroom design now?  

They had t-shirts for sale with their logo that I wanted to buy, but they were sold out.  Next time.  Extracto gets a good report card.

One of the baristas from Extracto recommended a place called Ristretto Roasters, so onward we went.

By this time my cousins are starting to see the differences between espressos and using some describing words that are dead on.  Fast learners.  Enter in beginning of over caffeination, part 2.

First off, let me just say that Ristretto Roasters had good coffee.  What I didn’t really get about Ristretto though, was their design/branding.  After seeing this entrance sign we thought we were going into this super bright, upbeat fun place that plays Mika’s “Life In Cartoon Motion” all the time. 

On the contraries though, it was really low key and almost dark.  Not a bad thing, mind you – just not what you would have thought.

A lone barista was running the show, and took his time making our drinks.  I love that.  I don’t see the point in a barista going Mach-5 to try to get a drink out on the pass bar when we are staying around to sit and chat anyway.  

Not Posing.
Not Posing.

Nice coffee from Ristretto.  

During the car ride over to the final cafe, The Albina Press, it became aware to me that the espresso from Ristretto was the knock out blow for me.

After quite a bit of navigating we finally stumbled upon it.  I had heard lots about it, and had seen Billy Wilson compete (I think it was him…) back in October in Seattle at coffee fest, so I knew it was going to be good place.

As soon as we neared the front door, all those thoughts were confirmed.  This was a good place.  The first thing you see is what my dad proclaimed as, “living art”.  

The moment you walk into Albina, you are hit with a refreshing draft from the open garage door and this is what is facing you. It’s just a giant hedge across the street, but it is really cool to see from the cafe.  I wish I had a wider angled lens to really capture it, but I don’t yet.  You’ll just have to head over and see it for yourself.

As I said before Ristretto’s espresso finished me off, so I couldn’t have a drink here, even though I really wanted one.  Once again only one barista was running the show here, but was totally in control.  She was really engaging and got to talking about the industry with my dad and then gradually the conversation turned to the barista competition.  Turns out she had competed previously and was now judging.  She gave me a few helpful tips and her email, should I have any questions about anything.  My dad said the shots he had were great, and I’ll have to take his word for it – but I believe it.  She was super comfortable with everything going on, even talking to us while making drinks during a 3 person line up.  A true baristar.

And that is that -

The crawl wrapped up nicely with a smooth finish and a nice notes.  My cousins learnt a lot, and so did I.

I’m continually amazed at the culture that has been built around this thing we call coffee,  I really am.

7 Responses to “Seattle/ /Portland: Too Cool For School.

  1. John says:

    Wow, awesome post. I have to say that stumptown in Seattle just looks perfect. Communal tables rock my world.

  2. Samira says:

    Wonderfully written and fabulous photos! I loved reliving that day as I read through your post. Thanks for passing along your finely tuned and quite impressive coffee knowledge!

  3. Charissa says:

    wow, george! you have quite the knack for writing, taking photos, and of course enjoying a great cup of espresso. i am thoroughly impressed! thanks for sharing all your wonderful knowledge… coffee will never be the same :)

  4. Troy says:

    Picked up on your blog about a month ago; great work and awesome post. Keep up the great entries.

  5. tammy says:

    thanks! ..i now have some new places to check out in when i’m in seattle. ..that stumptown in the ace hotel..was that the one in portland?

  6. george says:

    @ tammy -

    The Stumptown in the ace hotel is in Portland – but the Stumptown in Seattle has just as good coffee at least.

    If you are heading down there anytime soon (or anywhere for that matter) and want a list/addresses of some places to check out email me or write a comment and we’ll be happy to share all the goods.

  7. Nicholas says:

    i totally agree about the ace hotel stumptown. my band went touring and in everycity we went, i crawled alone asking ppl I thought might know where their city’s best was. some little punk said go to the ace hotel its probably still open. I ran! our show was in about an hour so I had to get my fix. it was only 6 or 7 blocks from the pub we played. I was the only one there and they were closing but i explained my sit and said I was from vancouver and the dude was awesome. he tossed 4 or 5 shots until the gold was delivered. I ordered a spro and mac and a cap and an american for a bud in the band. all lovely. the place looks soooooooo awesome.

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