Editor’s Note: We are thrilled to feature our first guest writer on District of Coffee! We’ve been following Leandro for as long as we’ve been into DMV Coffee and he did not disappoint on this thorough coverage of Baltimore Coffee (honestly we’re thinking of submitting it to Lonely Planet – it is certainly travel guide worthy)! For more witty writing, perfected restaurant/dinner photos, and the best food finds in the DMV see @foodnomad on Instagram / Twitter and on his blog. Enjoy his myriad of pictures and tried and tested Charm City finds!
Lauren and Danielle at District of Coffee asked me to write about which four or five coffee shops I would recommend in Charm City, maybe even pick them close enough together for a coffee bang-bang. I’m far from a coffee expert but I have been to my fair share of coffee shops and coffee is an essential part of my life. So, if volume of consumption and an addiction count for anything then they’ve come to the right place.
Yet I couldn’t pick four or five because I see Baltimore in somewhat of a coffee transition/revolution. Huh? Patience, grasshopper, patience. I couldn’t pick just four or five shops because, to me, Baltimore has three types of coffee shops: The OG’s (Original Gangstas), Neighborhood Nooks, and New Coffee.
Just some parameters first. I limited the scope to places close (well, close enough) to work which is right downtown. I didn’t choose any national chains, and my go-to drink is a latte, so when I’m referring to coffee, I’m generally talking about a latte. Alright, let’s do this…
I’ve always thought of Baltimore as the biggest little small town in the country. It’s intimate, it seems like everyone knows each other or at least knows someone who knows you and yours, and it’s proud of all things Baltimore. That’s how I view the first set of coffee shops. They’re like the crab cakes of the group. They’re delicious, they’re not overly complicated and they are definitely proudly Baltimore. All these places serve no-frills, unabashed coffee that screams out “Hon!” They’ve also been around for a little bit and thus ingrained in the fabric of B’more.
The king of Old School is Cafe Latte’ Da in Fells Point with a small, narrow storefront a few blocks up from the water away from most of the foot traffic. The decor reminds you of a John Waters movie, and when you walk out with a signature pink cup, people will know where you got your joe.
Down by the water is The Daily Grind which continues to dole out classic coffee despite the gentrifying landscape. When you walk in here, the coffee shop opens up into an whole new cityscape reminiscent of an early 1900’s alleyway. The variety of ways they make coffee here is plentiful, so make sure you know what you want before you walk in.
Hopping over to Federal Hill, you’ll find Spoons Cafe & Coffee Roasters smack dab in the middle of Cross Street. Spoons has been serving morning-after cures for residents for a few years now and is one of the few places that serves matcha in the city. They also offer a pretty decadent menu full of comfort food classics.
Drive down Key Highway for a bit and Koba Cafe is another place that has become a Riverside neighborhood institution. They serve some great breakfast staples along with a super cup of coffee. The inside is eclectic and the vibe would make any Baltimore row house denizen proud.
The most famous of the OG’s may be Zeke’s Coffee which may power half the restaurants in Baltimore and has grown into DC and Pittsburgh. Their first cafe is a little northeast of downtown in a hip community called Lauraville. The baristas all seem to have some B’more kook and style. The coffee is strong and flavorful just as you’d expect from Baltimore, hon. Go early and be patient, the crowd doesn’t let up in this gem.
Did it for the Nooky
There’s probably some overlap with these next few coffee shops and the OG’s. But, to me, these shops are a bit more than a coffee shop. They fulfill a nook or a niche for their neighborhood or have an identity that is closely tied to their location or a particular theme. These shops are also a little bit more concerned about their coffee stylings and like to make their cup not only strong but also pretty. It’s a mix of old and new, but all of them definitely have formed a distinct identity.
Spro Coffee in Hampden starts us off on our trip through the nooks. Spro is a little sliver of a coffee shop right on the Avenue that is reflective of the hip, creative, intellectually curious identity that Hampden evokes. The team is diligent about finding the best beans around the world and building strong relationships with the farmers they source from, and they’re curious about the various ways coffee can be prepared and enjoyed.
