Raleigh has a surprising number of specialty coffee shops. This is my opinion of them.
- Jubala Coffee: 5/5. Jubala has the best coffee in Raleigh, period. Having gone here many times, I’ve never had anything short of excellent espresso or pour overs. The staff are helpful, and they have multiple offerings for pour over and drip, all of which are usually interesting. Espresso is free on Fridays, which is always a plus. The food here isn’t much to write home about, but if you want good coffee, this is the top candidate. It’s difficult to find a place to sit in the Hillsborough St. location, though; the North Hills location usually has more seats open.
- Iris Coffee Lab: 5/5. A recommendation from a barista, Iris is an excellent place for someone getting started in specialty coffee and trying out espresso for the first time (I say this based on the flavor profile of the espresso, which was mellow and smooth, with notes of milk chocolate). Superb coffee, helpful staff, and a great decor that makes it a good place to meet friends; Iris is one of the best cafés in the area.
- 42 & Lawrence: 5/5. This place never disappoints. Both the pour over and the espresso are great here, and the atmosphere makes it a great place for a date. The location is really great too–you can sit down for a latte and work, and then take a break by crossing the street and going for a walk in the park.
- Note: I’ve been informed that the owner is notorious for treating his employees poorly. For that reason, despite the great coffee, this place is out of the contention for me. There are other spots for great coffee downtown.
- NoRa Cafe: 5/5. NoRa in North Raleigh distinguishes itself from other cafés in multiple ways. The rustic ambiance with comfortable, spacious seating and books to read make it quite welcoming; the long hours (it closes at 10pm) make it great for long study sessions. The espresso is fantastic, with notes of red cherry and dark chocolate. The drip was very slightly weak for my taste, but was otherwise great. There are multiple WiFi networks, presumably to let everyone have sufficient bandwidth to work. For those looking for some variety, this place offers over a dozen flavored lattes. NoRa has a lot going for it, and the coffee is a big part of that.
- Idle Hour Coffee Roasters: 5/5. Idle Hour screams passion for coffee. The baristas are knowledgeable and passionate, and the coffee is excellent. The espresso was mellow and had notes of red cherry, and the Colombian pour over was fruit-forward but not too acidic. The decor of this place is fantastic, although there isn’t a lot of seating. Just the staff make me want to revisit this café over and over.
- The Morning Times: 5/5. The Morning Times is one of the most recommended cafés for a reason: the coffee is excellent. There’s little else to say here, and that’s a good thing: the coffee here speaks for itself, and has a well-deserved reputation.
- Black & White Coffee Roasters: 4.5/5. I feel like this is a bit unfair; Black & White make really good coffee, it just seems like I personally don’t like their style of coffee. If you want to try something that tastes particularly unique, Black & White almost certainly has you covered. Their roasts have a huge variety of flavors, so whether you prefer washed coffees with chocolatey notes, or anaerboic process coffees with boozy or fermented tastes, they have an offering. Black & White is an excellent place to purchase your coffee for your home, too, since their roasting facility is right there, so you’ll get fresh-roasted beans.
- Brew Coffee Bar: 4.5/5. Brew makes great espresso and a pretty good drip. However, there is relatively limited seating, and the staff seemed rather unwelcoming.
- Global Village Organic Coffee: 4.5/5. Global Village is run by a great guy called Mike. It’s less flashy than other cafés that sport $20k espresso machines, but still delivers on great espresso and drip. Having tried nearly the entire coffee menu, there’s almost nothing to complain about. Although this place is a short walk away from Jubala, you’re going here because the seating is more comfortable and the atmosphere is more relaxed and less noisy. This place is great for sitting down with a latte and reading a book.
- Note: I’ve been informed that Mike has since sold the place, but the new owners are still trying to keep the atmosphere and quality of the coffee.
- Sir Walter Coffee: 4.5/5. Sir Walter has great espresso (they didn’t have drip when I went). They offer several unique (unique relative to other cafés) drinks such as the espresso martini, and multiple drinks with coffee and alcohol too. It’s a great place to try something different. I highly recommend “The Walter Raleigh”.
- Heirloom Brewshop: 4.5/5. This seems to be a favorite among baristas. The coffee here is great–both the espresso and drip were excellent. The place is a great study spot, since it’s often quiet. Heirloom is a bit expensive compared to the other cafés here, but you’re getting good coffee for the money.
- Purr Cup Cafe: 4/5. Purr Cup is interesting in that they have a special cat room that requires a reservation, and you get to spend time with cats. The espresso is excellent, but the drip is weak and there are no dairy options. The lattes are good, though. If you want a vegan latte, Purr Cup is a solid candidate.
- lucettegrace: 4/5. lucettegrace is a patisserie/café. The coffee side of the place is surprisingly alright: the espresso had a very mild bitterness, but otherwise had tons of sweetness and a nice, clean acidity; the drip felt a little under-extracted. It’s not the place you go to for a coffee, but rather, a place you go to for their desserts and have a coffee on the side.
- Sola Coffee: 3.5/5. Sola was a disappointment; the pour over was over-extracted, bitter, and astringent, and the espresso was great, but very intense (which is not a bad thing). I’d recommend the lattes or the salad here, but it probably isn’t one of my top choices for coffee.
- The Optimist: 3.5/5. The Optimist has decent espresso and drip, and it’s a comfy place to sit and work, but the coffee is a cut below other specialty shops in Raleigh.
- Cup a Joe: 2/5. Cup a Joe on Hillsborough St. seems to be popular for nostalgia’s sake, rather than for the coffee. People are used to it since it’s been around for a long time. However, neither the espresso, nor the drip were good. I’ve asked around, and this seems to be the consensus among baristas as well.
Below are (in my opinion) the best of the best. Cafés after the slash are runner-ups.
- The best mocha: Idle Hour Coffee Roasters
- The best espresso: Jubala Coffee / The Morning Times
- The best latte: Jubala Coffee / NoRa
- The best pour over: Jubala Coffee