Wicked Good Guide to Coffee in Boston

Compiled by Adam Gaffin

Boston has been a coffee town ever since that little Tea Party thing. Today, few things seem to get Wicked Good Conference participants as stirred up as coffee preferences. Here's a summary of their opinions:

In Defense of Starbucks -- by a member of the Oppressed Minority

By "Oppressed Minority" I mean "Starbucks Customer who admits it in public".

I know this town and this message board is Chock Full O' Dunkin Donuts patrons, and I shall endure an onslaught of postings shooting me down, but I've noticed a few threads on coffee lately, and I feel the need to set the record straight on a few things...actually what I really need is a Venti Dark Roast, but I'll have to just type about one until I get into the car.

There must be SOMEONE else out there who goes to Starbucks and prefers it over the almighty, sacred Dunkin Donuts--After all, there seems to be a Starbucks every few blocks in Boston--but there's a Dunkin' every few FEET in Boston, so I feel alone. Please note my observations and let me know what you think--well I know what you think, but let me know anyway:

MISCONCEPTION #1: Starbucks only serves coffee with a burnt flavor, in a consistency resembling a mud puddle, boiled down to make it even thicker (hence the terms of endearment 'Charbucks, Starsucks, Cha r redButts, MudBucks, StarMudds, etc). Not true! Starbucks also has a "mild" alternative that is...milder, but still a little ballsy. I'm not saying every DD customer would enjoy Starbucks Mild, but my wife doesn't like strong coffee, and she loves Star bucks' mild blend.

MISCONCEPTION #2: Starbucks is expensive and DD is a cheap cup of coffee. Not really! Just yesterday in Brookline Village, I got a cup of Starbucks' largest sized cup of coffee. It was $1.70. Then I walked across the street and jus t for sh!ts and laughter, I peered into the window of one of the three Dunkin Donuts in the area and saw that a large coffee was $1.71. There! DD is one penny more! Hah! Cheap cup of coffee my eye! Now I know that Starbucks has lots of fancy drinks t hat take a few minutes just to order and pronounce that cost more, but I also know that DD has some expensive stuff too--For instance I used to work with a woman who liked those DD slurpees in the summertime (what are they called--Culies? Culettas?). Tho se things cost what, four bucks? for a DD glorified Slush Puppie?

MISCONCEPTION #3: Starbucks is a carpet bagging, oppressively huge company from Seattle and Dunkin Donuts is a smaller local company from Randolph just trying to fight off the bi g guys from out of town. NOPE! If I'm not mistaken, Dunkin is owned by a multinational food conglomerate based in Europe--England, I think. Starbucks is based in the USA. Who's local now? Besides, if you really want to boycott products from the Seattle a rea, why are more than 90% of you using a computer that runs on MICROSOFT Windows? Hmmm?

MISCONCEPTION #4: The service at Starbucks is worse--nothing but punkass kids with at least three visible piercings in their face that aren't in their ears--DD has better se rvice.

Excuse me? Mi scusi? Perdon?
Everytime I've ever been in a DD (waiting in line with a coworker to watch their coffee order get messed up) I don't think I've ever seen a DD employee who speaks English. And I have no problem wit h that--because my wife is Hispanic and I grew up in South Florida, speaking more Spanish than English in public. But it leads to a funny story...read on:

My favorite story about the service DD is the woman who went through the Drive Thru at the same DD, every day, asking specifically for a coffee with a LEVEL TABLESPOON of sugar--now there's a real Betty Crocker--she knew precisely how much sugar she wanted--but it always came out way too sweet. She decided to actually make the effort to get out of h er car next time and walk alllll the way up to counter to watch them make her coffee, so she could catch them not paying attention to her order. Sure enough, the guy behind the counter (whose primary language was not Ingles) was scooping spoon after spoo n of sugar into her coffee when she SPECIFICALLY asked for a LEVEL TABLESPOON. Gosh, don't these Hispanic fellows know what a level tablespoon is? It turns out that the guy was listening after all-but he thought she was saying ELEVEN TABLESPOONS of s ugar. LOL!!!! Hey, at least the guy was LISTENING. A guy I work with once ordered a plain bagel at DD with his cream cheese on the side, because he wanted to toast it later at the office and put on the cream cheese while it was hot. The guy behind the co unter shrugged and started spreading the cream cheese on the perimeter of the bagel! Get it? Cream cheese on the side! I SWEAR this really happened.

