Quality Establishments // Phoenix, Ariz.
of Phoenix's many coffee shops, five of the finest
Last spring, I realized that I had Phoenix pegged all wrong. Tract homes with gravel lawns and circular freeways there are indeed, but there's so much more. There is great street art. There are cheap organic eats. There are historic Craftsman bungalows--also cheap! Best of all, there are friendly people...best met by staying up real, real late.
My friend Vincent took me to our friend Laurel's house for a dinner party. We didn't get there until after 10pm, and people were still eating. I assumed this was an anomaly of the artsy set Vincent and Laurel hang with. But the following day, an attendant at the Welcome Diner confirmed for us that the youngish in Phoenix party like they do in Argentina: late into the night. They congregate just as the sun goes down, on patios, under misters, or as we did at Laurel's, under a spreading palo verde that dropped papery flowers into our whiskey glasses.
But it was in a coffee shop where the coin really dropped for me. It was a Saturday morning that retained a clear chill, even with the sun blazing like high noon. The coffee shop we visited was dark as a grotto, lit only by the front wall open to the street. Cool air circulated with the unhurried movement of its cool patrons. It was the kind of morning that makes you expansive, revelatory, Hemingway-esque but also happy.
I came back to Phoenix a few months later. Which means July. Which was a bad idea. Here's a free tip: staying indoors will not protect you from dehydration. However much water you're drinking, it's not enough. You want to drink until you have a stomachache, and keep it at that level...then you're drinking enough and won't find yourself alternating between chronic fatigue and panic attacks.
Having said that, once my body chemistry righted itself, I fell readily into the downtown Phoenix summertime groove, in which coffee shops play a crucial role. After all, if you're treating 2am like it's 9pm, you're going to need an assist in the mornings, at least to get you through until your afternoon siesta.
Fortunately, along with its street art and groovy restaurants, Phoenix abounds in nifty little coffee shops where--surprise, again!--the baristas are generally quite friendly.
These are the ones I visited. I won't say they're the best, since I haven't been to the others. However, these are the ones where I was chaperoned by Laurel, who knows not only the best places but also most of the people that work at them.
Giant Coffee (1st and McDowell)
I'll start here, because this is where I fell in love with Phoenix. We drove from Vincent's suburban house twenty minutes down the 202, got off the 10 at 3rd Street, and cruised past the Craftsman neighborhoods, the farmers' market, and the fascinating public library that opens and closes its entire wall of windowshades like a diurnal flower would.
Giant is right on McDowell, but to get there, you have to take a right off Central Avenue into the CVS parking lot, or else make a quick left on McDowell, and follow a side street around a cancer survivors memorial.
Giant is a cool, concrete-walled cave set back into its building; the outward-facing wall, depending on the weather, is all open to the elements or else guarded by an accordion of glass panels.
The menu, drinks and food, has that spare-but-enough quality you find in European bistros. Their coffee is perfect, even the drip (as opposed to the pour-over). The chalkboard menu proudly announces their exclusivity to milk from Straus Family Creamery, which somehow makes you feel proud to be there.
They make a few breakfast things until 11am; the rest of the day, they have quiche, burritos, and a couple featured pastries. The people who work there are uniformly quiet and deferential--it's rumored that this is due to a heavy hand wielded by the management. I'm just grateful that, along with being tragically hip, they're at least friendly. The music is less so, depending on who is choosing it. I once sat through a six-hour marathon of Lana del Rey and Alt-J. That's the attendant risk of making a coffee shop your office. But the fresh flowers arranged by the barista and left on every table made up for it.
Cartel Coffee Lab (University, between Farmer and Ash)
Laurel's friend Harlan recently left working at Giant to become a roaster at the Cartel in Tempe, which they tell me is the best one. (There are three.) It's the only one I visited, so I can't draw comparison.
Like Giant, it is walled in concrete; it's much larger of a space, with an entire area in back devoted to booths and beer taps. The clientele is less diverse; pretty much all youngish, professional-ish cool kids. I drank oolong tea, since I was just starting to feel the flutter that would eventually become a dehydration attack. It was very good tea; indeed, if its taste hadn't convinced me, its unexpectedly high price would have. (Like so many places of its ilk, Cartel disdains to divulge its prices until after you've ordered.) But again--friendly baristas! Also, there's a huge light fixture made of a conglomeration of bicycle wheels. Also, they were playing Miles Davis.
