Blue State Coffee, Thayer Street

The Blue State Coffee motto, "Beans to an End", from a framed drawing on the wall of the Theyer Street branch in Providence.Providence’s Blue State Coffee on Thayer Street is a curious mix of old-school second-wave coffee shop with third-wave sensibilities. In that respect it’s very similar to Washington DC’s Compass Coffee, with both serving similar markets. They also both roast their own coffee, although unlike Compass Coffee, Theyer Street doesn’t have a roaster in the back. Blue State has also been around a lot longer, having first opened its doors in 2004.

Theyer Street was the original store, although these days Blue State is based in South Windsor, Connecticut, where all the coffee is roasted, and there are eight stores across three states (two in Providence, two in Boston and four in Connecticut). Theyer Street is a bright, spacious, sunny spot, offering a traditional, espresso-based menu, bulk-brew filter and pour-over. This is supported by loose-leaf tea, a good cake selection and an extensive sandwich, salad and all-day breakfast offering.

Not to be confused with the Blue State Coffee in the Brown University Bookshop (also on Thayer Street), this branch has a community coffee shop feel. Scarily, even though I felt twice the age of the average customer, the staff described the bookshop branch as the one that draws the college-kid crowd!

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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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Speckled Ax

A square with the motif of an axe buried head-first in a tree-trunk above the word COFFEESpeckled Ax joins fellow roasters-cum-coffee shops, Bard Coffee and Tandem Coffee Roasters, to form a small and vibrant specialty coffee scene in Portland (Maine). Speckled Ax started life as a roaster in 2007 (under the name “Matt’s Wood Roasted Organic Coffee”), with the coffee shop following five years later in 2012, prompting the name-change to “Speckled Ax”.

Situated on Congress Street, just west of the centre of Portland, Speckled Ax is long and thin, with the counter at the back and tables along either side. There’s a neat seating area in the window at the front, with benches clustered around a tree stump. This acts as a coffee table, instantly reminding me of the window-seating in Menagerie Coffee in Philadelphia.

Speckled Ax’s particular claim to fame is that it is one of just a handful of wood-fired coffee roasters in the USA (reminiscent of Witney’s Ue Coffee Roasters in the UK). Speckled Ax offers one or two single-origin espressos, plus decaf, in the shop through its Synesso espresso machine. There are usually three more single-origins available as filter, through the syphon, V60, Chemex or Aeropress, depending on your particular requirements. There’s also bulk-brew until 11am if you’re in a hurry.

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Tandem Coffee + Bakery

A dual-hopper Malhkonig Coffee Grinder with three bags of Tandem Coffee Roasters coffee in front of it, each with Tandem's logo of a stick-figure tandem bicycle.A highlight of last summer’s (brief) visit to Portland was Tandem Coffee Roasters, the roastery doubling as a lovely, intimate coffee bar. I was staying on the opposite side of town and Google Maps suggested I’d pass Tandem Coffee + Bakery on my way. So off I went, keeping an eye out for said bakery, only to walk right past without noticing!

My excuse? I, fool that I am, was looking for something bearing a vague resemblance to a bakery. Instead, I should have been keeping an eye out for something bearing a striking resemblance to a gas (petrol) station… Obviously. I discovered my mistake at the roastery, so on my way back, I paid more attention: there, right where Google Maps said it was, I discovered the bakery, occupying an old gas station.

Just as Tandem Cafe & Roastery’s a roastery with coffee bar attached, so Tandem Coffee + Bakery’s a bakery with coffee shop attached. And lovely outdoor seating. It doesn’t have quite the same range as the roastery, just a house-blend and single-origin on espresso, the same single-origin on Aeropress and another on bulk-brew. Being a bakery, there’s also multiple savoury and sweet things to feast upon.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Back to New England, 2016

A cappuccino in a classic, earthenware, tulip cup, sitting on a wooden window sill, bathed in sunlight.Welcome to the third and final part of the 2016 instalment of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. Part I saw me flying out to Newark and sauntering around New York for a couple of days before heading down to Philadelphia. Part II covered my time in Philadelphia, Washington DC and my brief return to New York as I swung back north.