Seriously, every single person I know who goes to DD (and there's a lot of 'em) has stories a lmost ev ery day how the coffee was too sweet, had not enough milk, etc. I even saw several posts on this very board to that effect. Well folks, if they keep screwing up your coffee, why the hell do you KEEP GOING BACK THERE EVERY DAY and spend your mo ney there? That enforces their behavior, it doesn't change it.

The kids behind the counter at Starbucks may have a piercing or two, BUT they are for the most part friendly, and well trained. In fact, the service is so good it almost gives me hope for t he future of their generation. It might be because they get paid better, have 401K and stock benefits (according to their "we're hiring" flyers). They also have move their lines faster, and have express lines a t some of their busier locations for peo ple who only want a normal drip coffee without whipped cream and all the fancy crap. More than once, I've gotten a voucher for a free beverage when the service was delayed due them training a new barista or if I had to wait a minute while they brewed a n ew batch of coffee.

MISCONCEPTION #5: The only men who go to Starbucks are bedwetting pansies who wear pink tutus and flit around like little fairies--REAL men only go to Dunkin Donuts--like those intelligent looking macho guys in the commercial who are chasing one snowflake with three bulldozers--hey, they're probably on the clock for overtime, they ARE intelligent.

This one isn't true eiter--I hardly ever break out my pink tutu anymore. But I think there is a law somewhere that at least one guy, in any given Starbucks, at any given moment, MUST be sitting in the corner using a laptop computer. Those guys need a hot beverage "accidentally" spilled on them. Whoops!

Anyway, it's really all about the coffee, right?

Let the bashing begin! Bring it!

I loved your article!! It was so damn funny and so true!! I am a recent transplant from Tampa, Florida and I find the number of Dunkin' Donuts in this town rather unbelievable and what is even more unbelievable is that they actually call that dark stuff they pour "coffee". It's simply horrible! What really disappoints me is that my very first cup of coffee years ago (lots of years!) was Dunkin' Donuts and I remember it as being full bodied, somewhat strong and delicious. What happened??? Did the coffee just get weaker through the years? Or has my taste for stronger (read that: good) coffee increased as the years have gone by? It's a serious question and I would love to hear an answer from anyone who really knows....Has Dunkin' Donuts coffee gotten weaker thru the years? Anyway, consider me a member of the Oppressed Minority who will go to great lengths to avoid a cup of DD's lame excuse for a cup of java.

On the general suckitude of Dunkin' Donuts

I agree with you about Starbucks!!! I don't even consider Dunkin Donuts coffee to be coffee!!!

Rick M:
There is almost no reedeming value to the DD experience. You get inline to order and the person in front of you orders three sandwiches and picks out 2 dozen donuts one by one; "No, not that strawberry frosted, the one with the green sprinkles. How many do I have now?" It can be like 'The Iceman Cometh' without the comedy. BUT, you can hear some of the best Boston accents;"one regulah and a lahge dahk with fo-ah sugahs, what does Marie-er want?" And the orange and hot pink decor, its an assault and aggravates my latent schizophrenia.

Michael Kerpan:
As I see it, the biggest problem is not with the specifics of any given Starbucks location (or the staff or the coffee itself, de gustibus..), but with the fact that is yet another symptom of the homogenization of American culture. If Dunkin Donuts was as ubiquitous all across the country as it is here, I would find it just as problematic as Starbucks.

