Ever tried a charcoal latte? Check out our 16 favorite coffee drinks from around Silicon Valley.
Caffeinate local with these gotta-try, non-franchise specialty coffee drinks (and the creative spaces they are served in).
Maybe we’re just jittery from our 8th cup of coffee today, but we’ve officially had it with franchised coffeehouse kingdoms. The problem with chains is that their stores all appear more or less the same. You can expect the same cookie-cutter interior and streamlined drink menu wherever you visit — whether the location be Kissimmee, Florida or Kalamazoo, Michigan. For those of us seeking an original experience, these kinds of places just don’t cut it.
In our search for spots that sling more than indifferent cups of caffeine out the door, we selected a number of off-beat indie coffeehouses in and around the Peninsula. Each offers ingenuity and one-of-a-kind environments, evidence of the owner putting their heart into their business. Their brands are personal. Their coffee—delicious.
So encounter the craft and enjoy the care with these distinctive drinks and dynamic décor.
The drink: Voyager serves a number of destination-themed specialty drinks, among them a floral Tokyo latte infused with cherry blossom, brown sugar, and vanilla. To further allow your tastebuds to travel, try the Valencia (which conjures up the sunny streets of Spain through orange blossom water and coconut) as well as the Santiago (which combines cocoa, cinnamon, and brown sugar with a ginger, cayenne pepper kick that will have you imaging afternoons with Chilean asado and views of the Andes).
The space: Continuing its theme of expedition, map prints hang extended from the ceiling and a mural of a galleon ship sails through a coffee cup. You’ll often spot its sociable owners, Sam Shah and Lauren Burns, behind the counter. “Lauren and I made a promise to each other when we opened this shop: never grow the company large enough to the point we cannot work in the cafe,” Shah shares. “We can’t imagine not working in our own cafes. Being side by side with everyone we have taken on our team is sacred and special to us.”
Voyager Craft Coffee// 3985 Stevens Creek Blvd, Santa Clara; 669.241.8835
The drink: To pay tribute to our neighbors from the north, order the Oh Canada Latte! (Yes, its official title includes that exclamation point). The drink blends espresso, milk, cinnamon, and (of course) maple syrup.
The space: To reach Backyard Brew, sidle through a mural-coated alleyway. When you arrive, you’ll find this outdoor cafe is basically a space between buildings — and that’s part of the appeal. Its large personality is furthered by countless quirky little details, bestowing it with a Santa Cruzean-like charm. There’s a mismatched hodgepodge of chairs and tables, random messages and doodles splashed across every available surface, painted octopus tentacles coiling along a storage shed, and a bathroom with superhero comics collaged on its walls.
Backyard Brew// 444 S California Avenue, Palo Alto; 650.704.7785
The drink: 1 Oz Coffee’s turmeric latte takes a mild spice often sprinkled into Indian cuisine, then sweetens it with honey. Besides the pleasing flavor, your warm golden beverage offers some pretty amazing health benefits. Turmeric is said to fight inflammation and boost skin health.
The space: This shop has two locations for you to check out. When the weather is ideal, enjoy a sun-drenched patio in Santa Clara overlooking a grassy knoll. But when a wintery chill starts settling in, retreat inside the Mountain View store. Its sky blue counter will remind you that summer days will return once more.
Castro Street Suite 130, Mountain View//650.254.8555
The drink: The black sesame latte combines tahini (sesame seed paste), condensed milk, and espresso.
The space: The boxy retro arcade games scattered about the shop will add a sweet nostalgia to your visit. Let caffeine fuel your epic clashes in Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Or flee from ghosts with Pacman. (We recommend you pair this particular game with one of the shop’s cookies… because who doesn’t start craving round desserts after aiding our little yellow friend in his endless quest to devour disks?)
Bitter + Sweet// 20560 Town Center Lane, Cupertino; 408.255.2600
The drink: The honey lavender latte is wonderfully self-explanatory. When finally you coerce yourself into muddling the latte art with a sip, you’ll discover a fragrant, floral taste. (To further enhance your experience, picture yourself in purple fields of blooming lavender.)
The space: Within Red Rock’s ruby walls, lies a hub of community connection. You’ll realize it as soon as you spot the vast collection of local art featured on the walls upstairs. In the evenings, people congregate for game nights and open mics. Some Sundays, a group of bikers rendezvous here before heading on scenic rides along the coast. And on Saturdays, a knitting club talks cashmere and cappuccinos.
