So, if you’ve been...well anywhere in the world you may have heard of this coffee shop called Starbucks? Well, did you know that it originated in my hometown, Seattle? Oh you did? Okay cool, well I think as much as we all love our complicated orders such as a two pump vanilla, dash of caramel almond milk latte, we can admit the actual beans and ambience at Starbucks is a bit meh.
Sure, it’s reliable, you always know roughly what you’re in for regarding drinks and Wi-Fi, but let me tell you there are so many other, better options out there. Whenever I mention I’m from Seattle, people always mention Starbucks, which makes me cringe because honestly it’s pretty mediocre coffee and there are so many BETTER cafes around the city.
Take it from a girl who was able to take an entire course in college on everyone’s favorite caffeinated drink, Seattle is the place to be for craft creations, a solid cup of drip and unique creations à la Tik Tok. You can also typically find delicious snacks along with a decent cup of joe. We’re definitely a java town, so let me introduce you to the best non-Starbucks coffee shops!
Love off the beaten spots like this? Be sure to check out these 16 hidden gems in London.
Located at the south end of University Way (the “Ave”) near the University of Washington campus, this was my go-to café during my student days. The cozy feel invites a variety of patrons from students on laptops to university faculty and staff on lunch to visitors enjoying an afternoon cup. The menu consists of amazing caffeinated beverages as well as fresh homemade pastries and sandwiches baked daily.
In addition to plentiful indoor seating, Solstice has a mini-terrace out front and my personal preference, covered tables out back, which are often forgotten and thus usually quite peaceful. The décor is eclectic, with many pieces made by the owner and/or local artists and the music playlist runs the gamut, depending on who’s on shift.
Solstice is a big presence and supporter of the community, featuring a new artist every few months and partnering with the University Food Bank. Solstice is open everyday at 7:30 and closes between 3 and 5 depending on the day. They used to be open later, but as with everything in the past year, have adjusted accordingly. Check their Facebook here for most recent updates!
Location(s): Capitol Hill & South Lake Union
What began as a small coffee cart in the late 80s has turned into a full-fledged coffee shop that offers a taste of Europe in the Emerald City. The beans are roasted Italian style (dark and deep) with light roasts and drip left completely off the menu. You can find some of the best cortados and cappuccinos in the city here, as well as more modern creations such as tasty matcha and white velvet lattes.
Note the locations have different names; Bix is the flagship Capitol Hill store, Alley 24 in South Lake Union and the OG stand in Capitol Hill called Sidewalk Bar. If you’re looking for the most relaxing experience, head to the Sidewalk Bar where you can spend hours enjoying espresso in a prime people-watching location in the heart of Capitol Hill.
If you’re looking to improve your own craft, you’ve come to the right place, Vivace baristas create latte art that is the envy of baristas down the West Coast. The owner, David is really into education and has written a blog, two books and frequently holds trainings onsite for aspiring roasters and baristas. Seminars are currently virtual until further notice.
Tougo is the perfect place to enjoy an unpretentious craft cup of coffee, with a friend, a book or your schoolwork. This cute coffee shop is a quiet respite in the city and is hidden in a quirky, narrow, and intimate space. Enjoy the community feel at the long shared table in the middle or take your latte and laptop to one of the individual seats. If you have little ones, there’s a kids play area in the back.
Here, you’ll be treated to high-quality java, as well as unique creations such as the choc-oat-latte (a personal fave) and the honey goat latte. If you’re in need of a bit more than a cup of joe, try one of their numerous fresh baked sandwiches or pastries! Their sourdough is particularly famous throughout the city.
There used to be multiple locations, however after the events of 2020, they’re down to just one Downtown, so make sure to stop by next time you’re sightseeing in the city!
This popular place in the U-district claims to be the OG espresso bar, and is certainly the oldest on our list, dating back to 1975. Tucked away in an unassuming alley behind another U-district fave of mine, Magus Books, it’s a serene corner away from the hustle and bustle of the Ave.
On any given day, you’ll find TAs and professors holding office hours, undergrads writing mid-term papers and professionals on lunch break. Note that the top floor is the quieter, “serious” floor for studying while the bottom (entrance) floor is mainly the socializing floor. The bistro has a nice off-beat artsy feel with a mix of music, paintings and vintage event posters on the wall, illuminated by plenty of natural light streaming in from the windows.
They source beans from small, family-owned coffee farms around the world and roast the beans onsite for great quality. Their style is all no-nonsense and unpretentious. You won’t find any fancy latte art here, but you will find some of the best espresso on the Ave. They also have a subscription service if you find their beans too good to live without!
