An essay about the five best coffee shops in the United States by James Bonner

How to Savor: Exploring America's Top 5 Coffeehouses

I helped to open a Starbucks while in my early twenties, and although I haven’t been inside any one of the many Moby Dick-inspired namesakes in years, I’ll always say that the company did many things well; the few weeks of training program put all of us through was fantastic. I’m not sure if they still have their baristas go through as much training as we went through, I kind of doubt it, considering the twitchy green mermaid trained us to develop our coffee palate, and if you’ve ever tried their coffee with an experienced palate, well, it’s probably because you were on fire, they were the closest source for something wet, and a little bit got into your mouth. The fact that Starbucks trained their employees so well may likely be why it’s easy to find a great cup of coffee just about anywhere—except Starbucks.

I have had the good fortune of traveling to or living in several incredible places (within the States). One way that I will now measure a place—one way of many—is by the coffee houses. And there is no way around it, the best is simply the best. I won’t rate a place by their coffee alone, but also the atmosphere, other menu items, the people that work there, and the people that go there. A coffee shop is the best representation of a particular place because coffee houses are community centers; a place for extroverts to be around other extroverts, for introverts to watch extroverts; to be around people without the expectation of actually speaking to anyone, and to be around people so that you can talk to everyone, and for others to write about everything.

The top five coffeehouses in the U.S., in my experience, are as follows:


     5.) Black Rifle Coffee Company; Boerne, Texas

          Black Rifle Coffee Company is a veteran-founded coffee distributor that began roasting and selling bulk coffee online and overseas in 2014. Somewhere in Salt Lake City, Evan Hafer, one of the company’s founders, roasted the coffee beans in his garage. The company headquarters moved to San Antonio, Texas; Black Rifle Coffee Co. opened the first storefront in Boerne, Texas in 2019—a growing town just outside San Antonio, and in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. I grew up in Boerne, and although I initially left Texas in 2006, I moved back a decade later, and a couple of years before BRCC opened their store in Boerne. My favorite local coffeehouse at the time was Electric Coffee. Unfortunately, Clif (the owner of Electric Coffee) closed the coffee shop shortly after Black Rifle opened.

BRCC’s coffee is bold and daring, and the coffee took me aback the first time I tried it. The coffeehouse has been open for four years, and before I left Texas again, there was always a line almost out the door, regardless of the time of day. I was there pretty much daily. If able to find a seat, I would unpack my laptop and write, usually while sitting at one of the coffeehouse’s community tables, which is never a good idea for someone who makes an office out of a coffeehouse. Productivity falls when people recognize you. I live on the opposite side of the country and will often wear my BRCC T-shirt around. I have never seen so much support for coffee as I get every time I wear the shirt. “Best coffee in the world,” is something that I hear a lot. Black Rifle has become a huge distributor, you can find their canned coffee in convenience and grocery stores everywhere. I feel now like living in Boerne when BRCC opened its first storefront meant that I was a part of something.


     4.) Sunset Coffee; Sandy, Utah

          I can’t recall how I discovered Sunset Coffee. Most likely, I was working with someone at Barnes & Noble in Murray, Utah, that was more familiar with Salt Lake City than I was, and who knew I was a coffee shop junkie. Sunset Coffee is somewhat off the beaten path, and nowhere near anywhere that I would have ventured otherwise. Sandy, Utah is a suburb of Salt Lake City and rests roughly twenty minutes from Salt Lake’s downtown. Sunset is on Sandy’s northeast side, near the mountain, and located in a heavily residential area. The coffee at Sunset Coffee is pretty damn good, and notable on its own to make this list, but the things that I remember, even after fifteen years, are Sunset’s now-defunct Dragon Chai, and their famous Tiger Chai. Behind New Mexico's Annapurnas Chai, Sunset Coffee has the best Chai I’ve ever had.

I spent nearly two years living in Salt Lake City, and, at some point, I developed a singing pressure in my ears, and behind my eyes, that became a constant aggravation. Not long afterward, I moved to New York City, and the pressure eventually went away; I have been to Salt Lake twice since then, and the pressure always returns, and that’s fine with me because, besides the downtown Salt Lake City library and Sunset Coffee, there is no real reason to go back to Salt Lake City. Except the city does tend to be “on the way,” to many worthwhile places, which I suppose will at least give me a reason to stop by Sunset. The last time I was at the coffeehouse I discovered that they had expanded at some point over the last decade-and-a-half and have become the unsoiled destination for Salt Lake’s counterculture. I always felt like Sunset had a warm atmosphere, I think that’s even more true now.

