The first few months of this year have seen a raft of new cafés open all across town. Like any good citizen consumer, I recently decided to try a few of them. It’s very strange, bouncing from café to café—as dumb as it always sounded in my long-ago stint as a Starbucks employee, the café is truly unlike a bar or restaurant in just how much more comfortable you become there.
Also in these first months of the year, the café near my office, which I’d visited three to six times a week for years, changed hands and switched coffee suppliers from a local roaster to a neighboring-state coffee that will remain nameless.
To be clear, this had been my café not just because it was a two-minute walk from the office, but because it was good: excellent pastries, good enough coffee, art that (usually) didn’t make me hate myself. There are other coffee options nearby—I snobbishly hate them all.
It’s not exactly that I’ve been auditioning new cafés that could become my regular coffee haunt: None of these is actually close enough to my home or workplace to quite fill that hole in my life. (It appears that for now I’ll have to brew my own coffee at work. Condolences may be sent to the Mercury office.)
But it did feel a bit like speed dating. It has to do with how intimately comfortable you can imagine being in a place. People at their cafés will open their laptops and basically broadcast private communications to anyone with a wandering eye. They’ll lounge on old couches, bobbing their heads with headphones on. When you go to a café, the question you’re asking is “Could I one day come to this place in slippers?”
It’s still kind of surprising to walk into a place and feel comfy and welcome. Sometimes it’s just opening a door to the smell of baking bread. Phillipe’s Bread, a bakery and café next to XLB on North Williams, recently became Dos Hermanos Bakery. (It’s still a fairly large bread operation; chances are you’ve eaten their bread if you’ve been to a restaurant in the last few months.) No, there aren’t couches, and maybe not even enough seats to justify calling it a café, but the food is just so satisfying that it feels homey nonetheless. You can’t go wrong with a simple breakfast sandwich on a biscuit or an English muffin, but don’t miss the treats you won’t find elsewhere on this street, like a Yucatán-style hojaldra—ham, cheese, and jalapeño sandwiched between sugary, flaky pastries.
Another fairly new purveyor of immediate aromatic bliss is Kitchen Sink Food and Drink, the storefront café for Kitchen Sink Foods catering. The East Burnside café specializes in hand pies and breakfast sandwiches of the two-handed eating variety (though smaller treats, like a recent Pop Tart-ish rhubarb and goat cheese pastry, are available). A cardinal rule of mine is to have nothing too messy for breakfast, which typically disqualifies breakfast sandwiches with cream cheese—too much sliding around. For the cheddar- and caramelized onion-studded cream cheese on the Kitchen Sink bacon sandwich, I will make an exception to that rule. The hand pies are perhaps less exciting to look at (although, they are beautifully browned and crispy), but cut them open and it’s the same surprising details that set them apart: citrus za’atar goat cheese in the BFG beet one, or the perfectly cooked chicken pot pie option. Again, this isn’t a living room, but whether it’s the hearthlike warmth and smell of crisping crust, or the low-ceilinged coziness, Kitchen Sink manages to feel welcoming. (Nobody was wearing pajamas, but there were people working on laptops.)
Another niche caterer-cum-café is over on Northeast 42nd, where Rawdacious Desserts (of actually delicious vegan cheesecake fame) has opened Tiny Moreso, a quietly kickass vegan feminist café, complete with a menu full of smoothies and juice blends with names like Gloria, Eleanor, RGB, and Bell. The Bell, by the way, is awesome: a lush purple smoothie with marionberries, bananas, and greens from the earth and ocean, it’s a wake-up call in a mason jar. Oh, and they’re all in mason jars: it’s the only to-go option and it requires a two-dollar deposit. It’s part of the cuddly activist vibe that turns a pretty basic, new-Portland bare rectangle of a space into something uniquely Rawdacious. (A hip teal midcentury couch helps, too.)
Like Tiny Moreso, which stays open until 8 pm, a new all-day café toward the other end of 42nd, COFFEE BEER, serves an otherwise underserved swath of Southeast Portland and leans even harder on the evening crowd. Open till 10 and pouring four draft beers as well as Junior’s Coffee, COFFEE BEER is stylized in all caps but doesn’t feel like a shouty place. Instead, it’s a very consciously branded pins-and-mugs-and-koozies company (it’s honestly hard to tell if they’re a coffee and beer company or a coffee and beer merchandise company). And yet, it’s one of the most easygoing, friendly spaces for either a coffee or a beer that I’ve been to in a long time. There are a lot of vegan snacks from the likes of Snackrilege and Shoofly, but ultimately the only thing these folks are doing in-house is all that merch. And at this late hour in capitalism, I’m genuinely confused about whether it’s a perfectly humane synthesis of service, makerism, and community, or a deeply embedded retail machine. Either way, I bought a lot of pins, drank some beers, and will happily do it all again.
Of course, cafés are for coffee, and when that’s the goal, you can’t get much better than Prince Coffee. The tiny Kenton spot opened with the perfect blend of seriousness about the product, just-twee-enough design (narwhals!), and simplicity of concept—it of course helped that that concept was great coffee and homemade stroopwafels, just as the stroopwafel became an unlikely darling of the coffee scene. Now with a second, bigger, busier space on Northeast Fremont, Prince Coffee is still churning out stroopwafels and coffee from around here (Heart and Roseline) and around-here-via-Australia (Proud Mary), but also featuring mini-popups like a recent series with Gracie’s Apizza (stroopwafel breakfast sandwich!), so hopefully this is just the beginning of Prince Coffee’s empire.
Meanwhile, the unGoogle-able Good Coffee is opening another location in Northwest, and Either/Or is putting its significant stamp on North Portland with a soon-to-open Williams location. And yet it doesn’t feel like a race to see which third-wave coffee shop can break onto the national scene—none of these new cafés feel quite close enough to corporate. I may not have found my new everyday café on this speed-dating jaunt, but it’s good to know that there are still these hubs in every neighborhood, that people still have somewhere to go in their slippers and pajamas, to sing softly under their breath to Katy Perry in their earbuds, and to eat and drink well.