You’re always a short walk from good coffee vibes on South Congress Avenue.
East Austin favorite Bennu Coffee has taken over the slot occupied for years by social-justice-driven Dominican Joe. Good news: Bennu, which also pledges fair trade, local vendors, reduced waste and philanthropy, has given the L-shaped space a needed shot of energy. Open 24 hours, Bennu added seating indoors and outdoors without forcing a feeling of overcrowding. Despite the larger and younger crowd, the place — wonder of wonders! — is not all that loud. Lots of laptoppers, but also friends visiting in a leisurely way. The owners have simplified the decor and the drink menu, too, now divided into Hot, Cold and Smoothies categories. The food choices, on the other hand, have expanded to include more sandwiches and pastries. The heart of the place, however, hasn’t changed: The inviting counter and coffee stations operate quickly, efficiently and gracefully. My barista, for instance, didn’t shut down my preliminary decaf order, as so often happens at other shops, but rather emphasized the superiority of decaf Americano. Thank you! And mine was, in fact, superior.
Jo’s Coffee. 1300 South Congress Ave. 512-444-3800. joscoffee.com. Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking only. Good, free Wi-Fi. Decaf (Americano), tea, chai. All open-air seating competes with street sounds.
In 1999, this spot revolutionized the delivery of coffee, the design of shops, and even the flow of street life, not just on South Congress but all over Austin. Overnight, a simple green and red box was planted on the corner of the avenue and West James Street, and — this is key — right at the sidewalk line. One ordered through a walk-side window; the seating was open air and shaded, much of it facing foot, bike and auto traffic. Instantly, street life became theater for those who stopped for espresso and other coffee drinks, then a growing array pastries, tacos, chips, waters, teas, sandwiches and, for a while, beer. The last one was huge because alcohol laws had always forbidden anything that looked like open beverage take-out service. (It has since disappeared from the menu.) The coffee has always been good, even if it has been bested by a few specialists around town. Nothing can take away from the location, though, enfolded in the bosom of the Hotel San Jose and its adjacent social and entertainment events. Jo’s didn’t invent SoCo, but it is impossible to think of the city’s charismatic tourist attraction without it. Despite its popularity, there’s almost always an empty seat, subject to the weather.
Mañana Coffee & Juice. 1603 S. Congress Ave. 512-872-3144. mananaaustin.com. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Free underground parking. Strong, free WiFi. Decaf, tea, chai. Quiet inside and out.
One of the last pieces in the South Congress Hotel puzzle is in place. Conceived by the New Waterloo group, Mañana Coffee & Juice slips into a narrow spot behind the urban dining magnet Central Standard. You can enter this light, trim space from East Monroe Street, or from the hotel’s courtyard, where spillover tables invite guests to linger on clement days. Many of the interior seats line long counters rather than tables, and so attract solo typists more so than folks chatting. The coffee drinks — made by alert baristas — are potent and the beans come from Cuvée Coffee, while the teas are drawn from Kusmi Tea. A rare offering for an Austin coffeehouse: cold-pressed juices, along with milks, plus fruits and veggies overseen by chef Michael Paley. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman makes the quite fresh baked goods and snacks. These days, our downtown hotels rely on in-house Starbucks outlets, but that won’t do on idiosyncratic South Congress, where almost none of the businesses hail from out of town. Despite the lack of venues to rendezvous inside Mañana and the oddly uncomfortable stools at the bar, it’s likely to become a regular haunt.
Sage Cafe. 2810 South Congress Ave. 512-916-8804. manray30.wixsite.com/sage-cafe. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Free parking at Great Outdoors. Decaf, tea, chai. Free wifi with password. Quiet inside and outside.
Formerly Garden District Coffee, then Sage Coffee, this nature-loving spot is now called Sage Cafe. And for good reason, since the small outfit on the grounds of the Great Outdoors nursery offers a lot of food and drink. The outer terrace is swathed in green, cooled by deep shade on most days. Inside, which fills up quickly, old furniture is grouped into a few meeting or reading areas. One orders at a short counter from a multitude of offerings that include frappes, kombucha, protein drinks, cold-brewed and espresso-based drinks. Compared to the rest of the interior, the kitchen looks pretty spacious. What was this building in past eras? Its bones look like something out of the 1930s road culture. Nowadays, it’s as laid-back as possible for St. Edward’s University students from across the avenue and shoppers at the Great Outdoors. It should be remembered that, before the city of Austin improved the streetscape from Oltorf Street more more or less to Ben White Boulevard a decade or so ago, this stretch would not have a convivial location for a coffee shop or a cafe.
TOMS Austin. 1401 South Congress Ave. 512-350-2115. toms.com. 8 a.m.-8 p.m Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.. Street parking only. Decaf (Americano), no tea or chai. Email entry required for Wi-Fi. Muted music inside and not too loud outside.
Don’t know what it is about coffee and philanthropy, but they seem to go together. In 2014, charming Blake Mycoskie — briefly a citizen of our city — followed up his famous “One for One” shoe-and-eyewear charities with roasted coffee which helps pay for clean water projects. Showcased during SXSW that year, Mycoskie transformed a century-plus-old home on a rise at South Congress and East Gibson Street into a chic retreat, with oversized porch swings, lounge furniture, fireplaces, sheltering oaks and landscaping front and back. Two shopping niches offer the shoes and eyeglasses, while laptoppers congregate in an oddly arranged area to the back. Coffee comes by way of drip, cold, pour-over and espresso. A limited number of other beverages have been added, but there’s still a minimalist feel to the place. Good fit for the SoCo scene, with just enough local authenticity. Sometimes, little parties gather in the back, but the interior spaces, painted in playful colors, are hushed. One thing: It’s not as legible from the street as a coffee shop as, say, Jo’s down the hill. But it is cleanly branded as TOMS.
UPDATED: Apanas has closed on South Congress.
OUR ORIGINAL 2007 STORY.