Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Best and (not-so-much) worst coffee at downtown coffee shops

This is a little painful to write. Why? I love coffee shops. I like their personalities and the people who work in them. I love the smells of coffee and confections, the sounds of espresso machines and animated conversation. I love them when they are funky or modern, when the baristas are friendly older folks or younger ones with tattoos and piercings. It's more than the coffee, it's the whole experience. Throw in some excellent music and I'm helpless.

That said, I really like what I find in the downtown coffee scene. While the coffee at the restaurants is very spotty, the places devoted primarily to that most wonderful drink are excellent, with one unfortunate exception.

For the sake of this discussion, I didn't consider Starbucks in the Hilton. I think of it as in, but not of downtown. I'm delighted when I find one in a hotel when I'm traveling, but for this story, I didn't mention them. Higher Grounds got eliminated because as many times as I have tried, I can never catch them open. Do they really serve coffee there? Also, not downtown, but close is the Golden Roast, which has excellent coffee, but they are more of a UT spot.

Who knew there would ever be so many coffee shops in the entire county, let alone downtown, that you could eliminate some and still have a conversation?

Which brings us to the coffee houses in question: Coffee and Chocolate, Downtown Grind, Night Owl, Old City Java, and Remedy. Each has something to recommend them. All but one has very good coffee. Each gets extra points for various reasons. So, here are the reasons you should go to all but one of them, but at the end I'll man-up and say which, in my humble opinion, has the best coffee.

Coffee and Chocolate, Union Avenue, Knoxville
 Coffee and Chocolate has excellent coffee. The particular blend changes with the day and sometimes with the person brewing the coffee. The coffee is priced reasonably, but you are going to pay if you want some of their amazing chocolate. The chocolate is what sets them apart (secret: it's imported from the Chocolate Factory) and you can get it in a very large number of forms, but it is expensive. The seating is somewhat limited, but usually adequate. They have outdoor seating, but the sidewalk is small and most of the time people are parked uncomfortably close to the store. I wish Union Avenue would be closed to traffic from Gay to Locust, but I'm dreaming. Its location - around the corner from Market Square - is a big plus if that is the center of your downtown universe. The music played varies, but it is always good.

Downtown Grind, Gay Street, Knoxville
 Downtown Grind is an interesting case. It is housed in the Phoenix Building on the 400 block of Gay Street. It is paired with Prestige Cleaners. The employees often work both places and there is no separation, other than counters between the two businesses. My assumption would be that the coffee would be terrible. This could never work, right? Wrong. The coffee is very flavorful and the staff is very friendly. Cynthia Markert works there part-time and her art is on display. They sell confections, but I've had them so rarely, I can't evaluate them fairly. There is limited seating inside, but additional seating in the lobby and outside takes care of the traffic adequately and this is one of the best places among the four for people-watching, since it has a great view of Gay Street foot traffic. It's easy to forget that you are in a cleaner's, but if you have that dress or pair of pants that needs to be pressed, well, that's one-stop shopping. Strangely, if they have a website or Facebook page, I didn't see it.


Night Owl Cafe, Central Avenue, Old City, Knoxville
 Night Owl is, in my opinion, the only one to avoid. The coffee was sub-par. I'd say it tasted old when I visited. The place also smelled like cigarette smoke to me, which I thought was no longer legal in restaurants. No one present was smoking, but someone had been. I'm not a smoker and it really hurts the taste of what I'm eating or drinking if I have to smell that. I did enjoy the music which was sort of alternative and I like the chessboards on the window tables and the view from those. None of that, however, makes bad coffee worth drinking. In fairness, they did have a good many items on the menu, so maybe they are more of a late-night restaurant and I assumed incorrectly that the coffee was central.


Old City Java, Central Avenue, Old City
 Old City Java is the original downtown coffee house. Located at 109 S. Central, it has been an Old City institution for years. The coffee is strong, flavorful and fair-trade. The blend offered varies daily. The chairs and tables are worn and comfortable or shabby, depending on your perspective. There are two large rooms, so seating is rarely a problem. I say rarely because sometimes they host events - like the poetry slam I attended - that pack out the house. This is rare, however. If I had to give them a bit of a room-to-improve nudge, it would be in the speed of service. The last two times I've been there I've had to wait for probably ten minutes for my drink, even though the lines were short. I'm not sure if they are understaffed or if I've just been unlucky, but that is my experience. The confections were also pretty limited when I was there and were not extremely fresh. But, oh, the coffee!


Remedy, Jackson Street, Knoxville
 Remedy Coffee is on Jackson Street around the corner from Old City Java. That seemed like a foolish location to choose when they opened last year, but it appears to be working. The strangest thing about this coffee house is that it is operated by a church. Knoxville Life Church not only operates the coffee shop, but it is where they meet. All profits go to charitable organizations such has Habitat for Humanity. Normally, this would be enough to make me uncomfortable and I would definitely expect bad coffee. It turns out it is a very comfortable place. No one tried to convert me to anything. It is very comfortable, nicely appointed, Wi-fi enabled (as are all these establishments) and there is a book bank in which you can donate a book and take a book. It seems to me that JFG coffee used to do a similar thing just down the street. And here's the thing: the coffee I had was slow coming, but worth the wait. They can hang with anyone else in the taste competition. As a bonus, they also have Wendel Werner playing keyboard most weeks.

OK. I've delayed long enough. Here are my confessions: I like them all very much with the one exception. I could restrict myself to drinking any one of the other various offerings for the rest of my life and be happy. I go most often to Coffee and Chocolate because of convenience and I really love them, but I can't help it: Metropulse readers get this one right year after year, the best coffee is consistently Old City Java. It has a depth of flavor and a pleasing after-taste that can't be beaten.

Second best? All of the rest (except you-know-which-one). You can't go wrong with the coffee at any of them. I suspect different people would be more comfortable in one place or another, so find your favorite spot, enjoy a good cup of coffee and be grateful for this gift with which downtown Knoxville has not always been blessed.

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