Best coffee shops for work? Our 15 essential ingredients

Mónica Guzmán

Seattle is swarming with coffee shops and geeks who love them. For many of us, they’re a fundamental part of the infrastructure. But how do you know you’ve found a good spot to bring your laptop and get to work?

Below are 15 things to look for, culled from conversations with fellow coffee-shop dwellers who recommended their favorites on Facebook.

Let’s start with the basics, and work our way up:

The Gear

• Free, reliable WiFi. Once Starbucks pulled the price tag off wireless access at its U.S. stores, free WiFi went from a perk to an expectation. Of course, having it isn’t always enough. Laptop loungers love Uptown Espresso in Belltown for its unusually fast hook-up, but beware the weak WiFi signals at other spots. At Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square, the city’s WiFi works if you sit by the window. Sometimes.

• Outlets. Battery life has gone far but not far enough. Look to the walls by the tables. If you can plug, it’s a plus.

• Big tables. A coffee cup will sit where a laptop, notebook and pastry will tumble, so it’s nice to have a big table or two around to contain the chaos. Got a lot of work sprawl? Long, large tables abound at Zoka Coffee.

The Goods

(Kurt Schlosser photo)

• Oh yeah – good coffee: Few cities obsess about coffee quite like Seattle. And for bean lovers, good work often requires a good cup. Espresso VivaceTrabant Coffee and ChaiCaffe VitaSeattle Coffee Works and Fremont favorite Milstead and Co. are some of the best loved brewers in town.

• (Real) food. A brain can’t run on pastries alone. “I don’t want to have to pack up when I’m hungry, but at most places I have to,” wrote social media geek Karianne Stinson. Voxx Coffee in Eastlake recently rolled out a fantastic sandwich menu. Try the Tapenade.

The Spot

• Location, location, location: Close to home, close to work, and preferably, close to the action. Residential areas serve up chill cafes, but the city’s most energizing work spots are downtown, in Belltown or close — in Fremont, Queen Anne, the University District or Capitol Hill.

• Curb appeal: Where you’re sitting still, it’s nice to see the world moving. “Love coffee shops that are visually open to the street,” tweeted judicial assistant Gary Burnopp. “They’re catalyst for pedestrian traffic which encourages walkability.” And productivity. The bigger the window, the better. Top Pot Doughnuts in Belltown might have the biggest of them all.

• Free parking? There’s no downside to sticking around an active, central location in Seattle. Unless, of course, you drive. “Don’t even try to tell me I should work at a coffee shop without [free parking],” Jason Preston (my husband) wrote. “There’s no effing way.” Agree? You might want to go where he does: the East Side.

Photo by Striatic, via Flickr.

The Mood

• Good, low tunes: If it’s not too loud and not too weird, the music at a coffee shop stays right where it should — in a buzzing, boosting background. Always good to bring headphones, though — just in case.

• Comfy seats: Edgy, modern chairs are great for the showroom, but the coziest coffee shops boast seat diversity, throwing in something soft, like the Persian cushions at Cherry Street Coffee House or the velvety armchairs at Roy Street Coffee and Tea (the most impressive of Seattle’s “stealth Starbucks“). In for the long haul? Nothing’s more welcoming, and your butt will thank you.

• Natural light. Seattle is dark enough as it is this time of year when we’re not hiding ourselves in some deep indoor cave. So I’ll say it again: windows, windows, windows. Caffe Vita in Capitol Hill does it right on two floors.

• Lots of space. Tiny is warm and intimate, but when you’re bent over a laptop, it can be good to disappear. A good work shop is “big enough and has enough turnover so they don’t care if you stay awhile,” wrote Andrew Woods of coffee shop database cafeworkr.comUptown Espresso in South Lake Union keeps things particularly roomy.

The Character

• Friendly staff: Nobody likes a snooty barista, or a snooty customer. For the most part, Seattle keeps it nice and courteous. Look to a coffee shop’s staff and regulars to set the tone for everyone else.

• ‘Eavesdroppable conversations’: When people work and chat in the same space, having what University of Washington professor Sonora Jha Herbst terms an “abundance of eavesdroppable conversations,” great connections are bound to form — and do. Too slow or too quick and the mix won’t marinate. Designer David Hoang, who likes Bedlam Coffee in Belltown, among other spots, says he’s hired four contractors and met two clients just from being at a coffee shop. “Never underestimate presence!” he wrote.

