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The Coffee Spot Guide to Boston and Cambridge

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, during a game between the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins on 3rd June 2015. Boston won, 6-3.Welcome to this, the third of my Coffee Spot Guides to USA cities. Boston was actually the first US city that I visited with my Coffee Spot hat on back in 2013. However, speciality coffee in Boston has been slow to take off and it’s only recently that a wave of new coffee shops have opened, particularly in the downtown area.

Boston is one of my favourite US cities to visit. It’s been described as the most European of US cities, with its non-grid pattern streets in the downtown area. It’s also one of the oldest US cities, with its historical core around Boston Common and the waterfront of the North End. When I first visited Boston in the late 1990s, an elevated highway, I93, cut through the middle of downtown, separating the waterfront from the rest of the city. Since then, a project known as the “Big Dig” has put I93 into a tunnel, completely regenerating the whole area and reconnecting the city to the waterfront. These days it’s a pleasure to go down there.

I tend to stay in the Back Bay/South End area, which explains the concentration of Coffee Spots in that area. With its rows of red-brick townhouses, this is the city of Boston on much more human scale and an ideal area to stroll around. A little further to the west is the Museum of Fine Art, one of my favourite museums/galleries.

As with all these Coffee Spot Guides, my Guide to Boston is not comprehensive, with new places opening all the time. In particular, I’ve only just started scratching the surface of the coffee scene across the Charles River in Cambridge and beyond.

For a different take on things, try this Coffee Guide to Boston by my friend Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato or this guide by Sprudge.


Header image: looking east from the top of the Prudential Building towards downtown Boston, with the John Hancock Tower in the foreground.


Coffee Spots

Berkeley Perk Café

The Berkeley Perk Cafe logo on a flag hanging outside the shopThe Berkley Perk Café is a well-established and well-loved coffee shop in Boston’s South End, having been around for 15 years. It offers a typical American-style coffee shop menu, with the usual espresso-based drinks, the obligatory flasks of filter coffee and a sideline in iced coffee. It has a small but tasty range of cakes and cookies, a decent breakfast menu of omelettes, bagels and egg sandwiches and an extensive range of reasonably-priced sandwiches for lunch.

In conversation with the owner I learned that the inspiration had been a trip to London 15 years ago, which led to a desire to create something with a different look-and-feel than the run-of-the-mill American coffee shop. Whatever the inspiration, the end result is a wonderful place, the lovely atmosphere making it close to the perfect place to drink coffee. Quiet but busy, with friendly but not intrusive staff and a bright and warm interior to draw you in, the Perk is the sort of place you could spend an entire afternoon and leave wandering where the time had gone.

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Caffé Vittoria

One of many such pieces in Caffe Vittoria on Hanover StreetCaffé Vittoria is something of Boston institution, or certainly a North End institution (the North End being the Italian part of town). It’s an old-fashioned Italian Café, with heritage dating back to 1929. Spread over three floors, with four seating areas, I’ve only ever visited during the day, when just the ground floor café is open. At night it becomes more of a bar than a café, although the menus stay the same throughout the day, serving coffee, drinks, pastries and ice-cream.

As a day-time café, it trades on my sense of nostalgia as much as anything else; waitress service, a menu that is delightfully concise and to the point, and all with certain air of opulence. A real touch of old Italian class. It helps that the coffee is reliably good and, being an old-fashioned Italian espresso man myself, it very much hits the spot. The pastries, by the way, are divine.

If you want something a little different from the typical American coffee shop, then Caffé Vittoria is the place to go. For me, no trip to Boston would be complete without popping in for an espresso.

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Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe

Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe sign hangs proudly over the sidewalk on Columbus AvenueCharlie’s Sandwich Shoppe is my go-to breakfast place in Boston. Although my first visit was in 2003, I’ve only been a regular since 2011 (if visiting at least once during my annual trip to Boston makes me a regular that is!), which is when I started staying in Boston's South End. Charlie's is the quintessential family-run American diner, although it's now in the hands of local chef, Evan Deluty. It’s so much a fixture of the neighbourhood that it’s even got its own Wikipedia page!

To the detriment of my waist-line, I’ve always been a fan of American breakfasts: fluffy, buttermilk griddle cakes, smothered in maple syrup; a plate full of eggs, fried potatoes with a couple of slices of toast; there are reasons why I put on half a stone whenever I go to America.

