Best Coffee Shops in Hampton Roads

If you're a coffee lover, the first Google search on the docket when visiting a new city is, “Best coffee shop in _______.” I trust online review forums for the most part, but what I really love is a good blog post detailing the various options and telling me why I absolutely have to go to this place they've described. Why do I find a blog post the superior method? Mainly because a good comparison blog post is probably written by a local which means they've probably been to said coffee shop more than once and therefore have a better perspective than the traveler who dropped in once when the shop's only decent barista was on duty and gave it a five-star rating...or else had the opposite experience of encountering the only dreadful employee.
I also like knowing more about the shop itself than the business's website will tell me. It's fun knowing beforehand what sort of vibe this coffee shop runs on, what neighborhood it is in, what's nearby, etc. In a like spirit that I present to you my pick of the Four Best Coffee Shops in Hampton Roads. Hampton Roads, or “The Tidewater Area” as we locals call it, is a region comprised of the coastal south-eastern corner of Virginia and contains the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton. Give or take Suffolk and the Isle of Wight which sometimes slip in under the radar.

It's a region well known for its military bases and ports, colonial and maritime history, beaches and nature trails, colleges and international culture and – in my opinion – a healthy and growing music and arts scene. Therefore, it's fitting that we've begun to collect coffee shops to caffeinate our special brand of SoVa creativity. But not all coffee shops are created equal so if you're headed down 64 and craving a good shot, I'm your girl.

The must-try coffee shop of Hampton Roads award goes to....

#1: Cure Coffeehouse & Brasserie Norfolk, VA

Anyone who has seen my Instagram knows 50% of my coffee budget lands in Cure's coffers...and I live a full hour away. The charm of this newly-expanded coffee shop and cafe is due, in part, to its location in Norfolk's Freemason District on the charming, cobbled Botetourte Street. Parking is plentiful in the surrounding neighborhood though Cure lacks a parking lot of its own. I often park far down Botetourt for the sheer pleasure of enjoying the walk back to Cure on the quiet street lined with vintage mansions. The menu is full-blooded with not only amazing coffee and coffee drinks ( I recommend the churro latte, the lavender mocha, or an iced pour-over) but plenty of sandwich and salad options alongside a range of wines and other spirits. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly, the menu creative and ever-changing. Besides being disappointed in the macaroni, I have yet to not enjoy anything I've ordered. Considering how often I go, that's high praise. If you have time for only one coffee shop in Hampton Roads, choose Cure.

#2: Three Ships Coffee, Virginia Beach, VA

Have you ever wished for a breezy, spacious, not over-crowded coffee shop that just happens to serve the best brew in town? Three Ships, located on 19th street just blocks from the tourist strip, fulfills that place in my heart. It also happens to possess the friendliest staff and a peculiar knack for not judging your un-hipsterism while being quite hip itself. The business began as a coffee roasting venture and Three Ships still serves (and roasts) its own beans which you can buy by the enormous bagful. Unlike the other places mentioned in this article, Three Ships serves very little besides coffee. The menu is pared down, highly curated, and always excellent. None of their drinks except the Pungo and Horchata lattes are even flavored. The beauty is in the coffee and espresso itself or, should coffee not be your thing, in the seasonally-changing tea bar options. But if you think this small-menu is a handicap to a business in such a touristy, sugar-driven part of town, think again:
Three Ships is an oasis for the true coffee lover and serves its purpose as a craft brewer of coffee that other options in the immediate area (Badass Coffee, Java Surf, etc.) have not mastered. Three Ships is the true-hearted coffeehouse Hampton Roads had been missing. I'm glad it's here and I look forward seeing its fame spread throughout the region.

#3: Cafe Stella Norfolk, VA

Stella is a coffee-shop with an attitude problem. And it's one of the reasons I enjoy it. Located on the edge of Norfolk's Ghent district, Stella is equal parts artsy, warm, loud, and overwhelming. I always get the feeling of being an outsider when I go which is probably because Stella is another “neighborhood” establishment with a long list of regulars whose ranks I have yet to enter. Everyone seems to know everyone else (except me) which is encouraged by the amount of community-style sitting space. Still, with a full menu of delicious food options, great coffee, and a host of other drinks, Cafe Stella makes it on the list of my favorite coffee shops. Like that slightly-weird but somehow attractive kid in your circle of friends, you're not out till you've tried to be in, even if being “in” wasn't your goal to begin with.
Of all the shops on this list, Stella wins points for sitting space, boasting a front and back room and outdoor patio, plus two bay window tables I've never been lucky enough to nab. An added feature that makes Stella that much cooler is the binder collection of people-watching sketches by a local artist who apparently lives in a corner of Cafe Stella and takes likenesses like some sort of artistically-talented Professor Higgins. Parking is easy, shared by a favorite local pizza parlor, and the free pitchers of water standing on a revamped bureau negate the necessity of asking the barista for ice-water. And who doesn't love that convenience?