Red Rock Coffee // 201 Castro Street, Mountain View; 650.967.4473
The drink: Just like the candy bar, Granola’s Milkyway swirls tantalizing layers of chocolate and caramel into your espresso. It’s best savored alongside one of their fluffy Belgium waffles.
The space: Don’t be fooled by this shop’s ho-hum exterior. Within, you’ll discover a chic-rustic oasis: walls textured with strategically rusted tin siding, high-backed leather seats, and tree stump tables. An abundance of natural light pours through the sunroom alcove. And an airstream bus outside offers additional seating.
You’ll also discover an entire herd of elephant decorations across the premises. “The elephant symbolizes good luck, protection and other wonderful things!” owner Kimberly Palmer explains. “Granola’s, being my first business and a huge leap into something I’m unfamiliar with, I wanted to bring in good energy and positive vibes right off the bat.”
Granola’s Coffee House//116 Cabrillo Hwy. N.,Half Moon Bay; 650.440.4692
The drink: The rose latte, a drink the shop refers to as “romance in a cup,” will put you in a flower-y state of mind. Its topped with foam art and a sprinkling of dried petals, and its house-made syrup isn’t overpowering (roses are meant to be graceful not aggressive after all).
The space: Spruce — a word describing someone who maintains a neat, tidy appearance—expresses this cafe perfectly. The space is minimalistic-modern with industrial metal accents, light wood tables, clean white walls, and bare hanging bulbs. It ensures minimum distractions so you can retain all focus on each sip of coffee.
Spruce Cafe & Patisserie// 230 S Spruce Ave, South San Francisco; 650.634.8438
The drink: Prefer white to dark chocolate? The white mocha is a sweet, frothy beverage you’re not going to want to miss. And somehow it gets even better as the days cool towards winter.
The space: Kizler is truly a haven for creatives, its walls and shelves dedicated to local artists and makers. This includes everything from succulent terrariums to a plethora of paintings. Recently, the shop welcomed over Skyline College art students armed with spray paint cans. “I gave free reign, to artists I don’t know, the chance to paint several walls in my cafe,” owner Josh Kizler jokes on Instagram. The incredible result will be on display for the next two months.
Kizler Coffee// 330 Palmetto Avenue, Pacifica; 650.451.3680
The drink: The unusual Saltwater Latte spices up your drink with cinnamon… and blue-green algae? Owner Tawnya Marsh crafted her drinks with wellness in mind, and E3Live algae boosts immunity and cleans the digestive tract. Make sure to accompany this with a gluten-free doughnut. And plan a return trip to taste the Campfire and Harvest Moon lattes.
The space: Saltwater Bakery’s airy white walls display artistic punctuations. Visitors will spy gluten-free pastries everywhere they look. And did we mention it’s a short five-minute walk from the Pacifica Municipal Pier?
Saltwater Bakery//1905a Palmetto Ave, Pacifica; 650.735.9160
The drink: Another option for the nutritionists among us is the matcha latte. “It’s a refreshing way to get those antioxidants” the shop shares of its organic Japanese matcha powder.
The space: Third wave coffee? With a bicycle theme? You best believe this place draws flocks of cycling hipsters within a 20-mile radius. On one wall stretches a series of large black and white photographs of bikes, while 3-dimensional versions display mounted to the adjacent wall. Owner Jihan Bayyari runs the shop with her brother Munir, and chose the theme based off of her time in Sweden (a place where commuting by this mode of transportation is the norm). “We found that when you rode you connected better with your community,” the owners share. “You travel at a slower pace and see things you may not see in a car.”
Cyclismo Cafe// 871 Middlefield Rd, Redwood City; 650.362.3970
The drink: If you’re a coffee connoisseur and shudder at the idea of muddying the distinctive notes of specialty black coffee with sugar and cream, you absolutely must try siphon coffee. There’s a reason its earned a reputation as “the most theatrical of all brewing methods.” After your barista turns on the burner, the vapor pressure pushes boiling water up through a tube and into a beaker-shaped upper bowl. It then vacuum sucks the liquid into the glass balloon below. It’s coffee meets chemistry lab. Can you hear third wave enthusiasts everywhere cackling gleefully like mad scientists?
The space: S’bastians adds some nice natural touches. Succulents hang vertically from a picture frame on the wall. And asymmetric-edged wooden tables stand about the room.