Charlie’s supplies these in abundance, along with bags of friendly atmosphere. It’s best experienced sitting on a bar-stool at the counter with a mug of coffee and enough food to last you for the day. There you can watch the regulars come and go, read the Boston Globe, or, increasingly these days, browse your smartphone or tablet. Not that Charlie’s has succumbed to the lure of wifi just yet...

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Dwelltime/barismo 364

The sign hanging outside dwelltime in Cambridge, although since my visit in June last year, it's changed its name to barismo 364.I visited Dwelltime in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not UK) on my coast-to-coast adventure in June last year and, since I’m now back in Boston, I thought it was high-time I published it! However, since my original visit, Dwelltime has renamed itself barismo 364 to better reflect its ownership (although I quite liked the name Dwelltime).

Dwell-barismo-364-time (henceforth barismo 364) opened in 2012 as the flagship coffee shop for local roaster barismo. It incorporates a full kitchen at the back of the store, where all the food is prepared and all the cakes, cookies, etc are baked. It also has a lovely island counter, which was all part of the fit-out when barismo took over the disused Hubley auction house on Broadway.

Barismo offers two options (during my visit, a blend and a single-origin) plus decaf on espresso, while there’s also a full filter-bar, offering a pair of single-origins through the V60. Unusually for an American coffee shop, there’s no bulk-brew filter (something it shares with Render Coffee). If you’re hungry, there’s an extensive lunch menu and a range of cakes, cookies and pastries. At weekends, there’s also a full brunch menu until 2.30 and a ban on laptops.

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Flour Bakery + Café, South End & Back Bay

The Flour Bakery + Cafe at 1595 Washington Avenue on a sunny morning in late February 2013Normally I write about a single place, but this post is about two branches of the Flour Bakery + Café chain. In all, Flour has four outlets, all in Boston and, on recommendation, I visited the Back Bay branch on Clarendon Street and the South End branch on Washington Street.

If ever there was a lesson that the physical space plays as big a role as any in whether I like a Coffee Spot, Flour is it. In terms of what’s on offer, both are very similar, the main difference being the space. There’s nothing wrong with the Back Bay branch: it just didn’t do it for me. On the other hand, the South End branch is exactly what I’m looking for in a café. It’s a smaller, more intimate space and, on the sunny day I was there, filled with warmth and light from the windows that go almost the whole way around the place.

What you’ll get from both branches is good coffee, breakfast, soup, made-to-order sandwiches and an outstanding selection of cakes. I only had time to try the coffee and cake, but if everything else is up to the same standard, then you’re in for a treat...

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George Howell, Boston Public Market

"George Howell Coffee" written in white on a wooden board, next to a silhouette of a coffee bean with George Howell's signature beneath it.George Howell is a something of a legend in American speciality coffee. He made his name as a roaster, but recently George, as his staff refer to him, has started opening coffee shops under the George Howell brand, starting in Newtonville in 2012. This, the subject of today’s Saturday Short, is the first branch in Boston, in the high-profile, newly-opened Boston Public Market, while a second Boston branch in the Godfrey Hotel on Washington Street opened this summer.

Boston Public Market is home to a high-quality espresso/coffee bar, catering primarily to the takeaway market, but with proper cups for espresso and glasses for cortados. It’s an impressive operation, with house-blend, single-farm and decaf on espresso, plus further single-farm coffees for the iced-coffee, bulk-brew (coffee of the week) and individual pour-overs, courtesy of twin Marco Beverage Systems SP9s. You can buy retail bags of coffee, plus various merchandising and coffee-related kit.

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George Howell, Godfrey Hotel

Detail from the wall of the George Howell Coffee Shop in the Godfrey Hotel in BostonFor a long time, downtown Boston was a desert when it came to speciality coffee. However, in the last couple of years, that’s all changed. For example, local roasters, Gracenote, moved in with an espresso bar near South Station, while this year, another personal favourite, Render Coffee, opened its second branch, Render Coffee 121, on Devonshire Street, around the corner from Japanese import, Ogawa Coffee. And then there’s George Howell, the American speciality coffee legend from Acton, whose coffee bar in the Boston Public Market opened  last year, joined in June by his latest venture, a coffee shop inside the Godfrey Hotel, on Washington Street in the heart of downtown Boston.