• Style: Cubicles are not inspiring. Neither are tables and chairs in a rectangular room. And where the mood at Uptown Espresso is defined by its crowd, other coffee shops have a much more aggressive personality. The art at Zeitgeist Cafe in Pioneer Square has a mind of its own. Writer Josh Bis said he wrote a good chunk of his dissertation at the jagged, two-story Bauhaus Books + Coffee. “As far as I’m concerned, they have the best physical space for a cafe in all of Seattle,” Bis wrote.

Before you grab your laptop and head to a roomy, spacious, well-lit coffee shop equipped with drinks, food, WiFi, cozy seats and outlets, a final word on etiquette from Woods:

“When you’re cafe working, remember to be nice, buy enough food and coffee to justify your time, respect the WiFi, and don’t stay too long.”

Thanks to Luiz Marques and everyone who shared notes on Facebook for the help!

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire who loves spending time in Seattle coffee shops even though she doesn’t drink coffee. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

    I might add that Interbay and Magnolia are also relatively close to downtown Seattle (at least in the Queen Anne-Fremont diameter of downtown influence, and certainly closer than the U District).

    Two coffee shops in Magnolia/Interbay with free WiFi stand out for quality coffee, big windows/natural light, free parking and acceptable sized tables: Peet’s at Interbay (in the same parking lot as the Whole Foods on 15th) and the new Uptown Espresso location in Magnolia Village (where Tully’s used to be). For ambiance, the Uptown location has the edge as Peet’s is in a more industrial area, and Uptown has much larger tables.

    But Monica, you’ve got a great list should I ever venture further than my own home turf.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Good point about Interbay and Magnolia, @FrankCatalano:disqus. That time I met you at Peet’s in Interbay, I remember being impressed that free parking was available not that far out from Queen Anne. It was a nice spot, too. Quiet. Hadn’t heard about the new Uptown Espresso! That chain really seems to know how to draw coffee shop workers and keep them. I’ve spent hours and hours at the Uptown Espressos on 4th and Wall in Belltown and on Westlake in South Lake Union. They’re spacious and incredibly welcoming.

    • http://twitter.com/richphoto Richard Brown Photog

      Thanks for keeping us Magnolian’s in the loop. Hey will we see you tonight at SMC?

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

        Unlikely, though I’d like to attend for reasons even beyond the topic and people: SAM is a great venue, and Vanessa Fox and I were on the Alaska Airlines MVP Gold Advisory Board together at one point (small bit of trivia).

        But I will be at the GeekWire event Thursday.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonp Jason Preston

    Now to be fair, you can also look for free parking on the west side: Wedgwood, Eastlake, is Fremont still free?

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      True, true ;) But the closer you get to the center of the city, the harder that is to find. Eastlake is a nice exception, and Voxx Coffee there is one of my favorites. (Despite the small size, there’s a good work vibe). A pity Pioneer Square parking is still so expensive. Zeitgeist is really fun there on a work day.

      • http://lamiki.com/ Laura Kimball

        The husband plug was priceless :)

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          Couldn’t resist.

  • Peter Wilson

    Uptown Espresso on 4th Avenue has fastest free wifi in the city, great coffee and muffins, and a reservable conference room, which was rel8tion.com’s corporate office.

    • John

      I love hearing that, we (condointernet.net) operate the wifi in that location and are going to be adding more locations here soon with similar deployments.

      John

      • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

        Oh cool! Would love to hear where…

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Yup – the Belltown Uptown Espresso’s WiFi connection is FAST! Wrote how fast in the PI a while back when a couple local geeks hosted an event there the night Facebook vanity URLs went live, @bfe5631c1d28f5bc573e84ace6bc45e5:disqus. Quite a few people showed up — the better to increase their odds of getting their first choice at the land grab. Find that here: http://blog.seattlepi.com/thebigblog/2009/06/11/seattle-coffee-shop-gives-leg-up-in-facebook-land-grab/

    • johnhcook

      Is the speed at Uptown due to its proximity to the Westin Building? I heard that rumor before that a coffee shop next to the Internet nexus of Seattle had especially fast wi-fi, though may just be a silly rumor. 

      Since Starbucks switched to free wi-fi, I’ve personally spent way more time (and money) there (especially when traveling and I don’t know the local wi-fi scene). Team GeekWire likes Chocolati, but we are just settling into new digs in Ballard so we’re on the prowl for a new hotspot. :)

  • http://twitter.com/megrnelson Meg Nelson

     Monica, this post is great but I’d love to see some additional tips on etiquette thrown in here as well. These are tough times so “basically free”, remote offices enable us coffee shop dwellers to contribute to our economy and our pocket books without having to pay astronomical rents. That being said, we should be aware of the fact that someone IS paying for our free office and our coffee dwelling behaviors have an impact on THEIR pocket books. So what are good practices when you post up in a coffee shop for 4 hours?

