Caffeine Culture

Late last year, downtown Raleigh lost two of its premier coffee destinations.
Here’s a primer on where else to get your fix.

December was not kind to downtown Raleigh coffee shops. At the dawn of the month, Café Helios—a caffeine-and-culture anchor of Glenwood South’s development for nearly 15 years—shuttered, a move that surprised few who had once called themselves regulars. This, after all, was the second iteration of a Raleigh standby that originally closed in 2014, but its short-lived relaunch was as weak as decaf.

And at the end of the year, Ashley Christensen’s Joule—an aspirational downtown spot that served high-dollar breakfast and brew by morning and dinner and drinks after the sun set—followed suit. For years, Raleigh’s celebrity chef and her staff had struggled to balance the nocturnal with the diurnal and, by her own admission, missed. So she yielded the prime real estate to longtime friend and cook Sunny Gerhart, who will open his oyster bar, St. Roch, later this year.

But these December bookends—or the legally contentious close of Café de los Muertos, which came in early February after months of tax woes and rumors of its imminent demise—do not constitute some nascent coffee crisis in Raleigh. Far from it, in fact: During the last year, several great shops have opened in town, while others have upgraded their pre-existing bean-based offerings so as to warrant another visit. And in a time when it feels like much of this city is in flux, some of the standbys remain, well, steadfast.

For years, Triangle coffee roasters have lingered in the worthwhile shadow of Counter Culture, the Durham-based roaster whose close relationships with growers and unwavering excellence consistently earn it spots on international best-of lists. If you drink coffee in Raleigh at all, whether at Sola Coffee Café in North Raleigh or beneath the glowing neon of the “Coffee” sign at the entrance of downtown’s Morning Times, you’ve had lots of Counter Culture.

But last year, the defiantly quirky Raleigh roaster Larry’s Beans made a big move to step from behind that shadow by launching its own shop, 42 & Lawrence, on the ground level of the 23-story SkyHouse. The staff is gleefully obsessive about its product, open to long talks about grind coarseness and bean origins if given any opening at all. The approach to coffee follows suit, with rather experimental offerings like draft lattes and coffee soda providing an intriguing balance to grab-and-go drip coffees and iced cans of cold brew. (Tip: Get a cup of the drip on Monday and Tuesday for $1 or the more methodical pour-over for $2 on Wednesdays.)

Speaking of other roasters, Stumptown actually hails from Portland, Oregon. But at Videri Chocolate Factory, where the coffee program continues to grow, it is the star. Get it in a mocha. In Joule’s absence, it seems to be a top spot for big meetings, too. On a recent Wednesday, Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane huddled with artist Thomas Sayre (you know, those outdoor rings at the North Carolina Museum of Art), as attorney and former U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross held court at a nearby table.

You can sample other beans nearby, too: In Seaboard Station, Brew rotates coffee roasters and beer brewers alike in and out, offering a long-distance education that doesn’t require you to drive very far. Mere blocks away, in the bustling Person Street Plaza, the affable neighborhood bakery Yellow Dog is one of the few places to find beans from Richmond’s Lamplighter south of the Virginia state line. They make for an ultra-rich redeye, too, if you need extra morning energy.

Speaking of education, make sure to stop into Jubala—the best new coffee shop in Raleigh, bar none, in either its North Raleigh or Hillsborough Street locations—on Fridays. For “Free Espresso Friday,” they’ll pour you a gratis shot, simply because they want people to experience the nuance possible from a bean. Jubala pledges loyalty to the Counter Culture empire, and its baristas are typically so well-trained that you won’t want for anything more anyway. Back downtown, Bittersweet—a dessert shop, bar and hidden coffee gem—sticks to Counter Culture, too. Its coffee window in the ground floor of PNC Plaza is a big-city trip on your walk to work.

Of course, if all this sounds like big-city hooey, here’s a reminder: Cup A Joe’s two Raleigh locations on either side of N.C. State remain quintessential coffee shops, even without the cigarette smoke that once clung to the walls. And what’s more, despite the age, they’ve got the most dependable wireless service of them all. A coffee renaissance, indeed.

Grayson Haver Currin

Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.

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Grayson Haver Currin is the former managing editor of the Independent Weekly and the former editor in chief of the Raleigh Agenda. He has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, and Pitchfork. He is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Come Out & Show Them, lives in Oakwood, and runs too much.