S’bastians Coffee//1725 Woodside Road, Redwood City; 650.556.9700
Oji Old Fashioned at Blue Bottle Coffee
The drink: The Oji Old Fashioned mixes Japanese-style slow drip cold brew with jasmine tea, then garnishes it with orange peel zest. “Flavor in coffee [beans] is a crescendo — no part of the journey is boring,” Blue Bottle asserts on their website, adding that they conduct comprehensive taste-testing to determine the precise number of days it takes each to achieve peak flavor.
The space: Out of several local venues, Blue Bottle’s Palo Alto location is the most intriguing. Before its most recent incarnation, the building’s first life was as the Varsity Theatre; afterwards it served a stint as a bookstore. To get to Blue Bottle, you’ll walk through a gorgeous Spanish-style courtyard full of arches, columns, and string lights. But beyond serving the passerby, Blue Bottle is “on deck to fuel [the] next wave of idea makers.” If you venture past the store and around a corner, the building morphs into Hanahaus — a sizeable community work space complete with white boards, desks, quiet rooms, and that air of startup ambitions.
Blue Bottle Coffee// 456 University Avenue, Palo Alto; 650.326.1263
The drink: The Turkish cappuccino mixes steamed chai into your espresso. And not the wimpy kind of chai. The spicy masala kind of chai. Get ready for the kick.
The space: Sip your coffee surrounded by high-quality running shoes. Perhaps a coffee/sporting store seems an odd pairing at first. But a good run and good espresso both elevate your heartbeat. So why not merge the two? Plus racks of sneakers in every imaginable shade will literally make your trip a more colorful one.
ZombieRunner// 429 California Avenue, Palo Alto; 650.325.2048
The drink: Captivated but a little daunted at the thought of swallowing a black-grey latte? We encourage you to take the leap! Rather than the smokiness you’re probably expecting, you’ll be greeted by a pleasant coconut flavor. But if you need an emotional boost and a grey latte just won’t cut it, try the golden turmeric latte to add a cheery splash of color to your day. Or order an Aztec mocha if you’d prefer your coffee to remain a dependable shade of brown.
The space: Run by a Korean potter and her espresso-loving husband, this cafe provides an attached gallery for visitors to admire (and purchase) Sue’s graceful cups, bowls, or vases. The owner’s ceramic vessels will also be used to serve your specialty drink!
Sue’s Gallery Cafe// 14665 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; 408.202.8079
(Yes, we acknowledge Fremont is a bit of a drive, but the entire concept of Slap Face Coffee & Tea’s is so unconventional we think it’s worth the trip.)
The drink: If you enjoy the chocolatey espresso taste of mochas, you’ll love the red velvet latte. It’s as pleasantly rich as it sounds and the barista will even adjust the sweetness to your preference. The Coconut Voodoo is equally delectable— not to mention fun to say when you order it.
The space: Unsurprisingly, the zaniness of the Slap Face name extends to the interior design. Sip your latte beside a two-story mural of a regal geisha — whose picking her nose and soaking in a giant latte as if it were a hot tub. The property served as a bank before it served drinks so you can also grab a seat in a converted vault.
Slap Face Coffee// 37324 Fremont Boulevard, Fremont; 510.565.1130
The drink: The vietchata mixes a shot of Vietnamese coffee with creamy Mexican horchata. This fusion of cultures celebrates the roots of its shop’s owners: Vietnamese husband Caleb and his Latina wife Candy.
The Space: This cafe, located in Little Saigon, channels a campground atmosphere with moveable stumps, reclaimed wood, and a grizzly bear logo. That theme has a lifestyle attached to it. Candy and Caleb seek to reproduce a space where families gain quality time with minimal distractions.
Tea Lyfe// 8018, 989 Story Rd, San Jose; 408.638.7657
Stay up to date with other coverage from The Six Fifty by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, featuring event listings, reviews and articles showcasing the best that the Peninsula has to offer. Sign up here!
More local food coverage from The Six Fifty:
- Meet the devoted, diverse, slightly crazy coffee roasters of Silicon Valley
- The coolest vending machine in Silicon Valley dispenses…bowls of hot ramen?
- Best sandwich in Silicon Valley? Here are our 13 current favorites.
- Meet the popular pop-up bakers on the rise in Silicon Valley
- Plant-based Peninsula!! The Six Fifty’s guide to vegan & vegetarian eats around Silicon Valley
- At the table: eating with Kenji López-Alt, San Mateo’s ‘mad scientist chef’