Mark it up!
So what’s the story with you and coffee? I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was 30 (I’m over 40 now) and now it’s an essential drink for me. Good coffee makes for a great drink for waking up in the morning, for your work day, or just gathering with friends.
Let me know what you think of the coffee shops rated and your thoughts!
So, how do you assess coffee shops? With the following criteria, rating from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent)
- Variety of coffees
- Flavor of Signature / House Blend
- Quality of lattes and other drinks
- Service and knowledge of staff
- Quirks and nuances
Taylor Books – 226 Capitol Street, Charleston, WV
One of the most well-known spots in Charleston has quite a bit to offer, and when you go to Taylor Books, it’s important to remember that it is not only a coffee shop. As the name implies, it’s a bookstore and an amazing one at that. However, it does have a coffee shop, pastries, and it’s maybe the most well-known local venue in Charleston. The owner, Ann Saville, has established a great place for people to shop for books, drink coffee, enjoy one another’s company, and experience art and other cultural activities.
The strongest quality of Taylor Books is, without question, its atmosphere. Situated on Capitol Street, the old school brick building creates a vibe which allows people to feel as though they were in a larger, more urban coffee shop. The shop has three large rooms, one dedicated to books and magazines, another for coffee and café area, and a gallery housing artwork. It’s an impressive setup and you could easily wander around the shop for a solid hour checking everything out. The café area itself has a mixture of cool seating, including wingback chairs and what appears to be an old church pew. There’s no shortage of places to hang out and work or just sip on a drink and soak in the environment.
Taylor Books also regularly hosts a story hour for people of all ages and on (pre-COVID) Friday nights, live music was a fixture. You can also shop at their online store, so accessibility is easier than ever. This is an added bonus if you enjoy shopping local. The atmosphere at Taylor Books is the gold standard for a coffee shop and if there is any drawback, the parking on Capitol Street is ridiculous. There’s nothing Taylor Books can do about that, however.
Atmosphere Rating: 5 out 5
Taylor Books also has a pretty strong menu. There are a number of cookies, scones, brownies, pies, and other pastries which are all solid. Though you can’t go wrong with any of these choices, none of the pastries really stand out in my mind.
In addition to the sweeter stuff, there are a number of other options if you’re looking for a light lunch. Soups, salads, various sandwiches, and muffins are all available. Taylor Books also serves different teas, wines, and they feature a locally brewed beer from Bad Shepherd Beer. I’m not a drinker, so I can’t speak to the quality of the alcohol, but the variety of drinks is pretty wide.
There are a number of good options for snacks or a lunch, but my one struggle here is that there isn’t any option which is great. I’d never just show up for a specific menu item and that’s not the case for other places I’ve been. Still, you won’t be disappointed either.
Menu Rating: 4 out of 5.
Atmosphere and menu are excellent at Taylor Books, but their weakest link is the most important in my mind. The coffee there is terrible. There is a house blend, but it should probably be labeled house bland. I might as well be drinking Maxwell House from a 10 year old Keurig. I’ve tried it on multiple occasions, hoping I would be wrong, but every single time I’ve had the coffee, it’s simply not any good. They usually have a few different roasts brewing, but I don’t know I could tell the difference between them. That’s all I can say about it.
Coffee Rating: 1 out of 5
Okay, so the coffee isn’t great, but what about lattes and other hot drinks? The rating will already be low if they’re using bad coffee or espresso as a base for these drinks. Of course, sugary syrups, cream, or steamed milk can cover a multitude of offenses. These can make even a bad mocha not a bad mocha. If you’re searching for a sophisticated coffee based drink, go elsewhere.
Hot drinks: 2 out of 5
The folks who work at Taylor Books are generally kind, helpful, and have the ability to make thoughtful book recommendations. Their ability to discuss coffee? Eh, it’s spotty. Some of the employees I’ve questioned about drinks seem to have a decent knowledge, but it’s hit or miss. And I can’t be too critical here, because, again, it’s primarily a book store. It’s also worth mentioning that the owner, Ms. Saville, has gone out of her way to create a great space for the people of Charleston.