#4: Roast Rider, Virginia Beach, VA

Do you love an establishment where the atmosphere is so trendy and sleek you feel like you could get rich by osmosis? Roast Riders is your spirit animal. If you've got an Instagram aesthetic that favors white backgrounds, sharp contrasts, and modernist d├ęcor, you'll fall in love with this Hilltop treasure. I swear the elite clientele think I'm something that washed up on the beach last night, but the pretension and over-bred snobbery of the atmosphere can't disguise the fact that Roast Riders is a delicious addition to the Hampton Roads coffee scene. All their syrups are house-made, the baristas are friendly and informative, and the Most Attractive of VB's Most Attractive frequent the premises. It's a short ten-minute drive from the oceanfront or a fifteen-minute hop down 264 East (sans traffic) from downtown Norfolk - well worth the drive. Stop by the MacDonald's Garden Center for a succulent so your room at home can boast a Fortune Four Hundred vibe, or buy a pair of Birkenstocks from the ancient store in the shopping center which is now somehow cool again. And on your way out of the feeder-road web (bonus points if you avoid Whole Foods and Trader Joe's), stop at Bilodi's for Virginia Beach's best Mediterranean meal! All joking aside, Roast Riders serves quality coffee with unique, in-house twists. I recommend the chai latte and a quick browse of the Instagram wall.

So there you have it: a local's opinion of the four best coffee shops in Hampton Roads in terms of quality, accessibility, atmosphere, and overall experience. I hope this list is helpful for those of you SoVa-bound! Locals: join the discussion – I'd love the hear your opinions on the best coffee joints in Hampton Roads. Do you agree? Disagree? Comment below so we can talk!

BONUS ROUND: Are you making your way to Hampton Roads via Interstate 95? If so, take a look at:
#5: Demolition Coffee Petersburg, VA

If this shop was actually located in Hampton Roads (and it's not), it would wedge itself directly between Cure Coffeehouse and Three Ships Coffee to soundly finish out my triumvirate of Favorite Coffee Shops. Hands down, Demolition is an under-known treasure of an otherwise coffee-less region of that part of my home-state. South of Richmond, Demolition's the only decent coffee you'll get till you cross the North Carolina line. Beyond that, it's amazing in its own right. Great coffee, amazing food, quirky atmosphere. Order the grilled blueberry muffin and a cafe latte – your 95 road-trips will never look the same. Also, I get bathroom envy every time I enter Demolition. Seriously – barring Oxford Exchange in Tampa, Florida, Demoliton's bathroom is the coolest I've seen.

P.S Don't get freaked out by the statue of the old man outside the door. He isn't alive. You're safe here.

Compliments: Giving and Accepting Them

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I absolutely love compliments. Actually, that's a lie. I absolutely love the idea of compliments. I love the compliment itself after I've gotten over the initial, "You're saying something super nice about me to my face" awkwardness. In fact, there's precious little for turning a glum day around like a well-placed kind word from a friend or even a stranger. But humanity seems to agree, a compliment can be tough. I once heard someone say that accepting a compliment is like trying to feed a wrinkly twenty into a vending machine cash slot; it just doesn't work. The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in how we view ourselves. According to this 2013 article in Psychology Today:
"...In other words, receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. If we believe we’re truly undesirable, hearing compliments about how attractive we are will feel jarring and inauthentic. If we believe we’re unintelligent, someone lavishing us with praise about how smart we are will feel more like a taunt than a compliment. And if we’re convinced we’re incapable of success, receiving praise about our how capable we are can feel like a set-up for future heartbreak and disappointment."
I don't intend to delve into your self esteem, but I did compile two lists to help you deal with praise: Accepting Compliments and Giving Compliments. Relax, sit back, and let the wrinkles in your twenty dollar bill smooth out a little.

How To Accept A Compliment:

Example A:
"Oh! Hey, Courtney! You look adorable today!"

Chances are, every excuse for not accepting this compliment will rise to your mind. You're ready with a stock set of answers including how you didn't wash your hair this morning, your eyeliner isn't even, you look super tired, or this shade of green washes you out. My top tip for dealing with a compliment on your appearance? Shut up and say 'thank you.' Anyone dispensing a real compliment isn't looking for you to discredit their words. They're not going to think you're an arrogant woman for accepting it the way it was meant: with kindness and humility.

Example B:
"I'll let you spear-head this project, Beth. You're so good at organizing people!"

Instead of trying to convince everyone around that you're actually an incompetent wretch (why is this our instinctual reaction?), humbly accept the job and do credit to their belief in you by applying all the talent you have to making the project a success. This isn't performance-based acceptance, this is making use of what talent you have and thanking the compliment-giver by showing that you care.

Example C:
"You're an amazing artist, Rachel."