This is a busy, compact spot, at one level a typical, bustling mainstream coffee shop, but at the same time, a haven for the coffee geek, with a dedicated room, the Exploratorium, for retail sales and home to daily talks, events and masterclasses. The coffee stands up against the best, with the Alchemy Blend joined by a single-origin and decaf on espresso. There are a further four single-origins on pour-over (including one decaf), plus bulk-brew. Unusually for America, the usual cake is joined by a more substantial breakfast/lunch offering.

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Gracenote, Boston

A drawing of a musical note, over a drawing of a coffee cup, over the words "gracenote | COFFEE ROASTERS", all in various shades of red.I’ve been a fan of roasters, Gracenote, for a while, having first had its coffee at Boston’s delightful Render Coffee. Based in Berlin, Massachusetts, where it’s been roasting since 2012, Gracenote took a first step into serving its own coffee with a lovely coffee bar in downtown Boston, which opened in October 2015. During my most recent visit in February 2016, it was the place that everyone in the area (including Providence, Rhode Island) said I had to visit, and they weren’t wrong!

The coffee bar’s standing-room only, catering primarily for office workers from the area around Boston’s South Station. A lovely Modbar installation provides espresso, offering house-blend, a single-origin or decaf. There’s bulk-brew filter, cold-brew on tap and a choice of speciality tea. Naturally you can buy all of Gracenote’s coffee in retail bags, whole bean or ground-on-demand. If you’re hungry, there’s even a limited selection of sweet treats.

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L.A. Burdick, Back Bay

A cup of hot chocolate from L.A. Burdick's Back Bay branch in Boston.I first came across L.A. Burdick exactly three years ago after a tip-off from a friend in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not UK). I tried the branch there and loved it, but was a little put off by how busy it was. Even late on a weekday afternoon, I still had to wait 20 minutes for a table, such was its popularity!

On my trip to Boston a year ago, I learnt that there was a branch on Clarendon Street in Back Bay, around 10 minutes from my hotel. Although excited, I nevertheless approached it with some trepidation, expecting crowds. However, I needn’t have worried: it was an oasis of tranquillity in comparison. It might have helped that it was gone six o’clock on a freezing cold Tuesday evening, but I wasn’t complaining.

The main draw of L.A. Burdick is the hot chocolate and the Back Bay branch is no exception. However, there’s also coffee, tea and a range of cakes and pastries. And, of course, chocolate. L.A. Burdick is definitely at the luxury end of the chocolate market and both prices and décor reflect this, making L.A. Burdick one the more sumptuously-appointed cafés you’ll visit.

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L.A. Burdick, Harvard

The single-source chocolate options at L.A. Burdick in Harvard, chalked up on a board, complete with tasting notes.I first discovered L.A. Burdick in my pre-Coffee Spot days, after a recommendation by some Boston friends. It sounded so awesome that I had to seek it out when I was looking around Harvard. I must confess, I was not disappointed… When it came to starting the Coffee Spot, L.A. Burdick was one of the places I wanted to write about, but, of course, in traditional Coffee Spot style, I first visited L.A. Burdick’s New York City branch, plus the branch in Boston’s Back Bay, before finally getting around to a return visit to Harvard at the start of my coast-to-coast trip last summer.

As well as being the hot chocolate equivalent of a coffee shop, L.A. Burdick sells chocolate (and chocolates), the retail space usually being of equal size to the café part. There’s also tea, coffee and a wide range of sumptuous-looking cakes. However, for me, the whole purpose of coming to L.A. Burdick is to indulge in the amazing, rich and, above all, chocolaty hot chocolate.

Be warned: Harvard is smaller than the other two branches. You’ll often struggle to get a seat, having to wait for a one to become free before putting in your order.

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Ogawa Coffee Boston

The Ogawa Coffee logo from the sign outside the Boston branch on Milk Street.Ogawa Coffee is a large (40+ stores) speciality coffee shop chain from Kyoto. However, the branch on Milk Street, right in the heart of downtown Boston, is its first overseas venture, having opened in 2015. An interesting blend of Japanese and American coffee culture, I loved it, particularly the attention to detail shown by the baristas.

