Cool Beans

A barista steams a designer drink at The Room.

When Donna’s Coffee Bar opened in Mount Vernon’s elegant, old Park Plaza building in November 1992, it sent the neighborhood (and the city) crashing into a wholly unexplored coffee universe, a culture that had been quietly brewing in Seattle and San Francisco. In fairness, the coffee revolution established its local beachhead at Fells Point’s Daily Grind in 1991. But Donna’s upped the ante, serving cappuccino, latte, espresso and macchiato. People flocked. The place thrived. Two months later, the Vanguard Café launched a similar operation nearby.

But by the time a devastating fire leveled Donna’s in December 2010, the Vanguard had long since vanished and Starbucks had muscled its way into Mount Vernon. Donna’s never reopened there, but Red Emma’s and Milk & Honey helped fill the void.

Six years later, Red Emma’s has decamped to larger digs in Station North, Milk & Honey has shuttered and a handful of new places have sprung up, their existence made possible, as food editor Martha Thomas points out to me, by Starbucks, which “paved the way for the $4 cup of joe.”

Here are five coffee shops—some freshly minted, some in toddler phase—that deserve your attention.

A barista at Café Andamiro  preps a beverage.
A barista at Café Andamiro preps a beverage.

1. Homey without being homespun, Café Andamiro opened on the western fringe of Mount Vernon this past September, serving the usual cast of hot and iced coffee drinks—espresso, Americano, mocha, macchiato, et al., provided by Kansas-based PT’s Coffee Roasting—an assortment of Rishi teas (plus a glorious homemade lemon and ginger tea) and an array of sandwiches/paninis, salads and house specials, with an emphasis on vegetarian/vegan choices. The medium-sized space boasts a black-and-white-tiled floor, a color motif echoed by the café’s eight tables and three-seat counter.

While “Andamiro” sounds vaguely Italian —to me, anyway—it is South Korean in origin, just like the shop’s owner, Keumran Yun. Two of her three children attendnearby MICA, as do all of her staff, including 20-year-old Leanne Ryu, who helpfully served as a translator for Yun during my visit.

“I want this place to be a cozy kind of coffee shop around the corner for anyone to come alone or with a group of people for coffee and food,” explains Yun, 53. So cozy that, on a recent midweek afternoon, two women, complete strangers, busied themselves with knitting while exchanging cross-café needlework tales and tips.

But Yun also wants Andamiro to have a greater reach, and, accordingly, she already has hosted an evening of poetry and live music, while showing the artwork of her student-employees: “We want this place to also be for the community—for a lot of communities—to share their work and be together.” [email protected]

2. For the past 20 years, wife and husband Shirlé Hale and David Koslowski have harbored a shared dream: Open a hybrid cafe/record shop.  “Of course,” explains Koslowski, 49, “20 years

A barista at Baby’s on Fire serves up a latte with love.
A barista at Baby’s on Fire serves up a latte with love.

ago, vinyl wasn’t selling, so we held out until it came back.”

This past June, with the vinyl revolution firmly entrenched, the couple launched Baby’s on Fire, a comfy 10-table (and mini- sofa) café/LP shop tucked into a repurposed carriage house. It offers paninis, soups, salads, breakfast-y items, pastries and a selection of coffee drinks—French press, cold brew and a panoply of hot or iced espressos, including a seasonal latte—plus a cognoscenti-curated collection of 2,500 to 3,000 new and used albums.

“It combines pretty much everything that Shirlé and I are into,” Koslowski adds. “Music, food, drink and good conversation.”

Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters supplies the java; a Belgian artisan baker provides the frozen, raw organic dough imported for pastries; for almost everything else, “We try to use local purveyors and source locally as much as possible,” says Hale, 51.

Meanwhile, Koslowski spent two years amassing LPs before opening. The stock fluctuates constantly—heavy on rock and pop, with smaller sections devoted to hip-hop, jazz, country, soul, blues and R&B— everything from James Brown to The Jesus Lizard to Bananarama to Vivid Low Sky, the couple’s most recent musical project. Oh, and Brian Eno. After all, the pair named their place after a song on his 1973 album Here Come the Warm Jets.