(not a particular fan of the coffee at either enterprise -- and definitely not a fan of franchising in general)

Interesting commentary, but remember this. Before there was Starbucks, there was Dunkin Donuts. And that is where my sentiment lies.

That's all well and good, so they've been around longer. But their quality has taken a nosedive over the years. DD has changed a lot of things in the past few decades about the way they do business.

Back in the old days, before there was Starbucks, DD used to bake all the donuts from scratch in the actual store. You could actually get fresh, warm donuts there. They don't do this anymore. They make them from a mix (i know this because I've seen empty cement-bag sized containers of their donut mix outside one of their stores) and they often truck them in from a centralized location. The only way you'll get a warm pastry is if they put in the microwave for you.

They also used to have better coffee in my opinion, but that's much more subjective of a topic than the stale crappy donuts.

They also used to have better service, and used to have happy people behind the counter who could communicate with their customers.

Just because they've been around a long time and used to be good, doesn't meant they'll get my business, until they bring the quality and service back where it used to be. But of course, they don't need my business, because there are millions of New Englanders like most of you who are completely happy with the way they do things.

Oh, yeah, well at least Dunkin' Donuts isnt' staffed by snobby dorks

Mike H.:
I don't get coffee out much, but have had a good bit of Starbucks because the few times I needed a cup, say at the airport, that's what was there.

I really like their regular coffee. What I don't like is their snobby attitude.

First few times I ordered a large plain black coffee. The punk at the counter says "oh, you mean a venti something or other". That's some snootery for you. I'm thinking you know what I mean kid, just go pour it and let me get on my way. And this has happened at multiple locations!

And every one I've ever been in was slow, slow, slow. Few times I've gotten coffee in DD (usually when I'm visiting Boston), I'm in and out in no time.

Why do they call their smallest size "tall"? Other coffee shops don't do this.
Ron Newman

Yes Ron, that's annoying..it's as if you need a whole new lingo just to order in Starbucks!

Rick M:
Stahbucks is a little full of itself. I've gotten reprimanded for mispronunciations and word order; Me:"I'll have a no whip non-fat caffe mocha, venti" Ariel:"One venti non-fat caffe mocha, no whip?" But their Red-eye, two expresso shots in a drip coffee, is more potent than crystal meth.

The first time I had Starbucks coffee was when a co-worker stopped by there and brought me back a latte (unasked for..as I do not drink coffee). A very kind gesture. I drank it, it wasn't too bad after all. BUT!! some time later I was barely awake at work in the early morning and I really felt like having a coffee (unusual for me). I thought: Hey, that latte was pretty good...

I bought one, it was horrible and I felt sick in my stomach the rest of the day.. judging by comments from fellow co-workers when I mentioned it, Starbucks is NOT consistent at all!

Now one other time I had a taste for coffee, I went to the Dunkin Donuts @ Gov't Center there and wow it hit the spot! WITHOUT making me sick.. So any time there after I needed a hit of coffee (Haha) I went to DD and ALWAYS had a good cup. And it's not a yuppie place to be in. so.. Hands down it's Dunkin Donuts!

I like VERY STRONG coffee, not coffee that was scorched at some point in recent history. Strong coffee SHOULD NOT taste burnt, not if it is good coffee. I don't know how Starbucks does it but I've never had coffee there that does't taste burnt. There are plenty of places to get the good stuff in Boston. I say avoid DDs and Starburnts altogether. I'd tell you by fav. but the line would get longer!

I live in California. The two things that I miss being out here are Papa Gino's pizza and Dunkin' Donuts. I see Starbucks every few feet out here. I don't care for their coffee, but if you need a mega jolt of caffeine you can get it there!

And what's with Starbucks filling cups to the brim?

Sarcastic Sam:
At Starbucks they fill up the cup to the brim so you have no room to put milk or cream in...then you see everbody pouring out the first ounce or two of their coffee into the garbage at the sugar and milk station..brilliant marketing.