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I quoted @AndrewWoods:twitter  of CafeWorkr.com briefly at the end to sum up some work coffee shop etiquette starting points, @twitter-96693586:disqus: “When you’re cafe working, remember to be nice, buy enough food and coffee to justify your time, respect the WiFi, and don’t stay too long.” But that’s just a start! We could probably have a whole separate post on the details. For example, just how long is “too long” when staying at a coffee shop to work? And if you buy, say, a latte every three hours, are you good to stick around all day?

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

        I agree – remote coffee shop office etiquette – would be a great follow-up column. Of course, it might differ between Seattle and, say, Amsterdam.

        After I’ve been at a coffee shop for an hour, I start to think I may need to purchase something else if I plan to exceed the 90-minute mark. Since most coffee starts to turn an hour after brewing, this seems a good house rule.

        • http://lamiki.com/ Laura Kimball

          I love the 90-minute rule per drink, that’s usually what I like to stick to. Though, when I work at coffee shops I tend to start my morning in one, grab lunch elsewhere, then finish the day at a second shop. Though, it’s really hard to give up a prime spot in a coffee shop.

          I agree, coffee shop etiquette from the baristas’ and coffee shop owners’ points of view would be great!

          • http://twitter.com/megrnelson Meg Nelson

            I look forward to that follow up article, @twitter-3452941:disqus ! I would love to hear from coffee owners and baristas themselves because I’m sure that even though I think I’m being respectful, I might be missing something!

      • http://andrewwoods.net/ Andrew Woods

        I’ve been thinking about cafe working etiquette for a while. I created a page on the CafeWorkr Blog this morning about etiquette. Here’s the link http://blog.cafeworkr.com/cafe-working-etiquette/ 

        • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

          Good stuff in there, @openid-93713:disqus . Great point about setting up quickly and coming in with a good charge. I can be bad about the latter.

  • Dave

    Lovely. 

    Good options mentioned in Seattle, and the tiny free parking point on the Eastside is fine. But where to get coffee on the Eastside? Caffe Ladro in Issaquah is a start. Where else, gang?

    • http://davepeck.org/ Dave Peck

      I like the Ladro in the Expedia building — you can carry the coffee to the building’s big, light-filled atrium. Good seats, tables, and access to power. Plus there’s a good Thai restaurant in there.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I haven’t been to too many spots on the Eastside, but I love Soulfood Books in Redmond (lots of comfy seats, super strong community, fantastic staff and hippie personality) and, in Kirkland, the Kirkland Zoka (huge central table = awesome). Soulfood: http://soulfoodbooks.com/portal/ … Zoka: http://www.zokacoffee.com/locations.html

      • http://twitter.com/mariancole Marian Cole

        I live and work on the Eastside and IMHO there aren’t many great coffee places.  The best is Urban Coffee Lounge in Kirkland but they are way too tiny to be parked in there, working for hours at a time.  My favorite spot is Aster Coffee Lounge in Ballard – great coffee, great music and an interesting mix of people.  I also like the Peet’s in Interbay.  The Whole Foods across the parking lot also has free wifi and obviously a wide selection of food.

    • Luiz

      My favorite on the Eastside is Urban Coffee Lounge and Caffe Rococo is also nice, both in Kirkland.http://urbancoffeelounge.com/http://rocococoffee.com/caffe-rococo/

  • ErinHood

    “Few cities obsess about coffee quite like Seattle” truer words were never spoken. My Chicagoland boyfriend is mystified by how many coffee places Seattle has and how you can even find decentish espresso drinks in your average grocery store. I can’t explain it, but am happy to enjoy the abundance. :)

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Not bad, right? As former Seattleite @humbearto:twitter  said on the post that sparked this column from Facebook, it’s easy to take Seattle’s coffee shop culture — especially the shops’ welcoming ambiance — for granted when you leave. Thanks again for your input there, @d8e7e260bdef00bfe976863c66ea2c78:disqus  !

  • http://twitter.com/richphoto Richard Brown Photog

    Oh Nice, I will be doing a shoot today at Seattle Coffee Works, I am excited to check it out.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Cool! The baristas there are super nice. 

