The Daily Grind — the not at all definitive guide to Boston coffee and cafes

As you might have gathered from earlier posts, I like to explore neighbourhoods on foot. Over my first semester here at Harvard I have spent a bit of time wandering around in search of coffee and tasty treats. Below is a selection of what I have found to date. I’ll make this an evolving list so please send through any gems that you have found.

Harvard Square

Easily the best coffee I have found in Boston and has become a weekend companion. Truly dedicated to coffee in all its forms; Espresso rich and syrupy; cappuccinos delicately frothed; filtered coffee individually prepared with beans freshly ground and water heated to just the right temperature before being poured through the filter paper.

The food menu is small but thoughtfully prepared. The eggs benedict comes with a wholewheat biscuit rather than bread and a side of seasonal roasted vegetables. The yeasted waffles were fluffy and the blueberry bourban sauce sweet without being overbearing.

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The best option within the square when you are feeling to lazy to walk far. I was initially skeptical after seeing the menu full of chai-mocha-ccino type beverages but overall the lattes and cappuccinos are well prepared if a bit weak. There is a good spread of pastries and muffins to satisfy a sweet tooth as well as sandwiches and salads.

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A few blocks from Harvard Square down Mount Auburn, husband and wife team Isabel and Steven Darwin have been running Darwin’s Ltd for over 20 years. The store consists of a premium sandwich bar at one end, a coffee shop at the other, and a small grocery store in between where you can pick up some produce and alcohol to take home.

Attention is given to the coffee with baristas taking pride in their coffee art even if the order is for takeaway. Not content with what commercial machines could provide, Darwin’s has tinkered with it own to extract the desired characteristics from their specialty blends.

There is a large assortment of yummy sweets and I can vouch for the salted caramel dark chocolate tart and the pecan pie. On the savoury front there are over 20 sandwiches to choose from on a wide range of bread varieties. The breakfast burrito and Mount Auburn panini have so far gone down a treat.

Brookline

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Alright so it doesn’t do coffee but it is a breakfast destination no less. A tiny bakery tucked away around the corner from Harvard street, Clear Flour Bakery produces some of the best bread and pastry I have ever had. The chocolate croissants are light and buttery and the savoury stack is a great option for people wanting a more substantial way to start the day — a quiche with caramelised onion and potato. However these are merely side-kicks to the main show; baguettes and sourdough loaves that would be home in Paris and San Francisco respectively.

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Nestled within Brookline’s Jewish area, filled with bagel shops, a kosher grocer and a Jewish craft store, 4A pumps out a steady stream of caffeine to a crowd that seems largely local — customers are greated by name and regular orders known by heart. Founded in 2005 in Kazakhstan by owners Erke and Alan Draper, 4A unashamedly wants to keep the focus on coffee and as such you will find no tables or food menu although you will find a small selection of treats from Boston Gourmet Chefs. The cappuccino came out dark with the milk velvety and not scalding hot which is rare to find. They roast on site with 4A brand coffee available for purchase.

Somerville, Porter and Davis Squares

A block or two down Mass Av from Porter Square, Simon’s (named after its owner Simon Yu) is a favourite of students from nearby Lesley University. It serves up solid Barismo espresso in a relaxed setting that sees many people settled in reading books or tapping away on laptops. The Cubano Espresso — espresso pulled through with turbinado sugar — looks interesting and will be tried next time I pop by.

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The sister shop of Simon’s in Porter Square is a no-fuss affair serving coffee and a small breakfast and lunch menu and it seems to have earned itself a dedicated following of locals. Espresso is made from single country blends that are rotated regularly. The cappuccino was strong yet smooth. It also features Nitro Cold Brew, cold brewed coffee that is pressurised with nitrogen so that it pours like Guinness. There are no tables but the large bay window which catches the sun in the morning was an inviting place for me to write this post.

3 Little Figs opened in 2011 after a few successful years selling baked goods at farmers markets. On weekends the cafe gets busy quickly so it is best to go early. Customers come for the very reasonably priced breakfast including ‘best ever’ spinach pie, breakfast pie — local pork sausage from MF Dulock, egg, potato, VT cheddar, sun dried tomatoes — and fresh sandwiches. The coffee is pretty good but takes a while as they only have the one barista. However if you can snag a table outside on a nice day what’s the rush?

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Set within a converted warehouse, Foundry is a diamond in the rough set off an unassuming parking lot next to a dollar tree, golf shop and dry-cleaners. Once inside, the place fits the bill of hipster/yummy mummy crowd complete with exposed air vents and unpolished concrete floor. With its own roaster on site you’d expect the coffee to be fresh and it doesn’t disappoint with the cortado (halfway between a piccolo and a cappuccino) sweet and slightly acidic. After a stroll through Somerville I indulged in a walnut brownie that was gooey inside with a lovely crunch on top. I can see myself making repeated trips back with Liz and friends for brunch.

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Back Bay

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Formed in 2010 from the consolidation of Bagel Rising and Espresso Royale by a former Chicagoan, Pavement now operates 6 stores across Boston. In 1999 at the age of 23 a young Larry Margulies purchased Bagel Rising when it went up sale. In 2006 Larry bought out Espresso Royale cafes after supplying them with bagels for a number of years. Each location is individually styled to thoughtfully suit the local clientele. Coffee here is on the dark side and the bagels are excellent — soft and chewy.

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Since its founding in 2010 Thinking Cup has grown to 3 stores in Boston Common, North End and Back Bay. Serving an eclectic mix of hipster beards and white collars it prides itself on spreading the gospel of good coffee around Boston. Baristas are knowledgeable and eager to talk about the day’s blend and different varietals. It claims to be the first Boston coffee shop to exclusively serve Oregon’s award winning Stumptown coffee beans. The menu is substantial making it a good choice for breakfast or lunch for the peckish.

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Kendall Square

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One of serveral Tatte locations across Boston I stumbled upon this early in my travels. Seems to be always busy with about a quarter furiously punching away on laptops, presumably MIT students. The brunch menu is good with a selection of pastries, egg and meat dishes and sandwiches. Unfortunately this is part of the trendy move to outsource more work to the customer. While food is brought to the table, coffee is not and customers are asked to bring their plates to a washing station to “reduce stress on the waitstaff”. As for the coffee itself I would avoid it. Our cappuccino and latte came out the same — weak muddy water. Hold off your caffeine hit as better options exist in the area. On the plus side the selection of fresh juices and lemonade were delicious.

In 2010 Lucy Valena opened Voltage Coffee and Art after seeing coffee’s potential to spark creativity while living in Seattle. She now aims to make Voltage a hang-out hub for the local MIT crowd. The coffee here is pretty good though not world changing. On the other hand it is a very pleasant place to grab a cup as the walls are adorned with a rotating selection of art collections.

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EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.

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