I have spent hours, after hours, and well into the mornings, at Sunset Coffee, talking with the coffee shop's owner, Neil. We would talk about religion, people, behavior, politics, and anything an ending coffee pot at 3:00 AM might uncover. I have many fond memories there, with some great people, and that will stick with me for a lifetime. There is, of course, a nice view from the rear patio of the valley, especially around sunset.


     3.) Tru North; Livingston, Montana

          Tru North is located on Livingston's Main Street, in the first block downtown. The first time I walked in there I was working in Bozeman, twenty miles west of Livingston, and at the time I wasn't spending much time in Livingston. After one look around and skimming the menu, I thought, there might be a lot more to Livingston than I first thought. As it would turn out, there is a helluva lot more to Livingston than I first gathered. It was Tru North that would inspire me to challenge my first impression.

In the coffee house, there are two electric fireplaces, a couple of nooks, bay window seating, and a variety of tables scattered about, the atmosphere is exactly what you would expect from your typical coffeehouse. With that said, Tru North is by no means your typical coffeehouse. James, the owner, has a passion for coffee a passion for experimentation for both food and drink. Tru North serves some of the most delicious and creative foods you might ever see in a coffee shop. James, the alchemist he is, is not afraid to explore new ideas and concoctions and somehow every one of his ideas translates exceptionally well from his mind to the cup.

Tru North’s signature drink, The Cloud, James dreamt, the idea woke him, and at the earliest hours of the morning, and in the dead of winter, James raced his motorcycle to the coffeehouse to “Yesterday,” his way onto the national coffee scene. When I spend time there, I like to sit atop the platform, and in a chair by the bay window, the spot is comfortable and perfect for people-watching. One afternoon, I had ordered and was then sitting in the bay window sipping my coffee and reading on-and-off between people watching, and I happened to notice Michael Keaton sitting a few feet away. As he stood to leave, I made eye contact and waved, and Keaton smiled and waved back before leaving. You genuinely never really know who might stop by.

Tru North has a similar character to the Villa in Idaho Falls, Idaho, there’s a lot about that coffeehouse in Idaho that I like, and it very nearly made the cut on this list but I’m challenging myself today. I have made a bad habit of allowing a coffeehouse to be my office, spending hours upon hours at various coffee houses, writing. Tru North is the only coffeehouse that I can think of that I have made a habit of visiting, and I have still yet to bring work with me. I sit there, and I expect nothing out of myself. I just enjoy being there.


      2.) MUD Coffee; New York City, New York

          There is a small coffeehouse in Boerne, Texas, called The Daily Grind, the coffee wasn’t particularly notable, it was average at best, and the atmosphere was fairly lacking. The Daily Grind was built into an alley between two antique shops, and despite what the coffeehouse lacked in flavor and decor the place was still romantic as hell. It was the Daily Grind that would inspire my love and intrigue for not just coffee but for coffeehouses. It was MUD Coffee (a.k.a. MudSpot, for some reason), that would help transition that love into a deeply rooted part of my personality.

I was aimlessly wandering around the Village in New York City one day, walking down streets at random, and I happened upon MUD Coffee. The storefront was too cool not to go inside, and a coffee shop in the Village was impossible to ignore. It was a tight squeeze walking past a full bar of people with their backs to me and, with the wall quickly encroaching from my other shoulder, I started to feel almost claustrophobic, still, I made my way past the bar and toward the counter to order. I was hoping a seat would open up either at the bar or along the window, while they made my coffee; in the meantime, I started exploring a bit, wandering off into hallways and through door frames, and I discovered an entryway to an unexpected back room; knowing there was no available seating outside or in the front—and after grabbing my coffee—I wandered through the hallways and into a room lit by a large skylight that made for nearly the room’s entire ceiling, there were tables arranged imperfectly along the walls, and some bench seating. I was able to find a single open seat at a table. I sat there for a minute taking the experience in and making sure I was conscious of the fact that I was drinking coffee under a skylight in a coffeehouse in the Village in New York City, it's just one of those things - Isn't it?

I sipped my coffee and started reading a book by David Foster Wallace that I had on me while starting to feel the uncomfortable pull of attraction toward a woman sitting at a table on the other side of the room. I had to refocus on my reading a couple of times, as my attention drifted toward her, but I continued to remind myself to focus on my book because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to read to enjoy my coffee and to enjoy this new coffeehouse that I had discovered.