Yes they consistently do that. Don't know why, maybe they want to appear to give the most for the money.

Some of the sharper kids behind the counter at Starbucks have asked me if I want "room" when I order a coffee. But that's maybe one out of every ten times. I try to remember to tell them "with room" when order, but I'm usually too sleepy to remember until I'm dumping out the excess coffee.

Adam Gaffin:
Imagine being the Starbuckette who has to empty the trash - and instead of a bag full of lightweight paper, you've got this Hefty bag full of coffee. Yecch! Bruegger's does the same thing.

Former Starbucks worker sets the record straight

Jessica Raine:
Here is my take on the Starbucks controversy.

1. I used to work, briefly, for Starbucks (the one in Brookline's Washington Square, which is quite nice, thunderously yuppified, and large enough to sometimes have live music). Obviously I can't go into detail about their training and business practices. Suffice it to say that Starbucks actively and specifically discourages their baristas from being snotty, and that it will probably earn them a reprimand from their manager once the customer has gone away, but that its trendiness attracts wannabe baristas who are young and deeply impressed with themselves. And who think a 31-year-old manager is a stuffy old unprintable. Draw your own conclusion.

2. I've been a Starbucks customer since drinking my first latte at the original Starbucks, in Seattle, in 1990 (before they came to Boston). Yes, they are expensive. Yes, their coffee is good *if you like that kind of coffee*. (I like espresso, so I'm also happy with Starbucks' more normal coffees.)Yes, a Starbucks can be a good place to hang out if it is clean and the music isn't awful. And they do employ a lot of really nice folks--the people who staff the one on Mass. Ave near Berklee are terrific even when there's an obscenely long line.

3. And yes, if you are paying that much for coffee, you deserve friendly and accurate service. If you're unhappy with the service, write a letter to the manager. Starbucks is pretty good about this. During my 2 or so months of employment, I saw our manager read every single letter that came his way, and post memos next to the schedule board--and some of these letters were compliments directed towards the helpfulness of the staff. One thing about Starbucks is that they *know* they have a store every couple of blocks--at least in Boston--and that if one store pisses you off, you can easily take your business elsewhere.

3. I don't recommend their cakes--the muffins and scones are okay, but stay away from the cheesecake/carrot cake/etc. Do not ask me how I know this.

4. I like Dunkin' Donuts coffee okay, and--if I'm looking to add some empty calories to my breakfast--I would rather eat a donut than a Starbucks scone. I also like Peets and Seattle's Best Coffee, although there aren't enough of them around.

5. The coffee shop which my best buddy refers to as Ow Bone Pain is probably a waste of your time. It was spectacular some 10 years ago, but now a lot of the individual stores have gotten really skanky. Coffee okay, pastries good, sandwiches edible, prices high, atmosphere generally not worth the $$ (except for the one in the lobby of the Park Plaza, and the one in Harvard Square if it's warm enough to sit outside).

6. It's not unusual for the cashier at Peets (the one in Coolidge Corner) to ask me for my name. I guess they've found it avoids people getting the wrong drinks, which is a problem Starbucks does have sometimes.

A pox on both your houses

Fred Sennott:
As a member of the really oppressed minority .Those of us who like an old fashioned cuppa joe.I say there is no defense of "Mudbucks"Their mildest coffee is horrible and acidic. DDs isn't much better they had a good cup of coffee about ten years ago,but since then they seem to be trying to emulate "Mudbucks". Please someone bring back the old fashioned cuppa java.

I used to love donuts any kind plain,jelly, honeydipped you name it. I had never met a donut I didn't like. However while I was a young Merchant Seaman we docked in The Todd Shipyards Eirie Basin In Brooklyn. I went in to Manhattan and I guess I misbehaved a little bit and indulged in just a bit too much alchohol. About 3 AM I was sitting in a greasy spoon on the waterfront wolfing down fresh donuts. At 8 AM i was leaning over the rail of the ship helping to pollute the harbor as I got rid of them. Ever since then if I eat a donut I get sick as a dog for about 3 days. It doesn't matter what kind of donut any kind will do it. I really miss them and its the only food that does it to me.