Staff rating: 3 out of 5
What’s the overall take on Taylor Books? It’s easily a fun place to check out that will offer cultural experiences, events, and some good food. However, it’s not a place you choose to go if you’re wanting great coffee. You’d be better off with Starbucks. I said what I said.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
Mea Cuppa Coffee Lounge – 715 Bigley Avenue and 800 Smith Street, Charleston, West Virginia
My second coffee shop review takes me to the fast streets of Charleston, where the community of the West End is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. The pandemic has slowed some of that progress, but Mea Cuppa is one of many local businesses to weather the tough times.
Former Texan turned Mountaineer Venu Menon started Mea Cuppa as a coffee bar in downtown Charleston’s Capitol Market (which has a number of great places to shop). I stumbled onto Mea Cuppa when picking up a gift card for the market several years ago and it’s safe to say it was a good find. Since opening, Menon branched out and established a stand-alone shop in the Elk City area of town (the gateway to the West End).
Let’s start with one of the stronger facets of Mea Cuppa — the coffee. In traveling through Southern West Virginia, Mea Cuppa has the best coffee. Full stop. I know I need to venture northward but this place has what you want. First, they have two house blends that are unique to their shop. Mea Cuppa works with Mountaineer Roasting Company out of Morgantown to provide two exclusive roasts — the “No. 17 House Blend” and the “Dangerous Espresso.” Both are worth purchasing and in bulk. Until last month, I’d never bough a five pound bag of coffee, but the Dangerous Espresso currently sits in my kitchen. It’s that good.
In addition to the house blends, Mea Cuppa has solid array of top roasters from around the country. A particular favorite of mine is Onyx (the “Geometry” and “Monarch” blends are noteworthy). Mea Cuppa also brings in different blends from Peach Coffee Roasters, and for these, I’d recommend checking out “Dirty South,” a ridiculously good dark roast with some chocolaty smooth finish.
Coffee rating: 5 out of 5
Another great strength of Mea Cuppa is the staff. Venu Menon himself is a hard working guy and manages both locations but employs a number of people who all represent the work ethic and coffee knowledge you’d hope to find. The employees receive extensive information about various types of coffees and their flavor profiles and the necessary training to make anything you might want. Everyone is pleasant, attentive, and they generally engage the customers in a positive way. Though Menon owns the shops, he’s constantly pitching in to help the baristas and making trips between locations and to stores to pick up necessary supplies.
Any time the staff is experimenting with new techniques or coffees, they offer samples and take feedback. They have a good ear for the type of music playing in the background, and it’s never anything intrusive if you’re there to work or read.
Staff rating: 5 out of 5
Atmosphere always presents a unique challenge when you have a coffee shop. What kind of vibe do you want while not being cliché? Well, Mea Cuppa puts off a nice 1950s style with the vintage tables, chairs, and overall color scheme — right down to the bathroom faucet which looks like it came straight from my grandmother’s house (okay, everyone’s grandmother’s house). The Elk City location has a retro feel and Mea Cuppa fits in with the concept.
The large open window faces to the east and allows for significant amounts of natural light which is no small matter. The bright colors add a little something that cuts against more traditional looking coffee shops (like a Taylor Books setting).
The Elk City location includes a type of bay window that lets you sit and enjoy a direct blast of sun while you read or work, several cabinets housing the various types of coffees you can purchase, and it would not be as complete without a giant Velvet Elvis portrait.
Mea Cuppa’s Capitol Market location doesn’t have the same type of atmosphere as the stand-alone shop in Elk City, but that it does fit its environment. Most of the folks at the Capitol Market don’t typically go to sit down for coffee. Generally speaking, they buy coffee and shop around for other items, so it’s more of a true coffee bar where you get coffee and move on.