The shop itself is long and thin, with perhaps the highest ceilings I’ve seen in a coffee shop this year. About as wide as it is tall, Ogawa has a great sense of space. There’s a good choice of seating too, with tables at the front and what is called stadium seating at the back, opposite the counter. Best of all, you can sit at the counter itself and watch the filter coffee being made.

Talking of coffee, it’s all roasted in Kyoto and air-freighted to the shop on a regular basis. There is a house-blend and three single-origins, which can be had by any method (espresso or hand-pour filter). These are joined on espresso by decaf and guest single-origins which change every week or two. Perhaps best of all, Ogawa serves a tasting flight, where you get to sample all three single-origins side-by-side.

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Pavement Coffeehouse, Boylston

The Pavement Coffeehouse logoPavement Coffeehouse is a chain of four shops (six as of May 2015), all in the Back Bay area of Boston. I was fortunate enough to visit the original, which is at the western end of Boylston Street, just beyond the junction with Massachusetts Avenue. I really liked it, finding it a curious mix of American coffee shop (front) and European coffee house (back). The coffee, from Counter Culture, is excellent, the food is good and the staff friendly. I was there twice, once for morning coffee and once for lunch; both times it was packed!

You can tell that Pavement is serious about its coffee: there are two espressos on offer, a single-origin (Buziraguhindwa from Burundi), served straight, and a blend (Rustico; a mix of 70% Guatemala and 30% Ethiopia) to be served with milk. There is also the choice of two more single-origins (a Rwandan and a Bolivian) on filter (generally called “hand-poured” in the US) in this case made using the Clever dripper, something I don't see very often (the last time was at Bath's Colonna & Small's). The coffee options were rounded off with the obligatory drip-filter (bulk brew), another single-origin (Baroida from Papua New Guinea).

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Pavement Coffeehouse, Gainsborough

A plain white mug with the words "Pavement Coffeehouse" in black, The logo is completed by a drawing of an arm and hand holding a coffee mug, the arm bent to mimic the curve of the mug's handle.As much as I liked the original Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston, which I visited last year, in comparison, I adored the Gainsborough branch. Both are in Boston’s Back Bay and are, in fact, just ten minutes’ walk from each other, albeit on different branches of Boston’s Green Line. Along with the equally close Render Coffee, they make the neighbourhood a go-to area for great coffee.

All the Pavements serve Counter Culture coffee. At Gainsborough, different beans, which change every two months or so, are available on espresso, bulk-brew and hand-pour, plus there’s a decaf option too. During my visit, they were all single-origins: a Bolivian Nueva Llusta on both espresso & bulk-brew, with a Kenyan Muthonjo on Aeropress (there’s usually a Chemex option on hand-pour as well), while the decaf was Peruvian.

The food is similar to Boylston: bagels and lunch/breakfast sandwiches, plus salads and cake. However, in terms of layout and atmosphere, Gainsborough and Boylston are like chalk and cheese. While Boylston is long, thin and very hectic, Gainsborough is square (in shape) and much more relaxed. There’s probably not much to choose between the two in size, but Gainsborough feels bigger and is certainly more spacious.

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Render Coffee

The Render Coffee logo, from the sign outside. The words RENDER COFFEE above a line-drawing of an anvil.I think I’ve found a new favourite in Boston. Head a few blocks along Columbus Avenue past my favourite breakfast spot, Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, and you’ll find Render Coffee, just before the junction with Massachusetts Avenue. Ironically, I found it from the other direction, walking south along Mass Ave from Pavement Coffeehouse on Boylston. Although only 10 minutes from Pavement, the contrast couldn’t have been sharper, going from the busy Pavement to the relatively laid-back calm of Render. Quiet, but not empty, it was a relaxed and relaxing place to spend the afternoon.

Like Pavement, Render serves Counter Culture as both espresso and pour-over, along with guest coffees (both from Gracenote Coffee during my visits). One of the things I really liked is there’s no bulk-brew filter coffee. Instead, Render only offers hand-pour. There’s also an excellent selection of food and cake.

Long and thin seems to be a theme for Boston coffee shops and Render is no different in this respect. Accessed by a short flight of steps up from Columbus Avenue, you can sit right at the front and watch the traffic go by, or better still, sit at the back where there’s an excellent fireplace and conservatory!