Compliments given in the realm of extremism are always difficult for me to accept. I could easily explain (and other, better artists would agree) that I'm far from amazing. The point of the compliment was not, however, to talk about how I was the best in the world. The point was to let me know that said person enjoyed my art. It's unreasonable to ask the person not to enjoy my art, flaws and all. The proper way to accept this compliment, however, would be to thank them and deflect attention by asking if they like to practice any form of art themselves and if so to let them tell you about it. 

How To Give A Compliment:

Example A:
"You know, Madelyn, I've always been a fan of skater skirts but you're really rocking it today."

The more specific a compliment is, the harder it is for a person to deflect or to feel uncomfortable accepting. Telling a girl she's gorgeous might be a terribly kind thing to do, but if she doesn't believe such a sweeping statement about herself, she isn't likely to accept it. Telling her, however, that a particular dress looks fantastic on her will add a saunter to her step every time she wears that outfit. Seek to point out specific things. One of my guy friends is hilarious at this. Once he hugged me upon arrival at a party: "Hi, Rach. You look great and you smell amazing. I don't know why." I laughed so hard.

Example B:
"I don't know anyone else who knows when to say exactly what I need to hear like you do."

Praising someone's particular personality traits is another way to give an non-negotiable compliment. Tell people in your life what it is about them specifically that makes you happy to see them every time. Maybe it's their bright smile or their hilarious laugh. Maybe it's their comedic timing or their willingness to do the boring jobs everyone else shirks. These kinds of compliments have evidence to back them and are therefore irrefutable. 

Example C:
"You're great. I really enjoying hanging out with you."

Again with the personal evidence backing this up. Many people who don't like accepting compliments do like hearing that they are loved and valued. The general, "Hey, I like you," is a good way to slip in a compliment on the sly without making anyone in the conversation feel awkward. Try this sort of compliment with those people in your life who will do anything in the entire world to avoid compliment-accepting.

Can you add any more tips for giving or accepting compliments?

Picnic Like A Champ

Picnics are so much fun. There's something so awesome about throwing caution to the wind (sometimes literally) and sitting outdoors eating lunch with friends. I don't think solitary picnics are a thing. I mean, you can eat outside by yourself but does it really qualify as a picnic? I doubt it. Because picnics are, above all, about enjoying the company of friends in an informal setting. Still, I'll be the first to tell you that if you don't think ahead just a little, your picnic will be less Box Hill and a deal more like this diagram:

So to prevent your picnic from being 30% wondering about the whereabouts of goose poop, I've prepped a quick check-list of five things to keep the discomfort at bay. They are as follows:

1.) Bring a blanket - no one likes to sit on itchy grass. Mosquitoes are bound to find you.
2.) Bring something to drink - worst feeling ever is knowing you're stuck in a remote location for at least another forty minutes while eating (presumably) sandwiches. Without water.
3.) Do not bring food that needs a fork or spoon - regardless of careful preparation, forks and spoons always go missing and you're left eating pudding with your pinky fingers...and finding yourself very sticky withall.
4.) Pack napkins - I know we all like to think ourselves very adult, but I assure you that someone will spill something (double points if they're minimalistically wearing white to match their Instagram aesthetic) and you'll be an instant hero. Cloth or paper, napkins are necessary.
5.) Choose a shady place - sunshine has this unnerving habit of seeming not so hot until you're thoroughly established in a place with all the picnic paraphrenalia, and then beaming out in a positively Serengeti way. A sunny picnic might sound nice (free tans!) but unless the temperature is truly mild, you'll be much happier with the choice to picnic in the shade and play in the sun.

Gallery Wall Update

Greetings from the depths of Things Yet To Be Done. I'm just here for a quick update on the Gallery Wall project (This is different than The Gallery Life, but I understand your confusion). I popped into Goodwill a few weeks back looking for some frames to re-purpose for my art wall. First of all, can we talk about the fact that I don't want to pay more than two dollars for the frame of something I intend to gut wholesale, spray-paint gold, and fill with something far more attractive than the gauche sketch of a lurid looking parrot you thought was a good idea to hang on your wall sometime around 1988? Still, I caved and bought a large frame because it had character. The frame held, ironically enough, a sketch of the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg - one of my favorite places in the world. At this point I felt kind of bad about gutting the thing, but my gallery wall. Then I brought it to the checkout line and had a long and heart-warming chat with the woman in front of me about how much we love Williamsburg and the result is that now, though it doesn't fit the aesthetic of my wall, I feel a little bad about ripping it to pieces. I probably will, but I might need to have a brief moment of respectful silence for the death of something good. I'm so excited about this project. The pieces I've highlighted below are just the start. Some of them will like change as my vision solidifies, but so far so good. Our downstairs is painted with a palette of (mostly) muted purples and grays so since we are aiming to hang this gallery wall either in my room (which I want to paint plum) or in our stairwell (which already looks onto the amethyst vista of the dining room), colors that coordinate well with those shades are essential. I want to have some original pieces, some graphic pieces, some large, some small, some quirky, some good. And above all I want it to reflect a bit of my personality and the personality of our family.

