15,000 college students fill the neighborhoods around downtown. The collective spirit of Burlington, Vermont is steeped in leftist politics and all things organic, sustainable and artisanal; all the elements essential to a thriving café culture.
With coffee and tea brewed from the finest and most socially conscious sources, baked goods handmade and fresh from the ovens, and tables perpetually occupied by idealistic locals sticking it to the man, or at least blogging about it, these are Burlington’s best cafés.
Riding the crest of the first wave of “hip” cafes to open in the early ‘90s, this café adjacent the famous Nectar’s Bar is still going strong despite the ten-fold increase in competition. The magic formula seems to be its tiered treehouse-like interior, quirky artwork, menu of earthy baked goods (with possibly the city’s best carrot cake), and long-term regulars. The lack of internet ensures that live conversation or quiet reading remains at the forefront of activity—just like in the ‘90s.
184 Main St.
New Moon Café
“It’s bigger on the inside,” most first-time visitors remark when stepping through New Moon’s averaged-sized door. Indeed, the cafe’s cavernous back section offers the most space downtown, meaning there’s nearly always a seat and enough distance between for private conversation. The café also exceeds nearly every other in lunch options, with a full, open kitchen turning out sandwiches, soups, and salads. It’s systematic and efficient in preparation and delivery, with quirk regulated to the piercings, tattoos, and cadence of its college-aged staff.
150 Cherry St.
It took some time for this neighborhood, a few blocks south of downtown, to get attention, but favor followed soon after, in part for the tranquil atmosphere, but also for its charming, semi-ramshackle appearance. The only downside: an emphasis on open space means there are fewer tables than there could be. However, this ensures the café’s ability to accommodate bicycles and its occasional transformation into an art gallery.
47 Maple St.
The roots of this teahouse stretch all the way to Prague where, during the last few years of communism, tea fans sampled smuggled Indian, Chinese, and Japanese teas in secret—a passion that transformed into a thriving business after the Velvet Revolution. Its first American branch in Burlington remains the city’s premier teahouse, with a catalogue of green, white, black, red, and herbal teas from around the world, all served in handmade pottery or in the traditional vessels of the countries of origin. The exotic element collects further emphasis from the opium den-like interior of beaded curtains, floor cushions, rattan chairs, candles and incense.
80 Church St.
Speeder and Earl’s (Pine Street Branch)
A 20 years-plus veteran in the cafe scene, Speeder and Earl’s has stayed in the same family, thereby earning a similar status with the community. While the downtown branch gets more in-and-out traffic thanks to its size and proximity to offices, the one on Pine Street is dedicated to chilling out, with tables haphazardly scattered throughout the long room. The cafe also benefits from the ongoing transformation of the once derelict industrial area into the South End Arts District, which means plenty of creative types trickling in from the surrounding studios.
412 Pine St.
Scout & Co. O.N.E
At the northwest tip of Burlington’s working class Old North End, Scout and Co is firmly off the beaten tourist path. Any dazzle in the spare, spacious, whitewashed, industrial space dangled with ceiling fans and lamps is reserved for the product behind the reclaimed wood counter. It starts with the espresso made by La Marzocco’s Strada machine and continues with homemade ice cream in imaginative flavors, like beet-marmalade, and smoked maple and sea salt. Natural light is ample throughout the day thanks to two walls of windows.
237 North Ave.
A poem by the Vermont poet Hayden Carruth inspired the name of this bakery inside a renovated garage just off lower Main Street. The raspberry crumb bars, maple biscuits, macaroons, and cinnamon rolls are worthy of their own odes. Since opening in 2009, it has served as the block’s main hang out, particularly in summer, when the two garage doors slide up and cool lake breezes waft through. The exposed brick walls, concrete floor, and ceiling pipery left over from its industrial past life add post-industrial charm. Computer screens and tablets are banned here (your phone is OK, just about).
149 S. Champlain St
In contrast to Burlington’s love of coloring outside the lines, this specialty coffee shop keeps things well within them, at least with the décor, which nods to Italian chic with its curved, mint-green espresso bar and pop art with Lichtenstein-esque prints on the wall. The coffee benefits immensely from the palate of co-owner Jason Gonzalez, who won the national Cup Tasters Championship two years in a row and placed 8th worldwide. Indeed, his wine-like approach to coffee terroir means a set of tasting notes on the chalkboard add a fun aspect to the drink.
126 College St.
As the traditional lower working class district of the city, Burlington’s Old North End can still raise eyebrows if suggested as a destination, but places like Barrio Bakery are beginning to redirect more people in that direction. In the evening, five days a week, the woody, countryside-like interior (with fresh flowers on tables) transforms into a bustling pizzeria. But by day it serves as a quiet café, perfect for nesting with a laptop, coffee, and any number of light, crispy, and savory baked biscuits, croissants, scones, muffins and focaccia, fresh from the oven.
197 N Winooski Ave.
When the sweet tooth starts throbbing and locals want satisfaction with class and quality, they head to this café and cake shop for a slice of chocolate-raspberry mousse cake, mixed-berry brown butter tart or key lime pie. Much of the flavor has to do with the training that owners Alison Lane and Andrew Silva received at New England Culinary Institute, Four Seasons, and pastry shops in France. Add in an above-average breakfast (the hash browns are particularly prized) and limited space, and it can be hard to get a seat at times, so aim for off-peak hours.
198 Main St.