Part III sees me back in New England, where I started my coast-to-coast trip in June last year. I had a day in Providence, which I first visited last year and, like Philadelphia, has a great, unsung coffee scene. From there it was on to Boston for the end of my trip, before flying home. As I did last June, I flew with British Airways, while all internal travel was on Amtrak, a great way to travel in the US if you’re not in any particular hurry.

Highlights of this leg of the trip were discovering more of Providence, which, as well as having an excellent coffee scene, is a lovely, historic city, and seeing Boston’s speciality coffee scene finally starting to take off with three really excellent places opening in Downtown Boston in the last 12 months.

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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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Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe Update

The tiling in front of the door at Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe: small, white, square tiles with the number "429" above "CHARLIE'S" spelt out in red and black tiles.Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, the quintessential family-run American diner, had been in the Manjourides family since it opened in 1927, serving the people of the South End from 429 Columbus Avenue. I discovered Charlie’s in 2003 and when, in recent years, I started to stay in the South End, it became my go-to breakfast place, dishing up my favourite staples of poached eggs, home fries and griddle cakes.

I wrote about Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in 2013, visiting again in 2014. However, towards the end of that year, I heard troubling rumours that Charlie’s had closed. It was only when I returned to Boston in June 2015 that I was able to confirm it for myself. I swung by in the vain hope that it would be open but it was well-and-truly shut, although deep inside I heard sounds of construction. Disappointed, I went on my way, ending up in the nearby Render Coffee.

However, when I returned this year, I was once again walking down to Render, and, instead of finding the empty shell of Charlie’s, or something new in its place, there was Charlie’s itself, looking superficially very much as it had year after year. Intrigued, I stepped inside.

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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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The Shop

The words "The Shop" painted in black on the window.I’ve saved potentially the best until last. To celebrate my return to Providence today, I present the last of the three Coffee Spots which I visited when I was last here in June 2015 (the other two being Coffee Exchange and Dave’s Coffee). Once again, I must thank my friend Allison for inviting me down and for being my guide for the day.

The Shop, as well as being a favourite of mine, is also very well-regarded. Throughout this trip, whenever I mentioned going to Providence and asked for recommendations, The Shop was on everyone’s lips.

It has a simple layout, serving a simple menu, the ubiquitous Hair Bender blend (plus decaf) on espresso, along with a single-origin and house-blend on the obligatory bulk-brewer, all from Stumptown. These are backed up with a small, but very impressive range of bread, cakes and pastries (sweet and savoury) from local bakeries.

What makes The Shop stand out from the crowd is the staff and the atmosphere they create. Friendly, welcoming, caring, passionate about the coffee, about the shop itself and about the community it serves, The Shop is a gem. And your coffee’s brought to you, which is how it should be.

February 2016: I don’t get the chance to do this very often, so I took it and visited The Shop on the day which I published its Coffee Spot. So, here I am, sitting in the window, melting in the early morning winter sun :-). For the record, I had some very crunchy and tasty toast for breakfast, plus an excellent cappuccino.

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Dave’s Coffee

The words "Dave's Coffee" in red on a white wall.Since I’m going to be back in Providence later on this week, I thought I really ought to publish the last of the places I visited during my trip to Providence last summer. Dave’s Coffee roasts all its own coffee, which it sells throughout Rhode Island and beyond, as well as serving in its two cafes. My friend Allison, who was responsible for inviting me down to Providence in the first place, took me to visit Dave’s on Main Street, Providence, which was the first stop on a mini-tour which included the venerable Coffee Exchange and The Shop.

Dave’s roasts a signature espresso blend, the interestingly-name “Blind Pig”, as well as a decaf, both of which are available through the bright orange Slayer espresso machine. Dave’s has the obligatory bulk brew (the Black Crow blend) as well as featuring two single-origins on pour-over, available through Chemex, Aeropress, Clever Dripper and French Press, although the Chemex is most heavily featured and hence most often requested. Plus, if you ask nicely, the staff will open up whatever single-origins they have in stock and make you a cup. If you’re feeling peckish, Dave’s also has a small, but interesting, selection of cake.

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