20 Oz of Black Gold: Getting Your Coffee Fix in Dublin

25 Oct

You might have heard rumors in your pre-departure planning that Ireland is a tea-drinking country, and the Starbucks in the airport is going to be the last decent cup of coffee you’ll get until you return to the Land of the Free. You get off the plane and, as you’re heading into the city, you look around. You’re searching, desperately, along every street and down every alley. Not for the consulate or Gardaí presence, not for pubs (you’ll find those later, they look better by nightfall); you’re looking for what will be the focal point of your city map, the central position from where you will embark each morning: a good café.

Fear not. Dublin is a highly evolved, democratic capital, a modern center of education, arts, economy, industry, and, yes, coffee. You’ll find a café counter opposite nearly every pub—indicating their vast number—and, indeed, can even get coffee in the pub. Coffee and its accompanying lifestyle didn’t woo Dublin away from tea until relatively recently, so there are still places you’d be better off avoiding, having been raised to know better. Dublin does have Starbucks. There’s one on the corner of Dame Street and College Green (next to the National Bank of Ireland, near the gates of Trinity). However, unless you’re really missing the Homeland or really desperate, it’s just not worth it. The company is closing down five of their locations in the city, proving that Dublin is learning what good coffee really is (aka not Starbucks) and isn’t as easily swayed by their gimmicks. Learn from their example, and find somewhere else. Just as long as you don’t wander down to Café Wonder, which you’ll leave wondering why you ever walked in (I won’t even tell you where it is). The coffee is burnt, exceptionally unexceptional, and overpriced. If you’re really in a bind and find yourself looking for a sweet, mediocre caffeine boost on Burgh Quay–and I mean, you need coffee in the next 60 seconds or will crumple on the spot–Java Xpress. It’s at least fast and almost kind of decent. Really, though, if you have an extra five minutes, use them to find a better cup of coffee. There is little that is worse than starting your day with a bad cup of coffee.

A step up, and an infestation in Dublin’s City Center, are Insomnia Coffee Company and Café Sol. They’re on every street corner. Not bad coffee, but not great coffee. Doesn’t curdle your stomach acid like a Venti black from Starbucks, but won’t sing to your taste buds at night, either. Low maintenance coffee, and a quick take away.  Maybe on par with Seattle’s Best, a half-step above Dunkin Donuts. Good deals in Café Sol, like any hot drink and a sandwich for €5 or any hot drink and a muffin for a little over €3 (Insomnia does something similar). They seem to add the flavor shot to the milk before they steam it, so even your foam tastes like sweet vanilla or nutty hazelnut. The soups in Café Sol are good, and their take-away porridge (a euro fifty) is a great warm-from-the-inside-out breakfast grab. Best thing about Café Sol? You can order online. There’s free delivery to anywhere in Dublin. And Insomnia has Buy 10 Get One Free cards.

But you’re in the capital of a European country, and you expect—nay, deserve—better. The Food Gallery on Thomas Street in the Christ Church area does good coffee, especially if you like it dark and bold, and all takeaway coffee is €2. The café itself is comfortable, with high, carved, white ceilings floating above inviting, dark leather chairs and sofas, walls decorated with contemporary art, a pretty urn-like bin for your wet umbrella, and a wood burning stove in case you need more than a flat white or a bowl of soup to chase the damp away. Because they do a casual café breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they have longer hours than most other establishments in the area.

Caffe Noto, on the corner of Francis Street and where Thomas hits Cornmarket, is probably the best cup of coffee in Christ Church. The coffee here is subtle and complex. It’s smooth. It’s just the right temperature, not to strong, and never burnt. It’s gorgeous. The atmosphere of the café itself is relaxed and still sleek. It’s inoffensive and easy to be there. The walls are tones of greys and black and white, the exposed brick counterbalances the steel, and the fresh fruit and mildly psychedelic art provide splashes of bright color. It’s a good place to chat up a couple friends or hunker down with a notebook and see who comes to join your table. Caffe Noto gets incredibly busy incredibly quickly, so be prepared to share a table or a couch. The crowd is largely local, friendly, and good to get to know. The baristas are skilled and quick to recognize you as a regular, handing you your coffee with a smile and a greeting. As for the food? Foccacias bigger than your face, beautifully assembled ciabatta sandwiches, mouth-watering, steaming bowls of soup, and a dessert case to make your eyes well up.

Milk & Honey, on Angier Street, is a good place to go if you miss the pushing and shoving of New York City streets. It’s packed. There’s wifi available if you can find a seat, and outdoor seating if you like a cigarette with your coffee. The best part about this place is that if you don’t want to be bothered, if you didn’t want to your conversation overheard, or if you just needed to get lost in the city vibe, everyone here is creating that energy. City slicker crowd: blokes with laptops, suits with mobiles, birds with knee-high leather boots, Burberry scarves and leather bomber jackets. The coffee is decently sized, decently priced, and decently brewed, though more bitter than Caffe Noto. Not inviting, necessarily, but a better takeaway than Café Sol.

Just down Angier Street from Milk & Honey is The Bald Barista, where you can find reputably the best cup of coffee in Dublin (I’d give it that, though Caffe Noto gives it a run for its money). The coffee here is strong, with a deep, rich flavor. It’s damn good. And the baristas here are artists; the mocha got an intricate lotus flower, the cappuccino got a cute little smiley face with spiky hair, and the latte got a pretty, delicate leaf. With quiche and sandwiches and sausage rolls, an assortment of devilish looking desserts and muffins, a variety of breakfast bagels (ever had one with butter and yam?), and a daily list of soups spanning everything from chili to broccoli and brie, there’s plenty of reason to come hungry. There are two couches by the fireplace bookended by free magazines inviting you to sink into them, and even the tabletop seating is padded enough to be comfortable.  It’s a relaxed place, but bustling with a young, friendly energy—which is to be expected, attached to a hostel. It’s a place teeming with diversity, with backpackers and on-the-cheap travelers from across the globe mingling with locals and each other. The people are as bright and vibrant as the red walls, as unique and quirky as the myriad of modern art, as hassle-free as the exposed brick. From the people to the food to the phenomenal coffee, everything about The Bald Barista invites you back for more (and not just the bald barista sending you off with instructions to come back for more). If Uncommon Grounds and Muddy Waters were one coffee shop, it would be The Bald Barista.

Break it down this way: if Milk & Honey is Manhattan, then think of The Food Gallery as Chicago, The Bald Barista as Portland, and Caffe Noto as New York and Boston’s illegitimate, beautiful lovechild.  And that’s just the south side. Roam the streets of Dublin with ease, coffee drinkers, and get your fix. You may even come back a convert, only accepting drip coffee brewed through an espresso machine and craving flat whites like you’re pregnant and want pickles (and go ahead, introduce them to America. They’ll thank you).

Find other great Dublin Cafés? Leave a comment and let us know!

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