In Search of Iowa City’s Best Cup of Coffee

Photo courtesy of The Java House

It’s 7:45 am at a Starbucks on the corner of Clinton Street and the line is trailing outside the door. A room full of caffeine deprived workers and students rush to make it to their morning destination with coffee in hand.

“Grande, sugar free, skim milk vanilla latte,” a middle-aged woman yells out when the barista gives a head nod, motioning for her order. “And make it extra hot,” she adds.

The barista scribbles furiously on the side of a cup, gives a small sigh, and shouts, “Next!”

This hot spot coffee shop is just one of the many places to grab a coffee in the Iowa City area. In fact, this college town is filled with over ten coffee shops, and dozens more restaurants that serve up coffee on the side—even some unexpected ones.

In a town with so many coffee options, I decided to go on a quest to find the very best one.

A self-recognized caffeine addict, I shamelessly admit that I am a coffee snob. I’ve developed a keen taste for all the flavors, aromas and different bean regions that all go into that perfect cup.

Beginning my journey, I decided it would be best to start at the most recognized local coffeehouse in Iowa City, The Java House.

Opening the door to their downtown location on Washington Street, customers are greeted by a strong fresh-brewed coffee scent that trails throughout the space. Antique furniture and abstract art décor draw your eye while sounds of espresso machines humming echo throughout the room.

Chess players, reuniting friends, furious studiers and philosophical debaters often occupy the clusters of tables throughout the building, making it a feat to find an empty seat to sip your coffee.

Photo courtesy of White Rabbit

The Java House coffee is made at their brew bar, which ensures that each patron’s cup is made fresh when ordered. Instead of wondering how long the coffee has been sitting around in a giant carafe, customers watch the barista brew their own cup.

I order their St. Louis Blues blend, and am not disappointed. I can’t decide if it’s the fresh coffee, the cultural atmosphere, soothing aromas or the hipster crowd, but I really like this place, and am assured that their coffee is as good as their reputation holds.

While staying tucked away in this cozy coffeehouse for the morning is an option, the overwhelming crowd of hipsters, intellectuals, and wannabe artists leaves me ready to transition to somewhere else a little more down-to-earth.

Wandering through the pedestrian mall a few blocks south, I run into Starbucks on the intersection of Clinton and Burlington streets. I’m face-to-face with the green sea siren logo that’s come to define American coffee culture in the same way the golden arches defines fast-food, and I quickly grab a spot in the line trailing out the door.

The morning crowd in Starbucks is a mix of professionals dressed in suit and tie and trendy twenty-something women, all in a seeming hurry. Once their detailed orders are called off and served, they rush out just as quickly as they came.

This place isn’t about the ambience or relaxation, but rather efficiency and preciseness of most customers’ highly complex orders.

Photo courtesy of Fair Grounds

Once the barista motions my way, I order a tall (meaning small) cup of the house blend called Pike’s Place. The roast is made of beans from the Arabica region and supposedly incorporates flavors of coca and toasted nuts with a smooth finish. The taste I encounter though is nothing of the sorts. In fact, the only taste I get dull and burnt. Disappointed and unimpressed with coffee that’s been sitting around for who knows how long, I dump in a generous portion of cream and sugar and call it a morning.

The next day, I make a visit to Fair Grounds coffeehouse, just a block south of main downtown area. If you weren’t looking for it, you might completely miss this coffeehouse as it blends right into to the daycare facility located next door. It’s one of those places that a secret from most Iowa City’s mainstream, but that’s exactly what makes it such a gem.

Fair Grounds is known as the go-green, vegan friendly joint that serves coffee using only fair trade beans. The crowd is comprised of the middle-aged hippy type where dread locks, bandanas and a “tree hugger” mentality seem to be the essential components to this counter-culture style.

Although this crowd isn’t my main scene, I somehow don’t feel completely out of place. With ample seating space available, I snag a table to myself in the corner. Plants are abundant throughout the coffeehouse, and time is not of the essence. My order takes fifteen minutes to be made at the brew bar but no one, including myself, seems to be in a hurry.