Drive down 83 a bit and you’ll run into Park Cafe & Coffee Bar and On the Hill Cafe. Both are within a couple blocks of each other and serve the artsy community fostered by MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) nearby. Park seems like the more sophisticated and refined sibling as evidenced by it’s sublime coffee art and well-curated food. On the Hill is the more ebullient and blue collar member of the family with no frills coffee and hearty comfort food on its menu.
Just a little ways from them is Dovecote Cafe, located on a sleepy tree-lined residential street near Druid HIll Park. They don’t serve espresso drinks but serve some slamming Brewklyn coffee and some of the best homemade pastries in town. Dovecote celebrates the best of Baltimore’s African American heritage and every month it helps promote a local chef by letting them take over their kitchen.
Moving on down to Mount Vernon, you’ll find Baby’s On Fire, named after a Brian Eno song, that doubles as a record shop. They use Stumptown for their coffee and their pastry game is as strong as Dovecote’s. If roadies ever opened up a refined espresso cafe, this is what you’d get.
A little bit down Saint Paul’s is The Room which doubles as a coffee shop by day and a bar by night. The multi-colored ceiling will take your breath away while the coffee will keep you coming back. I love that the tables are also chess boards, and I’m a big fan of places that pour their coffee in clear mugs.
Down in Federal Hill is 3 Bean Coffee. If ever a coffee shop is reflective of its neighborhood, it’s 3 Bean. Beautiful exposed brick in an industrial space. It even has a refurbished farm door. 3 bean is right at the base (close enough!) of Federal Hill itself with a great view of the Inner Harbor. The coffee is from Counter Culture and the craftsmanship is spot on. It’s also my go-to place for a matcha latte, cold or hot. 3 Bean isn’t necessarily what Baltimore is right now but it sure is what Baltimore is becoming, at least in terms of food & caffeine.
The final stops in the great Baltimore Coffee Tour of 2016 are what I consider the new wave of curated, fancy, disciplined, and refined coffee shops hitting my hometown. These places are obsessed with all facets of detail in performing their craft. They make sure the aesthetics and flavors of their coffee drinks and food are impeccable and irresistible. The coffee is flavorful, the people are pretty, and the settings are sleek and styled.
The granddaddy of the neo-coff’s is Ceremony Coffee in Mount Vernon. This may be the largest of all coffee shops in Baltimore. It’s got a massive food prep and coffee bar area, and it even has it’s own cupping lab. Ceremony hails from Annapolis, MD, but has definitely staked out its claim in Baltimore with this beautiful bright sun-drenched space. They of course serve all the espresso staples that you love but also produce several creative coffee drinks from Shakeratos to Coffee Root Beer Floats. The staff is impressive in its meticulousness and the food is treated with the same kind of love.
Next on the list is Spike Gjerde’s foray into the coffee scene. Powered by Counter Culture, Artifact Coffee is housed in a old mill building in Woodberry on the Hampden side of the river (I don’t actually know it’s a mill, but I figure it’s safe to say since all the new places popping up in Baltimore are in old mill buildings). The space evokes warmth and comfort only found in all brick restyled industrial places, and the turntable playing old school vinyl classics doesn’t hurt. The coffee offerings are solid and the overall experience is totally worth the visit.
The baby of these coffee shops is Order&Chaos Coffee in Riverside right off of Key Highway. It’s just under a month old as of this writing, but already making waves with its unique beginnings. Order&Chaos was created as a coffee shop within the Planit Advertising Agency so it could provide some creative fuel for its workers. The space is as expected: sleek, hip, stylish, and tongue-in-cheek. The mugs with the shop’s logo already look like a collector’s item worth stealing…um…buying. The coffee is, surprisingly, reasonably priced, and it looks like this place is already a favorite for Baltimore coffee addicts.
I’ve been saying for a while now that Charm City’s food offerings have improved greatly in recent years; the coffee scene has undergone a similar transformation. There are still those old school shops that speak to the heart of Baltimore. We’ve got those coffee nooks that identify with more than just good coffee. Finally, there’s a new, sleek, modern wave of coffee shops that pride themselves on amazing aesthetics and refined coffee. Baltimore has come a long way in just my lifetime when it comes to coffee, and I’m stoked to see what comes next.
~ Food Nomad
(Writing and Photos by Food Nomad; Edited by District of Coffee)