Even the hardiest Alaskans need a coping mechanism or two to help us through the long winter: supplements, blackout curtains, mood lamps. You name it, we’ve probably tried it. And, sure, long walks and Vitamin D are great, but have you tried coffee? One thing many Alaskans rely on is year-round coffee-therapy.
A hot, frothy cappuccino, sipped in a cozy café, can be the perfect cure for the low-winter-sun blues. But caffeinated pick-me-ups are no less valuable in summer when Alaskans are burning the candle at both ends. After all, if the sun never goes down, is it ever really bedtime?
Which is why Alaska’s coffee roasters are household names to the locals. There’s Kaladi Brothers, which grew from a lone espresso cart in 1984 to a burgeoning business with 14 stores around the state (and one in Seattle). There is SteamDot Coffee Co., whose Midtown café features a “slow bar,” where your coffee is ground and brewed fresh to order (600 E Northern Light Blvd.). And then there’s Black Cup Coffee — they serve a full menu of espresso drinks but their motto, as their name implies, is: “extraordinary coffee best served black.” (341 E Benson Blvd.) Undecided? Head over to Sip Coffee Lounge (510 W Tudor Rd. Ste 7) where you can order a coffee flight featuring both Kaladi Brothers and Black Cup brews.
It’s a friendly battle of the beans. Everyone has their favorite, but each of these coffee purveyors enjoys a well-earned popularity.
But coffee can be as much about café culture as it is about beans. A good coffee house is part community center, part extended office, part mental day spa and part art gallery. It’s a great way to learn about someplace new. And in downtown Anchorage, café culture is thriving.
Kaladi Brothers Café at the Performing Arts Center (621 W. Sixth Ave.) in downtown is a bustling space and a convenient spot to grab a cup of stamina while in the midst of souvenir shopping or if you’re on the way to see a show. Another cozy spot is Moose A’La Mode (360 K St.), featuring Homer’s K Bay organic coffee served alongside some of the most delicious cupcakes in town with inventive flavors like s’mores and blueberry lemonade. Another spot that specializes in sweet treats and brew is Gelatte (500 W. Sixth Ave) where, as the name suggests, you can warm up with a specialty drink or cool down with house-made ice cream. Or you can thread both needles and order an affogato, if you want a grown-up sip that pleases your inner child. Another local favorite is Dark Horse Coffee (646 F St.), a cozy, slightly out-of-the-way spot with a reputation for great coffee drinks (which they source from Heritage Coffee in Juneau) and avocado toast. Bonus points for their inviting little porch, where you can sit and sip on sunny days.
If you require a hearty meal alongside your Americano, Kaladi Brothers coffee is served up at the friendly Snow City Café (1034 W. Fourth Ave.). A favorite with locals, this funky, vibrant spot features rotating local art, an impressive variety of eggs Benedict and expertly crafted espresso drinks. I’m particularly partial to their use of tall, sleeved pint glasses to serve large-sized lattes and mochas. Hot drinks taste better served this way. I don’t know why.
Originale serves a variety of traditional specialty Italian coffee drinks. And if you can resist their incredible sandwiches stuffed with imported Italian salumi, then I bow to your superior will power (400 D St.).
For a unique coffee house experience with bohemian vibe, check out Uncle Leroy’s Coffee, a local business that began its roasting in a 1968 bus. The origin story is scrappy but it’s known for serving beautifully refined drinks in a fun, hip atmosphere (701 W 36th Ave #18 in Midtown). Or hit up AK Alchemist (103 E. Fourth Ave.), which describes itself as the perfect mix of “Alaskan culture, urban city swank, and steam punk artistry” all wrapped up into one coffee house.
On the other end of the ambiance spectrum is Kobuk Coffee Co. (corner of Fifth Avenue and E Street). By Town Square, in the historic Kimball Building (1915), this charming little gift shop retains some of its original fixtures and flooring. In a store packed full of unnecessary necessities (old-timey candy, scented candles and teacups), you’ll be hard-pressed to make it to the coffee room without doing some impromptu browsing (and, if you’re like me, buying). Kobuk offers a whole range of espresso drinks and a wide variety of teas but, whichever you choose, make sure you get house-made doughnuts to keep it company. What kind of doughnuts, you ask? Like everything else in the store: old-fashioned.
Husband-and-wife owners George Gee and Deborah Seaton have been running Side Street Espresso (412 G St.) for 25 years and it has evolved from a café into a neighborhood institution. In contrast to the gleaming fixtures of trendier, newer cafés in town, Side Street Espresso is like a living scrapbook commemorating 2 1/2 decades of the Anchorage community. The cozy space is filled with curios, a Buddhist shrine, a lending library, a rack of local postcards, board games and layers of notices about local events. Espresso drinks are expertly made, and George treats everyone like an old friend. But my favorite thing about Side Street Espresso is the art.
George has been creating an original piece of art on white “specials” board almost every day for 20 years. Inspired by his morning thoughts on his walk to work, Monday’s board might announce a Toasted Marshmallow Mocha atop a portrait of Maria Callas. Or Atticus Finch might share space with the price-point for a cherry-flavored latte. George used to erase these daily (with a Zen-like attitude that I cannot fathom) but local public outcry inspired him to begin to preserve them. They’ve now been assembled into a book of collected works called “Flutters from Side Street.”
It’s a reminder that a cup of coffee can invigorate, but a café can inspire.
Mara Severin is a writer based in Anchorage and food columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.