Atmosphere rating: 5 out of 5
What about the menu? Yeah, we expect coffee at a coffee shop but the menu matters. What do they have that’s worthy trying? The hulking chocolate chip cookies are great stalwarts and if memory serves me correctly, they have just enough walnuts mixed in to make it interesting. The ‘everything’ breakfast cookies incorporate a variety of items and despite sounding like they just threw it all together, it’s solid. The chocolate filled croissants are top notch. My newest favorite is the raspberry and cheese danish. It’s a great change of pace from the typical cookies and chocolate items.
A great deal of the menu is made in the store, while other foods and pastries are sourced from around Charleston’s various bakeries. It makes for a nice mix, and the lone issue someone might have is the limited nature of the menu compared to other locations.
For instance, our previously reviewed shop, Grindstone, has a wider array of items on the menu. Don’t take this as a negative — even though they don’t have quite as much available, they rotate different ideas in and out so the lineup is always evolving. Everything I’ve tried at Mea Cuppa rates above average and priced pretty well when you consider what you’re getting for the money.
Speaking of the pricing, we’re phasing that into the menu aspect of things, because frankly, the prices for coffee at a legit shop are all relatively the same and a separate category for it seems superfluous at this point.
Menu rating: 4 out of 5
What about the other drinks? How do those rate? Quite honestly, I do not know. Despite having been to Mea Cuppa at least 50 times, I have never ventured into the other drinks. Why? Because the coffee is that good. Every time I go, I want to try a different type of coffee and that matters to me far more than lattes, cortados, or espresso. I know, I need to make it a point to sample everything, but the variety of coffees always has me trying those instead of other drinks.
Hot drinks: TBD out of 5
The overall Mea Cuppa establishment is the gold standard of coffee shops in the region. They have all the amenities you’d expect and, side note, but the wi-fi is reliable. Both locations are easily accessible and parking is not an issue. One strange quirk is that they don’t have as much of an online presence as you might expect, but you can reach out to them on Facebook.
If you’re going to be in Charleston or traveling through, this is the place you want to stop for coffee. Take home a bag of either house blend and thank me later.
Overall rating: 4.75 out of 5
Grindstone Coffee – 816 8th Street, Huntington, West Virginia
So, for my initial coffee shop review, I felt an obligation to rate a local establishment. I chose Grindstone Coffeeology, which has established itself as a popular location in Huntington for a caffeine fix. I’m not a believer in leading with the negative, so let’s take a look at some of the strengths of Grindstone, and there are a lot!
Grindstone’s owners and staff might be the most significant asset of this place! Brendan and Helen Fenn moved to the Huntington area from Australia and opened Grindstone in 2015. They first operated with a truck, operating in various places within the city. After establishing a loyal following, they bought the old Sam’s Hot Dog place on 8th Street, making it easily accessible and within walking distance of Ritter Park.
The Fenns are highly visible in the day to day operation of the shop and have hired a number of additional staff who are kind, friendly, and knowledgeable about the craft. The employees make it a point to know your name, learn your drink and food preferences, and have the ability to make solid recommendations based on your tastes. The staff seems generally to enjoy their work environment and there’s not much turnover.
Staff Rating: 5 out of 5
Let’s move on to the physical atmosphere of the building. The Fenns added to the original structure by refurbishing an old shipping container which offers additional seating both within the container, and above it. The upstairs features tables, a light canopy, and lighting. The area is always clean, chairs and tables have enough space and comfort, and the shop has a house located behind it which appears like it might be part of an expansion project. Grindstone ideally focuses on the great food and coffee while keeping an eye on progressive expansion, and you have to appreciate that.
The COVID-19 pandemic does dampen the atmosphere only because of the narrow nature of the container section of Grindstone, but this does not seriously diminishes the atmosphere in the long term. Moreover, if you’re not feeling like venturing inside the building, Grindstone features an easy drive-thru service that moves quickly. If there’s more than two cars in line, you see the staff physically outside at the window of each car, collecting orders to expedite the process.