“We missed places like Louie’s Bookstore Café,” notes Koslowski. “That was an inspiration. But we did records, because we really don’t know that much about books.”

3. Aesthetically and geographically subterranean—located in a townhouse basement—NuBohemia manifests a vibe more closely associated with a late-1960s Greenwich Village coffeehouse than a here-and-now Mount Vernon coffee shop. Think: design and fashion magazines stacked neatly in multiple cubes against one wall; mind-expanding artwork hanging on another; a turntable listening station in a corner, where you can test-drive for-sale LPs/12-inches by hip-hop’s founding fathers.

In fact, NuBohemia’s motto of “Coffee, Culture, Music” could easily be scrambled into any configuration and still remain valid. Because while you can buy all the de rigueur espresso coffee drinks here—plus teas and fruit or veggie smoothies, as well as breakfast sandwiches, Belgian waffles and quiche—the beverages and food account for just one element in NuBohemia’s function as a funky clubhouse. During my visit, I chatted amiably with a barista about the surprising results of the presidential election and its possible political and cultural consequences. Not for a second did I feel compelled to pop open my laptop to discover what fresh hell was afoot.

That sense of “being there,” so to speak, jibes with the philosophy that owner Jay Rags, a DJ who works in I.T., envisioned when he opened his shop in summer 2014. “I’ve always wanted to give people a comfortable place to come,” notes Rags, 49, “a place that sold great coffee and gave artists a chance to showcase their works. When most people leave our shop, they say ‘goodbye.’ It’s very soulful in nature.”   

4. Citizens of a certain age recall that, before video games existed, people hovered over tabletops playing—this really happened!—board games, an experience that caused a participant to interact with another human. Monopoly. Stratego. Ring a bell? The Room pays homage to this shred of cultural history by keeping a clutch of board games—Battleship, Sorry!, among others—on hand that people can play while sipping espresso drinks and/or dining on paninis.

NuBohemia owner Jay Rags takes a coffee break
NuBohemia owner Jay Rags takes a coffee break

“I like to say it’s a community space disguised as a coffee shop,” jokes Andre Mazelin, 45, of The Room, which opened this past spring in the old Red Emma’s space, “so I try to engage with as many segments of the community as possible, giving opportunities to some entrepreneurs who don’t have storefronts.”

That includes staging pop-up events with local purveyors such as Bottoms Up Bagels and Nourrie Cuisine. Winsomely, The Room maintains a connection with Red Emma’s by purchasing its roasted-on-site Thread Coffee. And, curiously for a coffee shop, The Room also sells craft beers and wines.

In addition to the six tables, the space features two separate eight-seat counters on opposite walls, plus what amounts to a mini-lounge in the rear. Bonhomie reigns, aided by the fact that Mazelin seems to know everyone who walks in the door. “It’s more than just selling coffee to people in Mount Vernon,” says Mazelin. “I’d be very bored if I was just doing that all day and that was the end of it.”

5. While you don’t need to pack a Ph.D. in coffeeology to patronize Ceremony Coffee Roasters, the degree wouldn’t hurt. With its white walls, stools and chairs, and overhang lighting, as well as its earnest-faced millennial baristas conducting what appear to be experiments, the airy, industrial-y space exudes a research lab sensibility. In fact, Ceremony boasts a separate rear workshop room earmarked for coffee-related classes. A retail component sells imposing coffee brewers and grinders. The spacious shop, which opened in September 2015—the most recent outpost of Annapolis-based Ceremony Coffee Roasters—takes coffee seriously—as in, with a capital “C.”

In addition to the expected selection of espresso drinks, the café—adjacent to Mount Vernon Marketplace—serves seasonal, coffee-based, non-alcoholic cocktails, plus foodie-certified toasts, salads, grilled cheeses, cheese boards and bowls of granola. Not forgetting bags of Ceremony’s own roasts are for sale.

“It’s not necessarily about the space itself—it’s about the coffee,” explains Vincent Iatesta, 51, Ceremony’s owner and founder. “We roast our beans, which we carefully source, to showcase all the nuances and flavors that a particular coffee has to offer. The coffee is the art.”

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