Peet's: Where everybody knows your name

I like Peet's the best, but only because I get to amuse myself by making up odd names when the cashier asks for it.

Sarcastic Sam:
The cashier asks for your name at Peet's?

Yes, it's a rather odd practice. I don't know whether the idea is that you feel more like a person and less like a purchase (say, like when Starbucks merelely calls out your drink order), but I use it more to make myself laugh.

When a friend of mine was expecting a baby, he used to use potential baby names (male and female) to see how they sounded announced like that.

Ron Newman:
It's pretty common for a restaurant to ask you name if they are taking your order at a counter and you have to wait to pick it up.

Ron Newman:
The folks at Diesel Cafe in Davis Square ask my name whenever I go in and order something, so they can call it out when the order is ready. This feels quite ordinary to me.

Sarcastic Sam:
Feels quite ordinary to me too, unless I'm getting a cup of coffee that takes about 3 seconds to pour. I realize that Andrea was talking about something that took longer to make.

I do like the idea of giving out uncommon bogus names. I think I'll go into Peet's and ask for a cup of coffee under the name...Poindexter or something.

Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts ARE EVERYWHERE

Adam Gaffin:
Oh, God, West Roxbury now has *two* Starbucks. The all-new Roche Bros. on Centre Street has a built-in Starbucks, maybe two miles away from the Starbucks-infested, um, equipped, Shaw's on Spring Street. Thank goodness Roslindale and Hyde Park are resisting (at least so far).

As for Dunkin' Donuts, yes, they are out of control. We drove from Centre Street to Rte. 1 down to Walpole today. Every time we passed a Dunkin' Donuts, I proclaimed "Oh, look, another Dunkin' Donuts!" The daughter seemed to think that was very funny, no matter how many times I said it. The wife showed admirable restraint in not reaching over and punching me.

I think the whole Dunkin Donuts thing is funny.

I moved up here from New Orleans where I had been going to coffee houses since I was 14. PJ's was my fav hangout. There was ONE Dunkin Donuts in town and OH MY GOD you did NOT go there. That was for the drunks and bums. For our donuts we went to McKenzies (which is kind of funny now because they were closed down last year). I was warned that whwn I moved up here there would be a Dunkin Donuts on every corner. They weren't kidding. I have "converted" to Dunkin because its close(5 blocks away) but miss my PJ's ice coffee and the back patio we used to chill out on. Although I do enjoy a good Barvarian Creme donut.

Non-chain alternatives

My favorite non-chain shop is a little out of Boston... definitely close enough to be worth the trip, though. It's called Montego Bay, and is in Needham Center at the corner of Dedham Ave and Great Plain. They roast their own coffee in the store, so it tastes much better that the Starbucks stuff and is also usually cheaper. Also, the food's good (always an added bonus).

Ron Newman:
Another out-of-the-way coffee shop is Perks in Norwood Center. They have live entertainment on Thursday and Friday nights.

Sarcastic Sam:
Oh! Oh! I know another one, not entirely out of the way. On Mt. Auburn in Watertown...can't remember what it's called...the Daily Grind or something similar.

Rick M:
I used to be Starbuck's (if I'm out and about) and Dunkin's(grind-the-whole bean-at-home). Now I'm onto Green Mountain, you can find it in some convenience stores and gas stations and order it online. Their Columbian Popayan is a superior coffee, very flavorful and a balanced bitterness that excites not overwhelms. You self serve out of vacuum carafes into a paper cup. And they're cheaper than either DD or SB.

I'd like to add to the list: Someday Cafe, Davis Square; Renaissance Cafe, Allston Village; Caffe Appassionato, Newtonville; Ben's Coffeehouse, West Newton; 1369 Coffeehouse, Central Square and also Inman Square.