The experience was very memorable, the coffee was great, and MUD had a cool, albeit relatively exclusive atmosphere. I didn’t live particularly close to MUD Coffee, and as much as I liked the Village, I didn’t spend as much time there as I should have. Nevertheless, every time that I was in the Village, I did manage to find myself at MUD Coffee. Sometimes I would be there, hopefully sitting along the front window, although not always able to find a seat, and if I couldn't, I would walk the few blocks to Washington Square Park and find a seat by the relatively new park fountain, and sip my coffee, and listen to buskers. Living in New York doesn’t get much more romantic than that.


     1.) Iconik Coffee; Santa Fe, New Mexico

          Someone dragged me to Iconik Coffee for the first time one late morning after I had already been living in Santa Fe for nearly a year. We had been driving further south on Cerrillos than I usually prefer to be, once you’ve passed the Pantry you’ve “gone too far,” (these days, with Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return being on the south side of town, that impression isn’t quite as true), and we were quickly approaching the Pantry. We turned off onto 2nd Street, and then onto a dead-end street with warehouses and multi-use office buildings, and, nope, I didn’t like this area, not one bit. We’re on the way to nowhere, who the hell puts a coffeehouse here? And suddenly, just as if the sun were returning after being concealed by a heavy cloud, there on my right was this large, warehouse-esque building with a small garden in the front that had patio chairs and tables scattered throughout, and people, a fair number of people, sitting around leisurely. We followed the road around, and to the right, and parked in a packed lot, only able to find a space because someone happened to be leaving. We walked through the back doors, and into Iconik Coffee Roasters.

Iconik coffee can be coffee on the go, you know, for that person who doesn’t quite understand coffee but engages with it in the same way they might a stapler or a copy machine. The coffee can be that, of course, because it’s coffee. However, this is not at all what Iconik coffee should be. Iconik coffee is the type of coffee that you cup gently between the palms of your hands, or with your thumb, fore, and middle fingers glued to the handle of your mug, or as a small ring gathers at the base of your mug while you spin it against the grain of the wood of your patio table next to your patio swing after the sun has come up, and the first tingle of the day's warmth begins to replace the damp cold of night. Iconik coffee doesn’t get you ready for the day, it’s a reminder of why you’re getting ready for the day, slowing you down and inspiring you to live in the moment while also giving you a slight edge.

As we walked into Iconik Coffee, immediately to our right was the biggest f$&king drum roaster that I’d ever seen in person. I thought it was a cool prop. I mean, it is a real drum roaster, but I never would have imagined that they would use it. I scanned the room, taking everything in, as we established our place in line. I stood there browsing the menu for a while, I had plenty of time to look the whole menu over, a couple of times over, to decide on what I wanted, and then continue to browse, consider changing my mind, and then settle with my first instinct. The point that I’m getting at is that we waited there in line for a while because the baristas took a vested interest in the coffee-making process, this wasn’t Starbucks. Making coffee the right way takes some time, and that’s never been truer than at Iconik.

Standing in line, nearing the counter, from behind me I heard a jolt, like a gear waking up, and then a faint, but consistent rumble, and within a couple of minutes the aroma of coffee began exploring the room, it was slight at first, but the aroma quickly inherited the open space. The owner was roasting the cherries (the coffee beans), in the expensive prop behind us. I ordered an Ethiopian pour-over (the Ethiopian would become my go-to drink, although I would work my way through the menu), and after retrieving our coffee we sat in the garden out front. The first sip I took, sitting there on an uncomfortable outdoor metal chair, I was awake, but I didn’t mean that I was energized, it was more enlightening. I became “woke,” as they say. My sinuses cleared up, my cavities went away, and I no longer needed my glasses; I was renewed. The coffee at Iconik Coffee is the best coffee that I have ever had, despite its magical properties. I will order a pound of their coffee beans online and have them shipped to me; Iconik Coffee is the only coffee that I have ever ordered online (and one of only a small handful of things I have ever even bought online).

          The idea and engagement that coffeehouses provide for their community, beyond drinking coffee, is profound. I have a bittersweet relationship with coffee, I can’t drink too much, and the older I get the more an 8oz cup of coffee is, not only ideal but also pretty much all that my body can handle. When I spend time at a coffeehouse—I think it’s true enough to say that when most people spend time at a coffeehouse—it’s more about the story we’re telling ourselves of the experience than it is about the coffee (unless it’s Iconik), and that’s because the experience is romantic; when we’re there we tend to create a character of ourselves that is outside of our day-to-day lives, and we’ll live for a little while inside the fantasy. It’s fascinating to me that we continue to choose this particular setting, a coffeehouse. Whether you’re in the area or not, you’re bored and want to drive cross country to challenge my idea of the perfect coffeehouse, make a destination of these five coffee houses, and share your list with me.

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