Popularly referred to as “The Most Depressing Starbucks in America,” the Highland Park outpost of the ubiquitous coffee chain–which was immediately and intensely criticized for being uninviting and downright ugly when it opened on York Boulevard last summer–is getting a makeover. The Eastsider reports that after some permitting delays, the drab little stuccoed box is being refurbished with plans for improved patio lighting, nicer bathroom doors, extra seating, and more accessible entrances.
While we’re glad for that, and though we understand the convenience factor of Starbucks, we can’t help but state the obvious: There are many better places to get coffee nearby. Here are our picks for grabbing a great cup of coffee while–and also after–the new store is under construction.
One of the most charming and colorful spots in the neighborhood, Elsa’s is better than ever these days. Along with delicious pan dulce, empanadas, and Mexican wedding cookies, one of the best items on the menu is the Cafe de Olla, a hot, comforting mix of coffee, piloncillo (similar to brown sugar), cinnamon, and anise. There’s also the Frida’s Mocha, inspired by artist Frida Kahlo’s favorite morning drink and made with Oaxacan chocolate and two shots of espresso. There’s regular, strongly brewed coffee, too, and if you drink it there, they put it in traditional clay mugs, which improves the experience.
Elsa’s Bakery, 5100 York Blvd., 323-256-9455
This vegan-friendly newcomer has a good coffee menu whether you’re looking for a Stumptown pour-over or a basic Jones drip, the latter of which is competitively priced with Starbucks at $1.75 for a small and $2.25 for a large. Specialty drinks are more expensive, but where else in the neighborhood are you going to get a shot of maple vanilla-bean syrup in your latte? Kitchen Mouse also has a sufficient hot and iced tea selection, including their spiced-up House Vanilla Chai. Grab a peanut butter and jelly thumbprint cookie while you’re at it.
Kitchen Mouse, 5904 N. Figueroa St., 323-259-9555
Cafe de Leche
It’s a ways down from Starbucks, and the line can be long, but it’s hard to beat the brew at Cafe de Leche. The corner coffee house serves Stumptown and a menu of inventive drinks, including the extremely popular Horchata con Espresso. Their mochas are sweetened with agave, and the chai lattes are very smooth, but the bakery selection isn’t the best. Parents will be pleased with the play area in the back, and this weekend, a new park opens across the street. If you’re pressed for time, head over to their sister spot, Schodorf’s–it’s on the same block, and the drip coffee is the same brand and quality without the wait.
Cafe de Leche, 5000 York Blvd., 323-551-6828
Hidden in the teeny Highland Park-adjacent Garvanza neighborhood right next to a skate park, this cute little spot serves healthy food and coffee from Bar 9 out of Culver City. There’s no espresso machine, but you can get a nice cup of Guatemalan drip or some cold brew if you need to be on for hours and hours. Amara also specializes in caffeine-substitute drinks that use dandelion and chicory-root powder to amp you up. The tea selection is by Tulsi, and the iced rose tea is an aromatic treat. The baked goods, despite being gluten-free and paleo-friendly, are usually on point.
Amara Kitchen, 519 N. Ave. 64,
This neighborhood gathering place attracts a daily crowd of new and long-time residents. The service is jovial, and while the coffee isn’t outstanding, it’s adequate. This is a great stand-in for Starbucks if you’re a Frappuccino lover because Antigua serves up ice-blended coffee drinks, like a sweet hazelnut mocha concoction with whipped cream on top if you wish. The big bread rolls are soft and pillowy, the Guatemalan cookies are simple and addictive, and the breakfast burritos are enormous.
Antigua Bread, 5703 N .Figueroa St.,