In the pictures you'll see a random map of Greece spread over the Williamsburg sketch - I plan to replace this with a map either of Virginia, of Washington D.C., or of London. The jury's still out on which of my three favorite places will make it into the frame. Probably whichever I find at a good price. I'm eagerly looking forward to two prints from my favorite Etsy print shop, History in High Heels - art is one of those funny things. As an artist I could make a case for not buying anything, trying to mock it up myself. But I like supporting other artists and I think it lends far more color to a gallery when there is more than one artist involved. Here, then, is my burgeoning collection for this Gallery Wall project. It will probably shift - pieces changed, re-sorted, or omitted entirely. But I'm so pleased with how things are jiving so far!

But this product is the real hero - of my mocktail exhibit, of my gallery wall, of my life basically:

Can't wait to share more updates as the art gallery grows! 

Chai Spice Layer Cake With Black Tea Buttercream

Imagine your favorite sort of latte speaking cake to you. That's what happened for me this weekend when the question of “how would you make a latte-shaped cake?” turned into, “how would you make a latte flavored cake?” Within three hours and a brief trip to the grocery store, I had my answer:

chai spice layer cake with black tea buttercream

I mean, cake for no good reason isn't really how I operate, but my birthday's coming up and anything is possible. In a world crazed with matcha everything, I'm still a black tea girl. Sure I like a cup of rooibos, herbal, or even green tea, but black tea is the boy for me. Assam, English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Earl Grey. I love black tea in its many forms. Icing's just one more manifestation of the tea craze, right? A generous handful of brown sugar and chai spices plus a tea-spiked buttercream frosting to cut the sweetness equals an iced chai latte in pastry form. I can't wait for you to try it yourselves - with a glass of iced black tea, unsweetened of course.


Chai Spice Layer Cake
two-three 8” rounds
½ cup butter, softened
1 ¼ cups firmly packed brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon black pepper
¾ cups sour cream

  1. Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add brown sugar, beating at medium speed 5-7 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices; add to butter mixture alternately with sour cream, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix until well-combined. Pour into two or three greased and floured 8” pans, depending on how thick you want your layers.
  3. Bake at 350 F. for 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a layer comes out clean. Cool layers in pans on wire racks ten minutes before turning out. Assemble with:

Black Tea Buttercream Frosting
2 lb. powdered sugar
½ cup butter, softened
½ cup milk
3 teabags black tea
½ teaspoon vanilla

  1. Scald milk in a small saucepan on the stove. When steaming but not boiling add tea bags and allow to steep for five minutes. Remove tea bags and set milk aside to cool. Stir in vanilla extract.
  2. Cream butter with electric mixer. Mix in powdered sugar and milk, alternating additions of each. Beat until fluffy.

The Gallery Life

Community is essential to informing, developing, and inspiring the creative mind. At least in my experience. And though online communities are amazing sources for support and batting around of ideas, nothing beats in-the-flesh time with creative people. And face-to-face time with fellow "creatives" is something I constantly crave and can never seem to get enough of. I like to be in the presence of people who are so much more talented than I am that I almost feel like throwing in my paintbrush. I like to talk to these people and watch how they work and talk about things and see how they use their gifts in their chosen media as opposed to how I use mine. It's a good feeling. So that's why I was thrilled when Rebecca, a friend of a friend, contacted me about being featured as a "mixology artist" at a revolutionary sort of gallery-event in town. Rebecca and her best friend Cait have arranged for a region-wide group of artists to pool their talents and elevated exhibition hall, for lack of a better word. We have "galleries" arranged side by side. Sculptor. Painter. Writer. Dancer. Photographer. Jeweler. Baker. "Bartender." That's me and this is where I will be the evening of July 8th.

I've created a menu of four mock cocktails ("mocktails"): two sweet, two savory. I've sent a mock-up of the table arrangement to Rebecca and Cait and received the go-ahead. I'm composing syrups and infusions over this week and last. I've been freezing round after round of cylindrical ice-cubes for one of the drink offerings. I bought copper wire twinkle lights. And I haven't been this excited for a creative project since self-publishing my first novel two years ago. I'm thrilled to be serving at this event as part of the local creative community. I can't wait t meet the other featured artists and guests and since everyone will (realistically) be thirsty, I'll get to meet them all. Which, according to Rebecca and Cait's estimates, could reach 150 people. I probably ought to be more stressed out than I am, but somehow what I feel is pure excitement. This is what I love: a big task, a new challenge, and the glorious freedom to create whatever I envision. And in this case, it's an array of attitude-charged mocktails.