February 2016: Render now uses Portland’s Tandem Coffee Roasters and the local Gracenote Coffee rather than Counter Culture.

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Render Coffee 121

The Render Coffee Logo, a coffee cup seen from above, painted on the window at 121 Devonshire Street in Boston.Not long after I left Boston on my previous trip in 2016, Render Coffee opened its second branch, continuing a recent theme of speciality coffee moving into the heart of downtown Boston. Just around the corner from downtown pioneers, Ogawa Coffee, you’ll find Render Coffee 121, appropriately enough, on 121 Devonshire Street.

The first thing to say is that this is a totally different space from the original Render on Columbus Avenue. It’s inside the CIC office building, serving as an in-house café as well as being open to the public. The space, in comparison to Columbus Avenue, is huge, with high ceilings and a broad frontage onto Devonshire Street. However, both are long and thin, although 121 is probably four to five times as wide as the Columbus Avenue branch, but goes just as far back.

Despite these differences, the coffee is just as good at 121. With offerings from Portland’s Tandem Coffee Roasters and the local Gracenote Coffee, you’ll often find the same coffee at both branches, but each manager has discretion to order what they like, so there may be differences. Unlike Columbus Avenue, there’s no breakfast/lunch menus, but you’ll find a similarly excellent selection of cake.

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South End Buttery

My cup of coffee surveys the bar at the back of the South End ButteryBoston’s South End Buttery is an excellent bakery/café that, until this visit, I had tabbed exclusively as a breakfast spot. Its breakfast offerings aren’t as extensive as some other establishments; mostly egg sandwiches on biscuit (American, not British) or bagel, with hot oatmeal as an alternative. I usually opt for the egg sandwich on a biscuit which never fails to satisfy while leaving space for lunch and dinner later in the day!

If you come for lunch there’s the usual range of sandwiches prepared while you wait and some tasty pastries to tempt you throughout the day. The South End Buttery changes a little in the evenings and at the weekends. Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 to 15:00, while the bar (see below) turns into restaurant from 17:30 onwards, staying open until 22:00 (23:00 Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays).

Since I’ve only ever been there on weekday mornings I can’t really comment on the merits or otherwise of it as a dinner/brunch spot. One day I’ll visit on the weekend and let you know!

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True Grounds

One of the many fine tables in True Grounds, with some of Maria Marx's paintings hanging on the wall above it.Some places I’m sold on when I walk in the door. Others take a little while to grow on me. Some never do and so don’t make it into the Coffee Spot. It’s fair to say that I was sold on True Grounds from the moment I saw it from across the street. I’m not sure why, but I’ve learnt over the years to trust my Coffee Spot radar: it rarely lets me down. So it was with True Grounds.

True Grounds is a neighbourhood coffee shop par excellence. It’s the sort of neighbourhood coffee shop that makes you want to move into the neighbourhood. It might be off the beaten track up in Somerville, north of Boston, but I’m glad that I went out of my way to pay it a visit. What makes it for me is the space, a bright, sunny, warm and welcoming place to drink my coffee, which was, by the way, excellent.

I might have been swayed by the bright, sunny day, but whatever it was, True Grounds made a lasting impression on me!

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Wired Puppy, Boston

Wired Puppy: Speciality Coffee and TeaWired Puppy has managed to become my favourite Boston Coffee Spot in a matter of days, which is pretty impressive. Even though I haven’t exhaustively tried the other options available in the city (I didn’t even manage to try all the options on Newbury Street, where Wired Puppy is located!) any challenger will have to go a long way to beat Wired Puppy.

The space might not be to everyone’s tastes (I loved it, by the way), but the real killer is the coffee, which is awesome. I had three espressos in Wired Puppy (out of four visits) and each one was perfect. They were easily the best espressos on the New England leg of my trip.

However, if espresso’s not to your taste, Wired Puppy has about 10 different beans/blends on offer, with a variety of brewing methods available. And if coffee’s not your thing, there are plenty of other drinks to tempt you.

Finally, the staff are really lovely too. Passionate, engaging and knowledgeable about their coffee, they go a long way to making Wired Puppy what it is.

February 2017: Wired Puppy has been taken over by Revelator from Alabama. I've not had a chance to go back since then, but you can see when my friend Bex made of it during her recent visit.

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Map

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