Whenever Steve Novak is in San Francisco, he always makes time to get an espresso at the Steps of Rome Caffé in North Beach. “I’m a coffee snob,” says the owner of Honolulu-based management consultancy company PPR Management Services. “And their espresso is the gold standard.”
Like a lot of people, Novak loves seeking out coffee places when he’s traveling. A good coffee place can be like a life raft: familiar offerings, comfortable chairs, and maybe even free Wi-Fi. “I prefer the local, non-chain shops because of the variety,” Novak says, “but I just want a place to relax and get a feel for the local atmosphere, away from the tourist zones.”
No doubt, charming places like Steps of Rome helped San Francisco land in the top 3 of America’s best coffee cities, according to this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey from Travel + Leisure.
For the survey’s past five years, readers have weighed in on the qualities — such as hotels, nightlife, friendly locals — of cities across the U.S. This year, we’ve upped the number of cities to 35 and the number of categories to 54. Readers can now evaluate, say, how eco-friendly a city is and its vintage and flea market potential, as well as its local specialties such as barbecue, burgers, and coffee bars.
Granted, when Starbucks and other chains reign in so many shopping centers and office-building lobbies, it may be hard to imagine how one city’s coffee scene is much better or different than any other anymore. But when we looked at the survey’s top 20 results, we found several towns with great historic districts that still offer a unique café culture.
Other winners boast plenty of independent coffeehouses — such as Portland, Ore., which took the silver medal position. “Portland has more neighborhood places to get really good coffee than almost anywhere in the country,” says Matt Lounsbury, the director of operations for Portland-based Stumptown Coffee.
New York City and San Francisco were also in the Top 10, though their coffee cultures can be a little more fast-paced. These days you’re likely to find new coffee places that are truly bars: stools up against a counter, great for espresso lovers who just want a quick shot before they move on.
Even for coffee snobs, though, good coffee is an affordable luxury. “It’s a rare surprise to find a shop that makes a passable espresso,” says Novak. “But that’s the fun of finding new shops — to occasionally find that gem that makes me want to return.”