When you choose your best place to buy a cup of joe, you get much more than the product of scalding water working its way through ground-up coffee beans. You get conversation, a community center of sorts, offbeat decor and a barista who knows what kind of espresso, cappuccino, mocha or even plain old coffee you want.
You don’t want anybody telling you your locally owned coffee shop isn’t the best in the world.
Jim Merkel of The SouthSider and Metrostl.com ignored that warning and set out to anoint five locally owned coffee shops as the best on the south side. No Starbucks or Saint Louis Bread Co. could apply.
To get the opinions of others, he invited people to argue about it on our Facebook page and then asked around. So he got subjective and picked five he liked. The pot’s sure to boil over this, so let the emailing, Facebooking and tweeting begin.
Below, in no particular order, are his top five.
Rise Coffee, 4176 Manchester Ave.
In the midst of brightly painted pictures in the dining room of Rise Coffee are the words from a Christmas song by John Lennon, “War is over if you want it.”It’s part – but just part – of the thinking of Jessie Mueller, who has operated the restaurant in The Grove neighborhood for six years.
“We’re a breakfast-all-day spot, and we welcome all people always,” Mueller said. “We really try to source quality local ingredients.”
The cafe focuses on the community, which means that many of the customers live in the neighborhood. Its menu includes a breakfast sandwich, breakfast tacos and a full breakfast, as well as Hearty Vegan Chili and a Turmeric Ginger Bowl.
In the coffee house’s years of operation, The Grove neighborhood has grown, Mueller said. “It’s certainly changed over time.”
At the same time, the shop hasn’t forgotten the neighborhood, said Mueller, who was a social worker and a teacher before she started Rise.
In a major plus, it’s the only location among those visited with a handicapped-accessible electric door entrance.
In a program called Coffee for the People, customers can pay for a meal or a coffee for those who can’t afford one.
Shoppers looking for the latest bargains in the Cherokee Antique Row know just the place to go for coffee or a lunch of Vegetarian Black Bean Chili or Pork Confit. It’s The Mud House, where you can enjoy Strawberry Fields salad with such yummies as greens, fresh strawberries, sunflower seeds, cucumber, pickled red onion and goat cheese, drizzled with poppy seed-lime vinaigrette.
Various kinds of coffee, of course, are at the center of the menu in the Benton Park neighborhood shop. Coffee drinkers can talk, work on their computers and gaze at authentic retro decor that includes a bicycle on a wall and old typewriters on a bookshelf in a corner.
“I really like the atmosphere, the decor. I really like the food, the American breakfast,” said Stephen Painter, who was looking at a copy of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” taken from the shelf that held the old typewriters. Of the book, Painter acknowledged, “To be honest, I’m not very fond of it.”
Jerry and Casey Miller bought the shop formerly known as Mississippi Mud in 2009 and gave it its current name.
Manager Ryan Renwick, who started as a barista six years ago, said the clientele included musicians, artists and all kinds of other regulars.
“We try to cultivate a community environment,” Renwick said.
“We’re really, like, ingrained in the community. Lots of familiar faces,” said Amber Muchelli, who has worked at the Mud House for three years.
Kitchen House Coffee, 3149 Shenandoah Ave. and 7700 Ivory Ave.Not many food establishments got their names as the Kitchen House did.
In 2012, Paul Whitsett and his husband, David Rodgers, moved to a house on Compton Avenue. Nearby was a kitchen house, a small building separate from a main house where meals were prepared.
In 2014, they opened their Tower Grove East coffee shop and also called it the Kitchen House. They had chickens behind their house and fixed an adjoining room of the shop so it could house chickens. Their eggs go into the Kitchen House’s egg dishes.
“We opened with urban farming, sustainability and community [in mind],” said Whitsett, who runs the Kitchen House while Rodgers works elsewhere.
“The straws we give out are paper straws,” Whitsett said, offering one example of how he works toward sustainability.
Whitsett, a former lawyer and director of libraries and information systems for the Chicago Public Schools, said the Kitchen House opened its location on the Ivory Triangle of The Patch neighborhood not long ago.
“I did not have a space for a chicken coop. So we have an indoor beehive,” Whitsett said.
Hartford Coffee Co., 3974 Hartford St.
Mel Carenza is a therapist who lives in the Affton area. But when she wants to drink good coffee, to see friends or to devour a munchie, she heads to the Tower Grove South neighborhood gatheringplace, Hartford Coffee Co.
“It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. I meet a lot of friends here. I’m actually waiting for a friend,” she said, as she relaxed on a chair in front of the shop.
Hartford Coffee Co. has a wide selection of hot and cold drinks, breakfasts, muffins, salads, desserts and a children’s menu.
Manager Kyle Rather was general manager of a Hardee’s restaurant before he started working at Hartford Coffee about six years ago.
“I love this place,” he said.
“We get mostly the citizens of Tower Grove South. Young families,” Rather said. “We’re known to be progressive in this area.”
The gathering space for customers extends well beyond Hartford Coffee’s dining room. Children and working moms and dads hang out with other families in a children’s area in the back of the building. Going beyond the typical free Wi-Fi, the shop offers a quiet area for studying in a separate building.
“We have a lot of grad students and other students that take advantage of one of our areas, especially our study lounge,” said Kristofer Claywell, a worker at the store.Shaw’s Coffee Coffee, 5147 Shaw Ave.
Peter Hesed knows well the charms of Shaw’s Coffee. He estimates he’s been taking in the attraction of The Hill neighborhood coffee shop about four times a week for years.
“In my opinion, they have the best coffee of any place in town,” said Hesed, music director at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in the Shaw neighborhood.
“There are definitely different trends. The trend these days is toward a very light roast,” Hesed said. “This is more the old-school, Euro roast.
“Very nice environment,” he added.
Hesed said four things were important in a coffee shop: first, coffee; second, people; third, alternative drinks; and fourth, environment. In The Hill neighborhood, parking is a fifth factor.
Hill resident Jan Devine agrees with Hesed.
“I come here all the time. All I can say is, this is my favorite,” she said.
“We’ve got that old-time charm,” said Ben Thomas, who works at the shop. “It’s great coffee. It’s strong stuff that still gets you through the day.”
Operating in a former bank, Shaw’s Coffee is filled with posh decor, including the original bank safety deposit vault room and a rustic vintage Probat Roaster. Plenty of green plants thrive inside and outside.
Owners Walter and Gail Boyle opened the coffee shop in 1999. The main items on the menu include quiche, apple pie, muffins and scones.