Atmosphere Rating: 4 out of 5
Okay, so what about the coffee? And yes, I mean the hot coffee. No disrespect to you people who like the cold brew, but I’m not a fan. So, what do we know about Grindstone Coffee? This actually might be my only complaint about Grindstone — the coffee isn’t as strong as I would like it. I’ve sampled what they keep brewed at the shop and I’ve bought a few bags of their beans for home use, and it’s not strong enough. This critique comes with a caveat, however. I like medium to darker roasts, so if you prefer a lighter roast, then you might be a fan of the brewed coffee at Grindstone. Grindstone does roast their own beans on site and they have a solid variety of origins. It’s not my favorite, but it’s worth checking out.
Coffee rating: 2 out of 5
Though Grindstone features lighter roasted coffee, I have tried a number of their other hot drinks and they are fantastic. Without a doubt, my favorite of the hot drinks is the caramel macchiato. It’s the ideal blend of a coffee flavor with just enough sweetness. Their version of this classic drink outperforms Starbucks and so does another classic … the mocha latte is another solid blend of coffee and sweet flavoring that has just a little bit of an edge over the corporate alternative. Pro tip: the maple flavoring they use added to any drink is a nice touch. Looking for tea? Try their version of the London Fog, or the dirty chai.
For you folks who like a little variety, Grindstone offers every type of milk substitute available and if you’re more basic in your tastes, you can’t go wrong with a flat white, misto, or straight latte.
Hot drinks rating: 5 out of 5
Most coffee shops have pastries or food offerings of some kind to pair with your drinks, and Grindstone excels in this area. If you go, you must try the sour dough toast. It’s a sweet bread with blueberries baked in, toasted with butter. I would literally eat this every day if I could, and if it’s the only thing you purchase at Grindstone, it’s worth the trip.
Beyond the glory of the sour dough toast, I’d recommend the homemade donuts as a must have. Many, if not most, of the pastries and food are made on site. Grindstone does bring in a few items from other local shops, but there’s nothing bad on the menu. You don’t ask if they have cheesecake, you ask if they have mocha or blueberry (or a new flavor). Scones? They have them. Banana bread? Check.
If your tastes are a little more in the savory, then you still have plenty of options. Sandwiches, bagels, breakfast muffins, grilled cheese croissant, and soups are all available.
Menu rating: 5 out of 5
With all of these options, you’ll want to know what to expect in terms of price. And one aspect of Grindstone that deserves all the praise in the world is how they price everything — with tax included. So if an item is listed as $3.00, that’s exactly what you pay. For that reason alone, they deserve a perfect rating. I don’t know why America refuses to adopt this concept, but the Australians have us beat on this one.
Now, with respect to the prices of the drinks and food, it’s not too dissimilar from what you would find at Starbucks. Some items are a little more expensive, some are less. It truly depends on what you order. However, if you’re comfortable spending money at Starbucks, then you’re comfortable spending money at Grindstone
Pricing rating: 5 out of 5
So what else makes Grindstone unique? The story of the place is great. Local business started by Australian immigrants in Huntington and they thrive at what they do. They add to the community and while there’s a place for larger chains, America loves the small startups. The Grindstone brand also is important in terms of doing their own thing. Yeah, you can try all the classic types of coffee, but they put their own twist on items and make most of their food and roast their own beans. You have to respect the hustle and grit of these folks, carving a place out for themselves in an industry that corporate giants like Starbucks and Dunkin’ have saturated. The low turnover of the staff is commendable in a time where loyalty isn’t the strong suit of our world
Want to know more about Grindstone? Check them out at https://www.grindstonecoffeeology.com and see more for yourself. Their site also has links to their Facebook and Instagram accounts so you can follow them on social media for all the latest additions to their shop.
Overall rating: 4.3 out of 5