  • http://twitter.com/seafreemob SeattleFreelanceMob

    Just wanted to mention the @seafreemob:twitter  Twitter handle. The “mob” is a group of Seattle engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs that like both coworking *and* caffeination!

    When inspired, one of our members will tweet out a location for everyone to meet and work. For example, this morning someone chose Cafe Zingaro in Lower Queen Anne. (It’s a new venue for the group… and not a bad one so far.) Regular haunts include Vivace Alley 24, Greenlake Zoka, and Caffe Vita on Pioneer Square.

    So if you like coworking and cafes, stop by sometime. You can follow us on Twitter; after we’ve met, we’ll give you the Twitter password so you can choose venues too!

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      I’ve been to a couple of meetings at Cafe Zingaro and, while the location can’t be beat for proximity to Seattle Center and arts orgs there, there are only a handful of tables and parking is all metered. The tea and coffee are good, though.

      • http://twitter.com/seafreemob SeattleFreelanceMob

        We tend to be a fairly bus-and-bike bound crew. Parking near here would definitely be an issue.

  • http://www.rescuetime.com Anonymous

    Missed my fave.  C&P Coffee in West Seattle.  Ultra-homey (dog friendly!), free parking, plenty of outlets, free wifi, and a little garden seating for sunny days.  10m from downtown (when we have an intact viaduct, that is). http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/1/5882/restaurant/West-Seattle/C-P-Coffee-Co-Seattle

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Ooh, love that place. Great neighborhood feel, too. Was there a couple years back on the patio. Felt like I was at someone’s garden party. So relaxing.

  • T.A. McCann

    off the beaten path, but I love Empire in Columbia City (http://bit.ly/uF3Hhv) and Cafe Vita in Seward Park http://bit.ly/7i0KeF – we also have all of this at Gist in Pioneer Square if you want to drop by and see us.

  • http://www.samgrossberg.com Sam Grossberg

    Gotta give a shoutout to Victrola on 15th in Capitol Hill. My favorite coffee, good enough wifi, good sandwiches and breakfast sandwiches, and I always run into people I know.

  • swagv

    This article made me never want to set foot in a coffee shop ever again.

  • http://www.jrotech.com/ Jeff Rodenburg

    A group of us (twitter for #wahgl — work-at-home-greenlake) often meet on Thursdays at Zoka Coffee in Greenlake.  Zoka meets all these criteria, but I find the wi-fi quite lacking.  They now source their wifi connection through a third party, and it requires a time-expiring access code. That’s perfectly fine for us, but I find the connection really slow.

    Recently changed the meeting spot over to Irwin’s Bakery (greenlake location, NE 65th and Latona Ave.)  It meets the full list of criteria here, though I wish they had more outlets.

  • http://www.jrotech.com/ Jeff Rodenburg

    A group of us (twitter for #wahgl — work-at-home-greenlake) often meet on Thursdays at Zoka Coffee in Greenlake.  Zoka meets all these criteria, but I find the wi-fi quite lacking.  They now source their wifi connection through a third party, and it requires a time-expiring access code. That’s perfectly fine for us, but I find the connection really slow.

    Recently changed the meeting spot over to Irwin’s Bakery (greenlake location, NE 65th and Latona Ave.)  It meets the full list of criteria here, though I wish they had more outlets.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I know some people really like working exclusively at home, but I can totally relate to wanting to be around people. Thanks for sharing the group info! And I should check out Zoka more often. Would save me $ on downtown parking…

  • http://twitter.com/plumagram Plumagram

    Check out Chocolati in Wallingford – my new favorite :) Fast WiFi cozy interior, has second floor and an amazing selection of chocolates (plus next to major buses – since I am biking everywhere) - http://www.chocolati.com/new/Locations-and-Hours.html

  • http://twitter.com/plumagram Plumagram

    Check out Chocolati in Wallingford – my new favorite :) Fast WiFi cozy interior, has second floor and an amazing selection of chocolates (plus next to major buses – since I am biking everywhere) - http://www.chocolati.com/new/Locations-and-Hours.html

  • http://www.bluesaucer.com Billie

    Very much enjoyed this article as well as all the follow up comments and posts.  Would like to offer a shameless plug about my own shop in Maple Leaf, corner of 92nd & Roosevelt, the Blue Saucer.  I feel pretty confident that we have all the listed key ingredients for a work-able environment at a neighborhood coffeeshop.  Lots of natural light, friendly staff, excellent product, real food, free wi-fi and lots of electrical outlets.  Would love to see some new faces give us a try.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      Thanks, Billie. I’m curious to hear your opinion on coffee shop work etiquette. Do you see laptop loungers overstay their welcome? Use the WiFi but not buy anything? Talk loudly on their cell phones or hog the outlets? Hope it doesn’t happen too often, but these etiquette questions haven’t exactly been written down…

