Ah, coffee. That still-legal drug. Moreso, the vehicle to my tourism. Coffee culture is rampant here, and (as you’ll see), varies just like music in terms of its “purist” product. Most lists you’ll find showcase high-end roasters that boast the best pour-overs or nitro brews; others are the standard business ventures with specialty lattes that equal the sugar content of dessert. Whatever your fancy, just know I had no awareness of this spectrum as I toured around (in fact, I had to google why pour over coffee was so damn special when I feel like it’s the same basic process as coffee at home… lols). Soooo, just know I’m more of a coffeeshop enthusiast than a coffee snob (I like the term “purist” better). Thus, the following are not the most famous coffeehouses in San Diego, but places that I’ve encountered as a byproduct of needing to work, with a little boost. 🙂
Disclaimer: I gravitate mostly toward lattes, given my dearth of knowledge in coffee-making lore, so keep that in mind as you read. I’m trying to be better about this, especially with SD lattes being so sweet!
As my postdoc friend Evan and I found out, most legitimate coffee shops/ bistros in SD just don’t cater to the nocturnal crowd. Nearly every coffee shop closes sometime before 5pm, if not earlier, and any semblance of a 24-hour spot is nearer to the La Mesa area closer to SDSU. Makes sense, since a lively, diverse and humanities-heavy college scene would allow for more reliable crowd. UCSD, which majorly hosts the natural and physical sciences, would definitely not fit that type. Despite this, shoutout to my international group of postdoc friends, who have the same dependencies on coffee and stumbled on a few of these with me 😛
James Coffee Co (Little Italy). My postdoc friend group came here after a long morning of sightseeing, hoping for a pick-me-up. Did not disappoint. It had that SD culture that I’d sought after in North County but could not find. A renovated industrial hangar/complex, there are several small boutiques within it, including a old-style barber shop (what?!). We all ordered the cinnamon honey latte and proceeded to sit in their lobby for four hours, getting to know each other intimately for the first time. Meanwhile, many others were seated against the walls working or talking, so it provides a great space for both social and personal work. I hate that it’s so far away, or else I would go there often!
Communal Coffee (North Park). When you first walk in, it looks like a flower boutique with coffee as an afterthought, but once you get past the outdoor nursery, the flower arranging workshops and the initial boutique display, it’s actually a wonderful coffeehouse. This establishment has built a great reputation in North Park, which only means it can get overcrowded, especially during weekends. Their avocado toast is hands down the best I’ve had; it was actually my first and now prototypical version of the avocado craze on the West Coast which has yet to be topped.
Subterranean Coffee Boutique (North Park). I really wanted to like this place given its location in North Park and the ambience of its sitting area – a dark, minimal, 80’s flea market vibe. I visited back in March during my initial interview and again a few weeks ago, and I don’t think I’m going back. Their sandwiches and toast are pretty subpar (they don’t toast the bread, making everything soggy) and the lattes were way too sweet. If it’s close by, I’d probably grab a coffee, but given the price wouldn’t seek this place out again to work.
Zumbar (Sorrento Valley). Their coastal location tends to be the ideal spot, but I visited their first and smaller location in Sorrento Valley (~5 minutes from work and home to their roaster). This location is cramped and best for a grab and go, but their coffee and baked goods are excellent. Their menu sticks to the pure originals – mocha, espresso, latte, drip, etc. – with the dressings left off any infographic. As expected, I checked to see its reputation and it tends to be one of the more ‘purist’ coffee places in the area. Definitely lives up to its reputation, and with it on my morning commute, will probably head here often.
Bad Ass Coffee (Ranchos Peñasquitos). I stumbled upon this place in my quest for car insurance. This place has quite the reputation in PQ given its controversial name, but its Hawaii-themed, Kona-centric menu is worth visiting. Their specialties revolve less around purist coffee and solely around their specialty lattes (all with added chocolate), so come here for that desert frappe or drink. Though many people work here, their walls are lined with wicker patio furniture and their tables in the center, making camping there for work difficult if you need a plug. There’s a food menu covering all the basic kinds of breakfast and lunch, though not anything you couldn’t make at home. Given its proximity to me, I tend to go here a lot, but only with a charged laptop and with a craving for a Monkey Mocha (banana, chocolate, and espresso for the win!).
Better Buzz Coffee Roasters (Mission Beach). Located on the tiny strip of land between PB and OB, I picked this place mainly because I planned a self-care evening by the water. Turns out this location, located on the strip of stores just beyond the beachfront, hosts a pretty decent sitting area – bigger allegedly than what the PB location offers. Come here (like I did) early to nab a parking spot, finish working, and then head to the beach for the evening. 🙂
Lestat’s Coffee House (University Heights). As one of the few 24 hour coffee spots, this tends to be one of THE spots for those SDSU students who enjoy camping out with a stack of books on a Saturday night. The seating area is GIGANTIC and full of laptops. Like Bad Ass Coffee Co., their menu is full of sweet specialty lattes that will leave your eyes twitching, but there are simpler and more purist options as well, and the staff is young and social. Unique to Lestat is their glass case full of desserts that will leave your wallet empty (cheesecake or no cheesecake?). The gothic interior is also fun to behold.
