In the world of chain coffee shops and convenience on every corner, it’s sometimes easy to forget what an independent shop can offer. Aside from quality and often local ingredients, the communities that are built within these independent shops are hard to find anywhere else. Whether you’re looking for the best chai tea latte in town (there might be a competition) or are looking for a place to sit down and finally write that novel, Saint Paul is overflowing with options. We’ve taken the liberty of rounding up a few here for you, and provided some details that might help you make the switch from chain drip to local small brew.
Ninas Coffee Cafe
If you’re looking for some inspiration for your next novel, Nina’s “has a lot of charisma,” manager Jose Magallon says. Charisma, exposed brick and a long list of writers who have written, or partially written, their books in the café.
Along with aspiring writers, you’ll find a really good cup of chai tea. “We’re told we make the best chai,” Magallon says. But pick anything on the menu and you can’t go wrong—Nina’s uses the old-fashioned machines, and Magallon can attest that this method creates the best results, since his go-to drink is straight espresso.
It’s not a surprise that Nina’s attracts writers since the café is just a few blocks from the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived; Garrison Keillor has been known to stop in for some caffeine. Politicians, including Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Betty McCollum also have been spotted, Magallon says. But while the café attracts writers, according to Magallon, Nina’s sees “all kinds of people.”
165 Western Ave. N.; 651.292.9816
(Nina's Cafe is haven for local writers)
Walk into Kopplin’s, and you’ll feel like you stepped into a northern Minnesota lodge, with wood and stone from floor to ceiling. The large dark wooden bar supports that Midwest feel, along with the always-changing local art on the walls. Andrew Kopplin, who owns the shop with wife Amanda, says Kopplin’s Coffee is best known for its well-made traditional drinks, including in-house espresso, cappuccinos and mochas.
“The traditional cappuccino is truly a favorite. It’s not flashy, but the perfect blend of thick steamed milk and espresso never goes out of fashion,” he says. As for Kopplin’s personal favorite, he adds, “I love a well-made espresso shot—and a hot chocolate with whipped cream in the afternoon.”
If you’re wondering whether or not you’ll fit in with the clientele, Kopplin says, “I’m proud of the fact that our customer base is not narrow.” Students, parents with kids and busy professionals all make time to stop in at Kopplin’s, and he’s had a few celebrity sightings through the years. “Alison Janney was a regular when her brother lived in the Twin Cities,” Kopplin says. And Richie Ramone, the drummer for The Ramones, once stopped in but, Kopplin says, “He might not remember ever having been here.”
2038 Marshall Ave.; 651.698.0457
(Left: Andrew Kopplin, owner of Kopplin’s Coffee. Right: From espresso to mochas and everything in between, customers enjoy the attention to detail at Kopplin’s)
Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar
Depending on the time of day you come to Black Dog, you can find yourself in a cozy café or a buzzing hotspot with live music. “It’s busy [and] constantly changing,” says Sara Remke, one of three owners. “We go from early morning coffee to live music with beer and wine at night,” she says, which is part of why Black Dog is so well known. “We’ve been here so long and we’re an anchor for this [Lowertown] neighborhood.”
Black Dog is across the street from the Saint Paul Farmers Market, so Saturday and Sunday mornings are always a popular time to stop in. Also known for the homemade chai tea lattes with a little extra spice, Remke says her personal favorite is the double short latte, made with whole milk.
Artists, both visual and musical, are regulars here as the nonprofit Springboard for the Arts is located upstairs. The Black Dog’s well-known visitors are often musicians including Brother Ali and Jeremy Ylvisaker; actor Josh Hartnett, another Minnesota native, is another. Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of American Public Media’s radio program, The Splendid Table, has visited as well.
308 E. Prince St.; 651.228.9274
Ginkgo Coffee House
Ginkgo Coffee is welcoming and casual, somewhere everyone feels comfortable, according to owner Kathy Sundberg. “In a building more than 100 years old with original tin ceilings, people enjoy being in the space,” she says.
Made-from-scratch bakery items (try the chocolate chip cookies), funky retail items and music are their claim to fame, and Sundberg says the most popular drinks are their varieties of tea. “We sell loose-leaf tea, bought direct from importers,” she says. Sundberg’s favorite is the Red Miel, made with “red espresso,” which is actually a special grind of red rooibos tea, plus milk, honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. The fresh fruit smoothies are also popular, she adds.
The customers here don’t fit a mold, Sundberg says: “The age range is newborn to 90-plus.” Being near the colleges and universities, students and faculty find themselves right at home. Musicians, too, often show up at Ginkgo, and have included Jason Mraz, Dar Williams and John Gorka; Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Betty McCollum have stopped in at Ginkgo as well, as has St. Paul Saints co-owner—and actor/comedian—Bill Murray. While the Saints played at Midway Stadium, Gingko was the official coffee of the Saints and served espresso in tents along the third-base line. According to Sundberg, Gingko plans to be at the new Saints ballpark in Lowertown, too.
721 N. Snelling Ave.; 651.645.2647
This boutique coffee shop stands out with its craft cups of specialty coffee. “We craft each cup of coffee individually,” owner Matt McGinn says, adding he does offer batch brewing for those in a hurry. This spring, Quixotic will be focusing on cold-press coffee, and customers will be able to purchase it by the growler, much like in a beer or cider taproom.
“We’re edgy, and we’re adding things that are pretty unique,” says McGinn, who took over Quixotic in December and plans to have cold press, root beer and kambucha all on tap. Currently, the customer favorite is the cappuccino, he says, but with the spring menu coming up, it could shift to his personal favorite, a nitro-genated cold press with vanilla and cream.
With St. Catherine University and the University of St. Thomas nearby, students are frequently coming through, along with small-business owners and others. “Some of our regulars are in their 60s and 70s,” McGinn says.
Quixotic isn’t just a coffee house, it’s the home of Blackeye Roasting company. “We’re a startup roasting company,” McGinn says, encouraging people to stop in and support a local startup and taste a cup—or two.
769 Cleveland Ave. S.; 651.699.5448
At Claddagh, you’ll find a beautiful building built in 1891 with high tin ceilings and exposed brick walls, a gem of Saint Paul’s historic charm. “It’s very warm and welcoming, and has the feel of being here forever,” owner Mary Hogan Bard says of her shop.
As for its coffee, Hogan Bard says, “I do Dogwood [coffee], which I think is the best in the Twin Cities.” House-made syrups, local and organic ingredients, and drinks with fun names such as The Claddagh, which is espresso and Irish cream, are what help Claddagh Coffee stand out, Hogan Bard says. Both hers and customers’ favorite is the Hot Molly, a twist on the miel made with cayenne, cinnamon and honey.
And any good Irish lass or lad will feel right at home. “It’s an eclectic group here,” Hogan Bard says. “It’s a great gathering space.” Students, writers and actors use the space for studying and working; book clubs meet over coffee; and Hogan Bard says there is a group that comes every Friday “that’s filled with people from Ireland.” Along with Irish natives, customers include The Voice contestant and Minnesota native Nicholas David, and local musician Dessa.
459 Seventh St. W.; 651.600.3400
(Left: The chalkboard menu at Claddagh Coffee; Right: A customer prepares to enjoy a “hot Molly.”)