Taking the first sip of my long-awaited cup is heavenly. Their Seabrook blend is a medium roast that is so smooth and velvety that I choose to just drink it black. After finishing up my cup, I notice my hands are a little shaky with all the caffeine that goes into their large one-size-only cups, but it was so good that I felt obligated to drink to the very last drop.

After visiting three of Iowa City’s most notable coffeehouses, I decide it’s time to look for that perfect cup in some less conventional places.

Walking into Pizza on Dubuque, I’m skeptical that this place even serves coffee, but upon a friend’s recommendation, I’m eager to give it a try.

For a dingy, hole-in-the-wall pizza parlor I’m pleasantly surprised to find an organic coffee menu featuring four distinct blends: Sumartian, French Roast, Colombian and Peruvian.

The girl who takes my order, sporting a lip ring, tie-dye shirt and “screw the world” attitude, rolls her eyes when I chipperly ask for a cup of their coffee. Much to her apparent dismay, she grinds my beans, begins brewing my cup and walks away to make pizzas.

I take a seat to wait with Paul McCartney blaring through the restaurant’s speakers. The phone rings, and after hanging up, I overhear the girl who’d waited on me venting out loud.

“I should know this. That same chick calls here at the same time, and orders the same thing every time!”

She stews while shoveling pizzas in and out of the oven, but after a period of time had passed I timidly approach her to inquire if my coffee is ready.

“You still waiting for the pizza, because it’s going to be a while longer,” she says.

“I’m actually waiting on my coffee,” I remind her.

Realizing her mistake, she quickly brews the last of my cup, slaps on a lid, and hands it off to me. Afraid to try coffee from this less than idyllic place, I take a sip and recognize my worst fears were confirmed.

Seriously watered down and lacking in any flavor, I struggle through the first few gulps. I wonder if this is perhaps the worst cup I’ve ever tasted, but then remember Starbucks’ Pike’s Place and rationalize that maybe it’s not so bad for pizza parlor coffee.

Although a little wary to try a cup from another untraditional coffeehouse location, I make a final stop at The White Rabbit.

A little shop tucked onto South Linn Street, the vintage clothing store/local handmade crafts seller/coffeehouse is just as unique as its name. The shop is stocked with unique finds in every nook and cranny, and carries handmade and vintage clothing and accessories in a back room.  In the center of it all sits a little coffee counter, called Wake Up Iowa City. Customers casually sit on the bar stools and trade stories over their steamy hot cups of coffee, while shoppers around them search for hidden treasures.

Almost immediately, I feel at home in this place.

After scoring through the racks of clothes and checking out all the handmade craft items, I grab a seat at the coffee counter and order a cup. Much to my surprise, the barista tells me it’s only a dollar and pulling out my wallet I begin to panic. I’m struck with the realization that I only have about forty cents on me, a debit card and checkbook. None of which were good options to pay for this $1 cup.

As I explain my predicament to the barista, he kindly hands me the coffee and explains that this is a local business more worried about people than profit and that I’m more than welcome to stop by and pay them back another day.

Taken-a-back by his easy-going attitude, I’m just about to thank him as two older gentlemen on either side of my push a couple quarters and dimes my way to help pay for my cup.

Genuinely grateful, I thank the gentlemen and barista for their kindness and take up cup of coffee on my way.

I’m not entirely sure if it was the idea of getting coffee in a clothing shop, the kindness of the strangers, or the rich, bold taste of the coffee I was sipping, but I realized that I may have just found the perfect cup of coffee in the most unexpected place.

Taste for yourself:

The Java House
211 1/2 East Washington Street
Iowa City
(319) 341-0012

228 South Clinton Street
Iowa City
(319) 338-4788

Fair Grounds
345 South Dubuque Street
Iowa City
(319) 338-2024

Pizza on Dubuque
5 South Dubuque Street
Iowa City, IA 52240
(319) 339-0548

The White Rabbit
112 South Linn Street 
Iowa City
(319) 358-9557

About: Stephanie Weers

Stephanie Weers is a student at The University of Iowa studying Journalism and Art History. She loves fashion, blogging, cooking, traveling and spending time with family and friends. Stephanie enjoys freelance writing for numerous publications, serves as a Fashion Editor for Verum magazine, and hopes to one day become a magazine editor.