Location(s): Greenlake, U-district, South Lake Union & Kirkland
This mini-chain is popular throughout the city, with each location having the same laid-back and welcoming atmosphere. The entire place screams minimalist, with not much more than pieces of wood polished into furniture with clean brown and white accents. The menu is a scrabble-like board listing staples like americanos and hot chocolate, as well as specialty creations such as lavender mochas and honey cardamom lattes.
Zoka began as a way to give back to the coffee community as a whole, with 90% of the beans directly sourced from small farmers in Central and South America. The baristas in-house are the best in their field, often winning national championships in addition to making your perfect neighborhood cup.
Each Zoka location is flooded with plenty of natural light through large windows, making it feel like an outdoor terrace even on a winter day. For the warmer months, chairs and tables are available out-facing, European style ready to transport to your overseas city of choice. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a hot cuppa, study or hang with friends. However, note that it doesn’t tend to be too lively or loud of a place, so plan your visit accordingly.
Hello Em Việt Coffee & Roastery
Location(s): International District
Housed in the Little Saigon Creative Space (a community center for Vietnamese culture), Hello Em Việt is proudly Seattle’s first Vietnamese roastery. Co-owners Yenvy Pham and Nghia Bui also own the popular Phở Bắc restaurant. Hello Em Việt opened coincidently as the popularity of Vietnamese coffee surged in the U.S., although they will tell you the main goal was to jump-start the Little Saigon Creative Space.
The beans are sourced directly from Vietnam as well as Mexico and Ethiopia for the non-Vietnamese drinks. All beans are roasted in-house. The menu consists of traditional coffee drinks as well as Vietnamese mainstays like cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee and condensed creme) and cà phê trứng (espresso and egg cream). Tasty treats like Bánh mì sandwiches, matcha cake rolls and mochi treats are also available for your enjoyment.
The space has been called “modern Viet classic” by the founders, for it’s airy and light design, with plenty of traditional décor. There’s even a map of Vietnam on the wall, with an infographic of where and how the beans are roasted and fun facts about bean production in the country. If you've never traveled to Vietnam, or want to relive your trip, you'll definitely want to check this spot out.
Ugly Mug Cafe & Coffee Roaster
Location: U-district & Interbay
This small roastery and café in the U-district is headed by a husband and wife duo that is committed to making a cozy and comfortable place for students, visitors and anyone needing a respite from the city. Founded over two decades ago, the Ugly Mug has a long history of employing students in the neighborhood, including the current owners back in the day.
Located in a tucked away corner, it’s quieter than most eateries along the Ave and invites you in just like a friend’s living room. Curl up with a cup on a rainy day or bring a few friends for a caffeinated catch up.
The menu consists of typical coffee drinks as well as fun twists like lavender whipped cream and colorful lattes. There’s also a nice selection of Belgium waffles and pastries to enjoy in-house or to take along to class or your commute. Beans are available for bulk purchase should you grow to love the coffee so much and fun branded merch if you become a superfan!
This Korean café has quickly become a neighborhood favorite in Ballard and while it’s more of a sit-down meal spot than a coffee shop, it’s too wonderful to leave off this list. Their Korean inspired brunch menu offers fun twists like chicken and waffles with gochujang sauce and kimchi, as well as kooky entrees like Fruity Pebble french toast. This spot will have Jeonju, Korea's culinary hotspot, proud!
Owner James Lim worked in specialty coffee for years before opening Watson’s (named for his dog!), thus amazing java is available in addition to the food menu. Order a mocha with your loco moco or pretend you’re in Europe and hangout at the modern espresso bar.
This is the place to come for a relaxing cup and/or meal, with hospitable staff that never makes you feel rushed and always welcomes dogs.
Central Cafe & Juice Bar
Location(s): Central District
This coffee shop was a dream for owner Bridgette Johnson and finally came to be in early 2020. Johnson’s goal is to provide quality, healthy alternatives to early morning commuters who otherwise have limited options. Thus opening bright-and-early at 5:30 every week day. She is also committed to preserving the historic 1920s Central District building, something more business owners in the city should take note of, especially in the quickly gentrifying Central District.
The menu consists of exceptional drip and espresso as well as fresh-pressed juices, smoothies and homemade pastries and sandwiches. In the short year Central Cafe has been open, many changes have been made, including holiday pre-orders of specialties like quiches, catering services and the addition of beer, wine and spirits, which can be enjoyed on the patio (available to be rented out).
The colorful shop is primarily geared towards “to go” patrons, on a quick break or commute, but the comfy couches and friendly atmosphere might just convince you to stay for a while. It’s rarely too loud and is perfect for a study or work session.
I hope this article has inspired you to visit one of the many wonderful coffee shops we have in Seattle. Of course no one will fault you for visiting the original Starbucks in Pike Place, but go, take your pic and then head over to somewhere a bit more special!