  • http://www.bluesaucer.com Billie

    Very much enjoyed this article as well as all the follow up comments and posts.  Would like to offer a shameless plug about my own shop in Maple Leaf, corner of 92nd & Roosevelt, the Blue Saucer.  I feel pretty confident that we have all the listed key ingredients for a work-able environment at a neighborhood coffeeshop.  Lots of natural light, friendly staff, excellent product, real food, free wi-fi and lots of electrical outlets.  Would love to see some new faces give us a try.

  • yomen

    Its sad to see people hooked on to their laptops and ipods in a coffee shop (or at the bus stop). Coffee shops no longer resemble the social place where you can just chat with the next person. As much I love technology, I hope there comes a point when people realize that they are addicted to their gadgets.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

      Some of us (well, me, specifically) tend to use coffee shops as places to think. I usually pull out a notepad rather than a netbook, but it’s nice to have the WiFi option.

      However, I haven’t seen coffee shops operate as “social places” for many years. People tend to stick to their own business, not socialize with strangers anymore. While gadgets may have exacerbated this kind of isolation in plain sight, I doubt they’re the only cause.

    • http://twitter.com/moniguzman Monica Guzman

      I realize it! See this post: http://www.geekwire.com/2011/4-reasons-ditched-iphone-summer-vacation-loved

      Working at coffee shops is great. Meeting people and chatting is even better. Lots of people like big monitors on their laptops, but I got the 11-inch MacBook Air precisely because its screen is short, keeping me from looking and feeling too disconnected from the environment where I’m working. That’s why I like a work coffee shop with the “eavesdroppable conversation” element, @203af67055fa0b8a80aaa8881ca8effb:disqus , and love when I can bump into people I know. It’s good to stay social.

    • http://twitter.com/gregpiper gregpiper

      I wish I could reserve coffee shops for socializing and reading, but as a freelancer without an office, it’s either a coffee shop or being stuck at home all day.  That’s why I try to do most of my “work” at home and then head to a coffee shop for more personal pursuits later in the day.

  • http://twitter.com/loisrp Lois Patterson

    Yes, coming from Vancouver, I almost always try to pay a visit to Bauhaus Books & Coffee, and if I’m not careful, I can spend my whole weekend there.

  • http://twitter.com/gregpiper gregpiper

    Glad Bauhaus got a nod here, although it deserved higher placement.  It’s my favorite latte (and americano) in the city, the giant windows overlooking the Space Needle can’t be beat (the outdoor chairs on Melrose ditto), and it’s always playing fun music – where else would a shop blast Toni Braxton?  Oh, and outlets aplenty.

  • http://twitter.com/lunarmobiscuit Michael ‘Luni’ Libes

    One shop downtown for it’s quiet atmosphere and cozy fireplace is Tully’s on Harbor Steps.  And in the summer, outdoor seating on the steps by the fountains is very hard to beat.

  • http://www.howtoopenacafe.com/about/ business coffee shop

    It is nice to hear that you offer such tasty ingredients. For sure more customers will coming to taste your one of a kind coffee.

  • http://www.howtoopenacafe.com/about/ starting a cafe

    Most cafes nowadays are making use of some ingredients to make the dish tasty. However,not all are effective. So, see to it that you are relying to reliable one.

  • http://www.howtoopenacafe.com/about/ starting a cafe

    Most cafes nowadays are making use of some ingredients to make the dish tasty. However,not all are effective. So, see to it that you are relying to reliable one.

  • http://ceklog.kindel.com/ Charlie Kindel

    I’d pay extra for a really good chair. Most coffee shop chairs are a literal pain in the back for me. Don’t give me a “cushy couch”. Give me a real desk chair like an Aeron.

  • Jeremy C.

    Don’t forget about Pioneer Coffee Roasting Company on Alki Beach [http://www.yelp.com/biz/pioneer-coffee-roasting-company-seattle]… Nothing like working with a cup of coffee with an amazing water view on a nice sunny day! :)

  • Ryan Bitzer

    I thought this was funny, it pokes fun of people that bring WAY too much office to the coffee shop! Enjoy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzfznSMxh3w