Not surprisingly, Congress Avenue, sometimes called the Main Street of Texas, counts more coffee shops than any other 12-block stretch of the city.
Before we dive into the local outfits, though, we should note that Starbucks operates at least six reliable coffee outlets within easy walking distance of Congress Avenue.
So the field is doubly crowded.
Houndstooth. 401 Congress Ave. 512-394-6051. houndstoothcoffee.com. Paid parking in area garages; very little on the street. Decaf (Americano), teas, chai. Unobtrusive music, plenty of quiet spots.
The last time we met a friend at this sublime downtown coffee shop on the ground floor of the Frost Tower, he ordered a Japanese frozen coffee cocktail, while I had an iced decaf Americano without a hint of the grainy, musky qualities that sometimes linger in an Americano. This shrine to coffee, the second in the Houndstooth family, blossoms in Scandinavian red tile and blond wood. The ceiling soars above the mixed crowd sitting at counters and tables on curved stools, but it rarely sounds too loud. The espresso and other coffee drinks are superb. The snack and alternative beverage options are minimal. Bags of beans await your inspection. The outside tables are seductive in the morning, less so in the afternoon.
Caffe Medici. 200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2770. caffemedici.com. Paid parking in area garages; very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Modish music. Quiet upstairs.
It was something of a shock when Caffe Medici, which operated a low-key, high-quality coffee shop in an old house on the border between Clarksville and Old West Austin, went into an entirely different direction with shop no. 2. Located in the soaring Austonian downtown, this edition blended modern and contemporary styles with exquisite taste. A few tables are scattered on the sidewalk for people watching, while two large customer areas await inside. Upstairs is a quiet work area; downstairs includes multiple social and lounging options. One orders at a counter at the back, then espresso drinks are picked up at a nightclub-like island well. During big festivals, I’ve watched some visitors who confused “caffe” with “cafe” and expect more to eat. Locals know better. On their own, the drinks compete with the best on the avenue. Bonus: There’s a baby Caffe Medici that opens to the sidewalk with copious outdoor seating in the 900 block of Congress.
The Hideout. 617 Congress Ave. 512-443-3688. hideouttheatre.com. Paid parking in garages; very little street parking. Decafe, teas, chai. Mellow music. Performance venues in the back and upstairs.
The sole survivor from the Middle Period of downtown Austin coffee houses, the Hideout is doubly known as a performance venue that has hosted artists and audiences in a least four of it interior spaces. A knowledgable barista tells us that only two are now in use. The vibe here his creative, funky and authentic, but that doesn’t mean its food and drink service has slacked off. In fact, by my estimates, it has improved enormously. Workers behind a streamlined counter fetch espresso drinks, beer, wine, beverage novelties, pizza, pastries, tacos, snacks, juice and water, just to get you started. A dozen table and a high counter hold a mix of meeters and laptoppers within dimly lighted painted brick walls. During the past few visits, the staff has proven extraordinarily alert and helpful.
Caffe Aragona. 914 Congress Ave. 512-505-8784. caffearagona.com. 7 .am.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., closed Sun. Paid parking in nearby garages, very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Minimal music at all. Outdoor seating under European umbrellas.
What started out as a franchise outlet of a old Italian coffee chain is now locally owned Caffe Aragona. The Lavazza branding remains everywhere, but the first thing we noticed is that the food offerings seem more substantial than we had remembered. Sure, one can still order pastries, panini and gelato, but now the emphasis seems to be on hearty fare such the Chicken Bacon Ciabata, Sausage Roasted Pepper Pizza, Italian Baguette, Salmon Salad and such. The shop’s hours are likewise trimmed to serve downtown workers, not stray tourists or clubbers. Like clockwork, the lunch masses rush in around noon. Some are Capitol types attired in suits, but the rest reflect the usual Austin casual look. They linger among stylish brightly hued chairs, tables and counters. Recall that Little City, which launched the modern urban coffee shop movement in Austin, once thrived in the spot right door. It closed in 2011.
Slake Cafe. 120 E. Seventh St. 512-476-0060. slakecafe.com. 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Paid parking in nearby garages, very little street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. Fairly loud music at lunch.
We like a cafe that’s serious about coffee. Slake is such a one. The L-shaped room starts off with a briskly run counter service that includes a full breakfast and lunch menu as well as piles of tasty pastries and a multitude of drink selections. Customers often use the high island counter nearby as a waiting station for take-out orders. Around the corner are a dozen or more well-spaced tables and a full bar, which I assume gets more more use as the hours crawl by. This is a place for eating and drinking, though, not working. Rare is the laptop. If you don’t live or labor downtown, it’s easy to forget this spot just to the east of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. But if this is your hood, you stop by here as often as possible.
Brian’s Brew Coffee. 515 Congress Ave. 512-738-7713. briansbrew.com. 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Parking in area garages, virtually no nearby street parking. Decaf, teas, chai. No music during our visit. No obvious place to sit.
Imagine operating a coffee kiosk not much bigger than an old-fashined phone booth, if you can remember what those were. You’d need just the right personality to fill it and Brian’s Brew gets that. Our barista on our only visit was alert, able and funny. While serving me, he kept up a brisk chat with a member of the office tower’s engineering staff, who had repaired one of those giant, old, expensive espresso machines, but not the slimmer, newer models like the one here — that needed some loving care. One can find handy spots like this one all over office buildings in larger cities, but it’s not that common a sight in Austin. A helpful sandwich board out on the sidewalk points the newcomer in the right direction, but one must explore a bit beyond the elevator lobby to find counter with an amazing array of edibles and drinkables for such a tight fit. As I left, the barista asked if my iced decaf Americano was just right. To be honest, it seemed a bit stout, but he was so kind, I replied: “Exactly.”
Floyd’s. 301 Congress Ave. 512-330-4044. floyds301.com. 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Fri. Parking in area garages, virtually no nearby street parking. Decaf. Fairly quiet.
“Hard to find. Easy to love.” That’s the motto for Floyd’s, based deep inside the ground floor of an 1980s-era office tower that has undergone some spiffy renovations lately. The shop seems streamlined to suit exactly the tastes of those customers who can find it, in other words, white-collar workers in a hurry. The main beverage menu is split among classics, specialities and chocolate drinks. Breakfast fare includes bagels, tacos, sandwiches and breakfast bowls. Lunch goes the way of presses, wraps and build-your-own sandwiches. The place is light and airy for a room without exterior windows; the tables and chairs are utilitarian. No fuss was made about it, but my coffee drink hit the spot.
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