It used to be that you just needed one hand to count all the truly outstanding coffee shops in Los Angeles. Now, thanks to a recent surge of brave coffee geeks-turned-entrepreneurs, you need both hands to tick off all the stellar shops in the city, and maybe that isn't quite enough. We decided it was about time to stack up all those newcomers against our old favorites to come up with our definitive list of the ten best coffee shops in L.A., period.
Before we start the countdown, a word on our criteria. As coffee shops often serve as third spaces, everyone has intensely personal definitions of what makes a great café, and we're no different. We looked for shops that elevate your typical café experience with quality coffee beans, a warm ambiance, and skilled baristas who could pull perfect shots just as readily as they could smile with sincerity. At the end of the day, whittling our list down to just these ten, then ranking them, was an agonizing -- but welcome -- problem to have. If your favorite neighborhood Central Perk didn't make the cut, rest assured that it probably was number 11. And we just couldn't turn this list up to 11.
10. Caffe Luxxe
Some say the Northern Italian-influenced Caffe Luxxe pulls the best espresso on the Westside, and with good reason: When pulled just right, the shots are thick and intense, drinkable on their own or excellent in a cappuccino. The shop formerly brewed beans from Seattle's famed Espresso Vivace, though it has since switched to its own custom roast. Remnants of the Emerald City still can be found on the menu in the form of the Cafe Nico, a shot of espresso infused with candied orange and cinnamon that also is found at Espresso Vivace's cafes. There are three Luxxe locations (two in Santa Monica and one in Brentwood), and all are coated in the same picket fence-white decor that gives the cafes a refined, definitely upscale feel. 925 Montana Ave. Santa Monica; 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles; 225 26th St., Santa Monica (at the Brentwood Country Mart). (310) 394-2222.
9. Tierra Mia
Tierra Mia's original location in South Gate brought so-called "third wave" coffee to the region when it opened in 2008, and it has since expanded to Huntington Park and Santa Fe Springs, with a third coming to Pico Rivera next year. The shop sources its beans from the farms that also supply Intelligentsia, and the coffee is roasted in-house at the Huntington Park location. And, yes, while these Gateway Cities may seem far, particularly for those Westsiders who believe that the world begins at the ocean and ends at the 405, a coffee lover surely would not regret hopping on the freeway on a weekend to try Tierra Mia's third wave take on the cubano con leche and Mexican mocha. 4914 Firestone Blvd., South Gate. (323) 563-3948; 6706 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park. (323) 589-2065; 11700 Telegraph Rd., Santa Fe Springs. (562) 864-2323.
"It ain't your 50-cent cup of coffee" was how a delighted but slightly overwhelmed Huell Howser described his experience at LAMILL on an episode of California's Gold. Indeed, LAMILL goes out of its way to upscale the café environment, billing itself as a "boutique coffee experience." And all three descriptors are on point: the decor is just plush, and at times bizarre, enough to look and feel boutique. Nearly every imaginable brewing method is offered here, and regardless of whether you have your coffee made in a siphon filter, a Chemex, or a better-than-French-press Eva Solo, it's excellent, particularly for those who like their cup bold. The food is an experience all its own. As is its very own gift shop right next door. 1636 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 663-4441.
Angel Orozco taught himself the messy logistics of roasting coffee, as well as the equally messy politics behind growing the crop, then applied the lessons he learned to his Cafecito Organico. Appropriately, Cafecito's coffee is earthy and complex, and sourced from farms that maintain sustainable practices. He started a few years ago with a simple coffee stand at a few local farmers markets; before too long, he had enough fans to open not one, but two, bona fide cafes around Los Feliz. The first location opened on Hoover Street and Bellevue Avenue in 2010; the second café on Heliotrope Drive quickly followed that same year. The Heliotrope location is our preference, as it's a bit more comfortable than the first and has the distinction of calling Scoops a neighbor. If you suddenly have a hankering for an affogato, follow in Orozco's footsteps and DIY. 534 N. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 537-8367; 710 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles. (213) 305-4484.