For those to whom such things are of first importance, Cartel roasts their own coffee. Their conscientiousness on that score was the reason Laurel's friend Harlan gravitated there. I respect that, though I can't appreciate it as it deserves. Case in point: I was more affected by the cups they serve it in, which were the same patterned Corelle that my granny used.
Billing itself as a "coffee bar" is kind of a misnomer. It's more of a Third Wave World's Fair, a wonderland of the gustatorial handmade.
It was the only place we visited that boasted a standing line. But that was fine with me. It gave me a chance to people watch, browse the array of free promotional postcards, and jealously browse the cornucopial pastry case. Even if your sweet-tooth, like mine, doesn't kick in until mid-afternoon, the display at Lux is a feast for the eyes. Their display seems lifted straight from the set of a Martha Stewart photo shoot, layered and textural and strictly abiding by the Mae West mantra that too much of a good thing is marvelous. Meanwhile, the little elves who make these things are busy at work just behind the cashiers and taking drink orders--I watched one of them shake caster sugar onto a round brown cake, her eyes leveled in meditative focus, her fingers clotted with raisin-studded dough.
Lux in the afternoon--God help me.
Lux sizes its drinks a la européenne--by which I mean that a small is quite small. You'd be advised to spend the extra 25 cents for a drink you can actually drink. With an eye to maintaining my water balance, I ordered a chai latte. Even at Third Wave joints, it's hard to find one that's not made from a box. This one delivered. I'm no food writer, so I'll just say that it had everything in perfect proportion. I drank it slowly, and not just because the medium size is still pretty small.
Lux is a big place--the main room is L-shaped, paneled in thin horizontal slats, with thin horizontal windows bordering the low ceiling. There are big communal tables and tiny tables for two, flanked by bright turquoise parlor chairs. There's an alcove exclusive to migrant office workers--this room, inscrutably, was anchored by a large flatscreen TV broadcasting C-Span.
TV or not, I don't know that I'd go to Lux for work. The sensory load of food, drink, and people-watching is too seductive. The only reason we left was because they started playing Ryan Adams, and I don't like to cry in front of people.
Jobot (Roosevelt and 5th)
Moving right along to the other end of the style continuum...
If Lux is Manhattan, Jobot is Portland. Heavy on the mustaches, light on the social graces. The tables and chairs all have the battered look of a dollar bill that's been through the wash. The pastries are displayed, in utilitarian fashion, on a cooling rack wheeled out beside the counter.
I assume that the coffee is probably good, because hipsters care about this. On account of the air conditioning situation (there was none), I ordered an iced tea, accompanied by the low expectations that disappointing experience has cultivated around this order.
In fact, however, it was really strong--as in, I could taste tea in the water.
Jobot is one of several businesses that have been built into the derelict Craftsman bungalows on the formerly residential North 5th. The front porch is always fuller of people than the inside--probably because of that whole no-air-conditioning thing. The attendants here are more surly than other places in Phoenix, but it's kind of part of the show...and you get the feeling they know it.
They're also open 24 hours a day, so at any given moment, you'll find the lights on, and throngs gathered on the porch. Vincent tells me he has frequently sat there all night, just to watch the tableaux vivantes that routinely play out during hot summer nights among Phoenix's mad ones.
Songbird Coffee & Tea House (Roosevelt, between 2nd and 3rd)
Across the street and down the road from Jobot, in a white brick building blazoned with a mural of silhouetted birds, is Songbird. If you're truly desperately hot, this is the place to go. Songbird has an ethereal atmosphere, fostered by its spindly rebar furniture and strings of miniature light bulbs. Rusty iron and rough wood accents guard the territory from falling into frou-frou. It's airy, but warmly sun-illumined. No matter where you sit, you feel like a cat curled up in a window.
All the coffee is made by pour-over, the water jar has cucumbers floating in it, and the girls working there speak in an ASMR whisper that makes you feel as if someone is running their fingers through your hair.
The west wall is lined with books, whose variety alone is entertaining. (Passion and Purity next to Life, the Big Lebowski, and What Have You.) The music is played at a meditative volume; even at its jolliest (swinging pop standards from the 1960s, one afternoon), it's undistracting.
I'd venture that this is Phoenix's best café for study, reading, and journal time; I found it a little too pacific for getting work done.
For that, I'd probably go to Lola, another fine establishment of which, since their air conditioning was broken, I never formed an opinion.