If you toddling along North Lamar Boulevard, you’ve got a few choices for a coffee break and all that goes with it.
Houndstooth. 4200 N. Lamar Blvd. houndstoothcoffee.com. Open 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat., 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun. Parking in a lot to the north, but limited. Good WiFi. Teas and chai. Decaf. Burbling music. Some seating outside on a terrace, but not ideal in the a.m.
This place might produce the very best coffee drinks in town. Their menu is actually pretty lean. Brewed coffee and espresso drinks. Teas and chai. Some pastries and nutrition bars. Bagged coffee beans and paraphernalia. This, the original location, is located in a upscale strip center underneath an office building that includes a Taco Deli and — nearby — Uchiko, two Austin faves. Several small tables wait outside, shaded a bit by a canopy. Inside are long and short tables with lots of customers at almost any time. In fact, it’s sometimes a chore to land a seat. Blonde wood, black modernist chairs, light brick and paint conspire to give the spot a streamlined feel at odds with the its tweedy name. Hipsters, students and folks in business drag sip shoulder to shoulder and can it get a little loud inside during peak traffic. I don’t know the secret for their great coffee, but I promise to keep asking.
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“Were you surprised by my simple order?” I asked the barista after several previous customers required elaborate help. I ordered a small decaf. “No,” he said. “I can’t hear you over this loud music.” He’s right: The music in Whole Foods food service area discourages conversation. The coffee bar is located to the right of the northwest entrance at a long, curved counter shared with the hopping juice bar. Despite the dozens of tables outside and in, it’s sometimes hard to find a place to sit. Brewed coffee? It’s behind you at a self-service counter. (Small decaf: $2. A deal!) Espresso drinks are constructed farther down the counter. Food? Are you kidding? It’s everywhere at the WF mother ship, recently acquired by tech giant Amazon. Nutrition bars are right there at the counter, but several usually packed cafes and a few acres of fresh and packaged food can be found down the busy aisles. Who is here? Who’s not? I recognized a couple of celebrities mixed in among folks in every manner of casual and business clothing.
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Caffe Medici. 1101 West Lynn. caffemedici.com. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 6;30 a.m.-10 pm. Sat-Sun. Limited and clearly marked onsite parking, some side street parking. WiFi pops right up. Decaf Americano, teas and chai. Unobtrusive music. Many quiet work and chat spots.
My most recent visit to this old haunt might be the only time in coffee shop history when a barista referred to a ham and cheese croissant as “this bad boy right here.” One of the enduring charms of the Caffe Medici group, besides excellent espresso drinks, hearty pastries and snacks, and classy, but casual scenery, is the freedom it allows its baristas to lend the place some character. The crowd at this original location on the border between Clarksville and Old West Austin varies with the time and the day of the week and its long hours allow for the ebb and flow of types. Of course, neighbors make up a fair share of the mix and on lovely days they tend to gather out front on two levels of seating. Inside the U-shaped main room, dark woods and better-than-average local hanging art set the tone. It’s hard to imagine what the original house looked like, since everything has been reimagined, but the place retains a sense of its surroundings which go back to the 19th century. At peak times, it might be hard to nab a good table, but the place — which is as close to North Lamar as it is to any other major thoroughfare — has never lost its authentic spell.
Starbucks. 4440 N. Lamar Blvd. (512) 374-9784. starbucks.com. Despite the large, shared parking lot, it’s still hard to find a slot at certain hours. And don’t try the highly regulated street parking. Decaf (pour-over and Americano at noon). Teas and chai. Harmless music. Some outdoor seating with umbrellas.
Some readers might wonder why we sample representative Starbucks locales as part of this series. Because, despite corporate conventions — or perhaps because of them — each outlet is different, if only because the people are different. And their roles in each neighborhood’s texture evolves over time. One Starbucks at North Lamar Boulevard and West Fifth Street, for instance, is too small for today’s traffic. So we concentrated this report on the outlet at North Lamar just south of West 45th. It’s is quite large, but for good reason. To one side, you have fashionable midcentury modern districts, on the other, large state facilities bookended by big developments at the Triangle and Central Park. This spot offers plenty of tables inside and out, as well as the now required laptop counters and cocktail tables. When traffic is high, four or five baristas churn out the orders. Clerestory windows keep this shop light even as the color scheme and decor trend to the dark end. This day I overheard a businessman making a pitch, a couple whispering sweet nothings, a bearded man working through some problems through a an earpiece, and a foursome of well-bundled workmen who might have come from the Northeast or Upper Midwest. All are welcome.
NOTE ON THIS SERIES
WAY MORE COFFEE: In 2007, we published a series titled “10,000 Coffee Shops.” We found only 100 around Austin, but it felt like 10,000. Our point back then: That in the 1980s, there had only been three such coffee spots here! How our culture had changed! We’re sure to count more than 200 during this new coffee run, started casually in 2016.