The best I’ve ever had: A coffee-lover’s guide to getting caffeinated in New England
I’m a Coffee Person. Use the K-cups in the hotel? Um, no. Coffee from a rest stop? That’ll be the day. Dunkin’ Donuts every single day? Sorry, but no. Any time we travel anywhere, part of the fun for me is finding the best coffee. Let me tell you what buckles my knees.
First, the (coffee) ground rules: I’m not claiming to have ranked every coffee shop in New England. Second, I took atmosphere into account. I’m not going to send you to a shopping plaza near a nail salon no matter how good the joe. Lastly, while there are fantastic brews in Boston, this is a travel story, so I made my picks day-trips from the city. With that out of the way, let’s get caffeinated.
I’ll start with my favorite: The Coffee Exchange in Providence, an hour (or two) south of Boston. This place gets me salivating in the parking lot with its distinct aroma: rich coffee and burnt sugar. Inside you’re met with the scent of fresh-roasting, small-batch, fair-trade, organic coffees, locally-made pastries, and gourmet doughnuts. The cold brew is light, sweet as a nut. Add milk and it tastes exactly like coffee milk, even without sugar. Hot light brews are nutty and sweet, while the medium roasts are full-bodied, robust, earthy. There are bins of whole beans to buy by the pound, but I warn you: Do not lift the lid unless you’re ready to faint. Smells so good.
The atmosphere is plain inspiring: An eclectic, artistic bunch, heavy on Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University students and professors. You might see a fellow coffee-drinker reading Kant, another sketching with charcoals. Outside: a table of musicians with cases, an espresso-sipper with a pug at his feet. 207 Wickenden St., Providence. 401-273-1198, www.thecoffeeexchange.com.
Providence is a foodie city and a coffee hot spot. I could mention half a dozen more shops, but I’ll mention just two: At Dave’s Coffee, you’ll find flavorful house-roasts — Black Crow medium is almost spicy, light roasts I’ve had are smooth, sweet, on the bolder side; cold brew is full-bodied, a hint of chocolate — and a milky, mellow cortado among many options. The food selection is also solid — breakfast sandwiches with local prosciutto, sweet potato bowls with avocado mash and roasted jackfruit, build-your-own avocado toast. The pastry case is on-point for java-pairing. It is also ever-changing.
Another big college student hangout, Dave’s is always lively. We try to grab seats in “the way back,” as we call it, a little raised platform U-shape of benches. In warmer weather, we grab our order to-go and explore the riverfront. You’ll see swans, public art sculptures, and — yes — gondolas. A slice of Venice. 341 South Main St., Providence. 401-521-1973; 5193 Old Post Road, Charlestown, R.I. 401-322-0006, www.davescoffee.com.
At Bolt Coffee in the super-chic Dean Hotel, brews are on the richer side, with heavy notes of chocolate and flowers. My boyfriend loves the cortados here — strong, flavorful, carefully made. Bolt baristas are true coffee-heads — they can talk beans, water temp, chemistry. Meanwhile, the decor — the shop is inside the dog-friendly hotel’s lobby — is curated for a magazine shoot: passing pups, bold neon signs, stacks of newspapers and magazines, mirrors; a leather gymnastics pommel horse adds to the scene. Their other location offers a more extensive food menu and a brilliant atmosphere, as it’s inside the RISD Museum of Art. 122 Fountain St. and 224 Benefit St., Providence. 401-400-0459, www.boltcoffeecompany.com.
We go to Portsmouth, N.H. often, and I’m always excited to get to White Heron. They brew a few roasts at once. Medium roasts tend to be bright, smooth, sweet. The shop itself is finger-on-the-pulse chic. It feels like a West Coast coffee shop was dropped into New Hampshire. Airy, lots of white and wood grains, art, plus vinyl records, occasional live music, and an extensive, creative menu from huevos rancheros wrap with scrambled New Hampshire eggs, Vermont cheddar, and cilantro-pumpkinseed pesto to a hummus apple avocado wrap with sunflower seeds. 601 Islington. 603-294-0270, www.whiteherontea.com.
You can’t ask for a better view or a more whimsically decorated shop than waterfront Coastal Roasters in Tiverton, R.I. Buoys, stone sculptures, potted plants, a string of colored lights add to the creative coastal vibe, about an hour and a half south of Boston. Snag an Adirondack chair by the water, boat-watch, and enjoy an iced coffee (on the richer side) or hot cup (light brew is tangy, a bit nutty, very light). You might bring your bike — this is popular cyclist pit-stop, fuel includes peanut butter honey latte, artisan granola, lemon pistachio biscotti. 1791 Main Road. 401-624-2343, www.facebook.com/CoastalRoastersCoffee.
Bard Coffee in Portland, Maine, is a coffee-person’s coffee shop with a reputation as the place to get caffeinated in this foodie city. The true craft-coffee aficionados’ Instagram bio is “A story in every cup.” Roasts are aromatic, rich. Speciality drinks are thoughtfully made. (185 Middle St. 207-899-4788, www.bardcoffee.com. Oh, and it’s near the Holy Donut, gourmet doughnuts made from Maine potatoes — think maple bacon, or dark chocolate sea salt. Stop at both. 7 Exchange St. 207-775-7776; 194 Park Ave. 207-874-7774; and 398 Route 1 Scarborough, Maine. 207-303-0137, theholydonut.com.
At the quaint Gray’s Daily Grind in Westport, Mass., coffee is upbeat and perky, while the view is a soothing balm. The shop looks out at picturesque Gray’s Mill Pond. You’ll find cyclists breaking for iced coffees, tourists peeping in at the abutting historic Grist Mill. Grab an Adirondack by the pond and Zen out. Late summer afternoons, you might see dozens of big white egrets roosted in trees. Roasts are named after birds you’re apt to see — the Osprey light roast is light and lively; Two Geese is a rich medium with floral notes. Fare includes fresh pastries and doughnuts from two Rhode Island favorites: Olga’s Bakery and Knead Donuts. 638 Adamsville Road, Westport. 774-264-9669. www.graysdailygrind.com.
Burlington, Vt., has a few solid coffee shops. Last time, we stopped at Uncommon Grounds Coffee and Tea (802-865-6227. 42 Church St.) which I’d do again. Next time I’d add Onyx Tonics, which holds a reputation for thoughtfully roasted brews, and a consciousness of terroir. They also have a series called “Drinking Coffee Mindfully.” According to their Instagram, a recent lecture was led by Sojun John Godfrey, “who spent nine years as a Zen monk. . . . You’ll be guided through a series of mindfulness exercises while enjoying different coffees.” 126 College St. 802-777-2583, www.onyxtonics.com.
Also on my to-sip list: The artisan Coffee Pedaler in New Haven is known for thoughtful brews — and I want one of those cold brew growlers. 605 East St. 203-507-2959, www.facebook.com/thecoffeepedalernewhaven.
Finally, there’s Rock City Coffee Roastery and Rock City Cafe in Rockland, Maine. You can order coffee at both — signature blends include Fire on the Mountain and Darkstar — but the cafe has a full menu — recent soups include West African sweet potato and peanut, and cream of tomato with bacon — and beer. 252 Main and 316 Main. 207-594-4123, rock-city-coffee.myshopify.com.