The Forum Coffee House (Clairemont). Situated in the center of Clairemont, this is the camping area of most UCSD students entrenched in calculus or chemistry homework. The place was PACKED with them when I visited on a Saturday near the end of summer quarter. It’s got that typical modern contemporary feel, and their menu covers the basic ‘ins’ of most coffeehouses now (avocado toast, lavender vanilla lattes, etc.). Unique to Forum is their nitro cold coffee menu, which I didn’t try, but seemed to be their bread and butter.
Newbreak Coffee & Café (Ocean Beach). Literally right off the beach, Newbreak is decked in tiki yellow décor and filled with half-dressed people needing a quick cap before they head back to the beach. (“Ocean Avenue” played in the background as I worked, if that gives any context to my experience.) There are a variety of tables to accommodate solo, work, or social needs, and they had an extensive food menu (sandwiches with fries and the like). Given there were several other more “purist” coffee shops in the area (e.g., Lazy Hummingbird, the Coffee Method) and cultural spots (e.g., Jungle Java), Newbreak seems to be more of that beachy, lighthearted environment that you visit after a day in the sun. That said, I did get a lot of grant work done there 🙂
Skybreak Coffee + Dessert Lounge (Downtown/Seaport). Like the name states, this is less of a purist coffee place and more of a contemporary lounge to socialize (sweet alcoholic drinks included). Nestled under a hotel plaza and a quick walk away from the Convention Center, it was a nice place to sit, if not check an email or two. From what I read on Google Reviews, the sandwiches (which I did not try) are top notch. Evan and I both grabbed a latte and one of their showy desserts. Though both were good, they were incredibly sweet together, and I was hurting for water after that visit.
Elixir Espresso Bar (Downtown). Situated just off the trolley route, the term “bar” is a pretty good description in lieu of “establishment”, because that’s really all that Elixir is. Beyond the initial counter right as you walk in, it’s pretty clear that the seating area is the blank space of an industrial office building lobby they filled with a few tables and chairs. In the back of the area are mail slots, a really cool and still functional antique elevator, and stairs that led up toward the interior hallways of shared office space. As Evan and I sat down to work, people came in and out to check their mail, or head to offices upstairs with little thought of coffee. That said, the coffee was well-made, and their gelato(!) selection was incredibly tempting.
Specialty’s Café & Bakery/Peet’s Coffee (Downtown). There is nothing special about this place. It’s pretty much a diner at the bottom of an office building that’s a waterhole for deli sandwiches and Peet’s Coffee. The only reason why I kept it on the list is because it boasts a MASSIVE seating area that’s pretty comfortable and provides free WiFi, making it a no-brainer place if your main priority is work – not culturally unique coffee. Just an FYI/shoutout to all the work-obsessed people, and those in downtown with nowhere to go.
Mostra Coffee (Carmel Mountain). This place is one of the few “Best Coffee Places in SD” establishments that’s remotely close to where I live. It’s also only open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, which fuels its reputation. You would not guess that such a place exists where it does. The place is hidden within those small industrial complexes you glance over while driving (you know, the place you buy carpets and tiles and such). Its interior also reflects that; there is no lobby to speak of, and just a cashier station and their bar (their roaster/backroom takes up most of the rented space). Just from their menu, I could tell their pour over and nitro cold brew were their highlights…. and also, from the mediocrity of their campfire latte (sorrrrry….). I feel bad, but it was lukewarm and not remarkable considering it’s online reputation. Regardless, I can tell it’s a well-loved place from the sociability of their staff and the patrons that milled around outside. I definitely plan to go back sometime, just to try something different.
Obviously… Starbucks (various). Yes, this place is a like a disease here. There are locations just blocks from each other, though closing times vary widely. Near where I live, PQ Blvd and Mira Mesa are best for the evening work sessions. Most I’ve seen though close around 9pm.
STILL TO GO: When I checked “top lists” of coffeehouses in San Diego, I was surprised to see a large number of, reputable roasters and bistros that I hadn’t visited yet; however, most of mine tend to be visited out of necessity for work rather than the quality of the coffee. Hopefully, I can blend these priorities and visit these famous places soon!
- Cat Café: Yes, coffee with adoptable cats. Everything the FB post said it would be.
- Lazy Hummingbird – A pretty hipster, purist looking place in Ocean Beach
- Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
- Dark Horse Coffee Roasters
- Heartwork Coffee Bar