Spring for Coffee opened on 6th and Spring in Downtown in 2009 and brought much-needed relief to an area that then was limited to Starbucks and dreary office drip. Two years later, it continues to hold its own against the more spacious CoffeeBar barely a full block away. The well-versed and friendly baristas make coffee with beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and Blue Bottle Coffee. Nearby on Los Angeles Street, Spring's second location is the size of your dog's toy box, yet still manages successfully caffeinate the Fashion District. Because both locations don't have much elbow room, much less seating room, Spring for Coffee is ideal for those who wish to take their caffeine jolts to go. 548 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. (213) 228-0041; 817 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles. (213) 228-0041.
Sitting quietly on the corner of busy Main Street in Santa Monica, Espresso Cielo is a quaint coffee shop inflected with the type of austere greys and cerulean blues that make the perfect backdrop for the Canadian beans it brews. Specifically, Espresso Cielo is one of a few shops in the city to offer beans from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters in Vancouver, and the baristas are as consistent as they are sweet. The menu board is one of the more expansive that we've seen: for those looking for a piccolo latte -- sort of an Australian cortado -- this is where you'll find it. The shop also makes a fantastic cold brew. 3101 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 314 - 9999.
Everything at Balconi is engineered to ensure that you fully appreciate your cup of coffee. There is no wifi, for example, and the shop doesn't open until 10 a.m. because, as a barista explained, most people who take their coffee before 10 rarely have the time to appreciate their cup, so what's the point? If you do take the time to drink here, you'll see his point: each cup is brewed in a siphon filter and deserves the attention of all five of your senses. Indeed, you'll be asked if you would like to smell the beans before they're brewed, a question that is posed with so much genuine enthusiasm for what is about to happen that it negates any potential for pretension. After you acknowledge the aroma, the siphon fires, and then - magic. 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 906-0267.
Sometimes the music here can be too loud, but if the theme song to The Greatest American Hero is blaring from the speakers, is that so bad? Regardless, Commissary, with a minimalist industrial look that stops just short of cold and sterile, has excellent coffee whether you opt for a pourover or an espresso pulled from the lovely Strada machine. Beans are from Portland's fantastic Coava Coffee Roasters, as well as from Sightglass Coffee Roasters and Victrola Coffee Roasters. As if the coffee weren't enough, the shop recently revamped its pastry program so you can have your cake and eat it too. If the music does ultimately prove to be too loud, enjoy your coffee outside on what might be the best coffee shop patio in the city. 801 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 782-1465.
The great American dream, besides being retweeted by your favorite celebrity, is to avoid putting your fate in the hands of the fools on Wall Street and become your own boss. And Yeekai Lim has done what Willy Loman could not: the one-man band at Cognoscenti Coffee, he turned his passion for coffee into a career, starting out with just a makeshift cart and popping up wherever coffee called. Now at Proof Bakery in Atwater Village with the occasional pop-up around town, he still plays to his own tune. He reliably offers beans from Four Barrel, but if he finds another coffee he likes, he'll haul it in and share. His most recent import is Heart Coffee Roasters from Portland, and he also was one of the first to offer tastes of Handsome Coffee Roasters. On his days off, his handpicked substitutes easily rival some of the best baristas at Intelligentsia. In fact, a few former Intelligentsia baristas sometimes are the substitutes, turning this whole outfit into a coffee version of the Traveling Wilburys. And, well, it's all right. 3156 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 664-8633.
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Yes, deservedly or not, Intelligentsia often is the poster child for everything that is wrong about coffee snobs. And sometimes it does seem to take too long to make your cup of joe. Nonetheless, Intelligentsia remains the most reliable spot for a good, more often great, cup of coffee, any time of the day on any day of the week at any one of its three locations. What really catapults it to the top is its slow bar in its Venice shop, which is to baristas what the 20 percent rule is to Google engineers. With the company's full support and encouragement, baristas are given the chance to explore their coffee curiosities by curating their very own coffee menu and serving it for one week at the shop's back bar. Lest we forget, Google News and Google's nifty Sky Map have resulted from Google's 20 percent rule. Only time will tell what great innovations will percolate from this coffee lab. 3922 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 663-6173; 1331 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 399-1233; 55 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 578-1270.
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