Finding a good cup o’ Joe in L.A. is increasingly easier these days, with Intelligentsia’s nearly 4 year expansion into the City of Angels marking the city’s first major foray into the newest trend specialty coffee. Yes, one could argue that “specialty” coffee has had its mark in our city for some time now, but with the direction of specialty coffee’s brighter, lighter roasts, direct trade, and seasonality, the zeitgeist is clear: we will no longer stand Starbucks, Coffee Bean, or Peet’s. We want more, and we want better.
There’s some formidable coffee coverage by the L.A. Times (if a bit dated) as well as some terrific reporting from Tien Nyugen of L.A. Weekly’s Squid Ink, but for those of us who can’t keep up there’s a new coffee app available for iPhone called LA’s Best Coffee. I was approached a few months ago to take a look at the app by Blue Crow Media, who produces the app, but I wanted to wait to review it until after it was released to the public. Think of it as a regular customer going to a fully operational restaurant instead of a media preview. Nothing wrong with the latter, just thought that I’d have a better sense after paying my paltry $0.99 cents for the app. But I digress…
The app is simple, elegant, and functional, but not without a few design quirks that could easily be programmed out in the next version. When you open the app, it asks you for your current location and then immediately lists the cafes that are closest to you. Blue Crow has done a good job of scoping out some of the more serious coffee shops and bars around the city, so you’re almost certain to get a decent shop (though there are a few obvious duds). There’s a blue star denoting a more notable shop (my case for 3400 Overland Avenue), the first three starred shops are The Conservatory for Coffee in Culver City, Balconi on Sawtelle Blvd, and Espresso Profeta in Westwood. I’m guessing the blue stars are reserved for shops that earn at least 4 stars by user rating.
When you click through to the app, you get a directory listing with hours, phone number, buttons for directions, and also a simple listing of the beans used, type of espresso machine, and type of grinder. I find these three things interesting to note: first off, one should know that the best indicator for a serious coffee shop is the type of beans that they use. I was surprised to see many shops in L.A. roasting their own coffee in house, but for the most part you’ll see that the best coffee shops in L.A. use well known roasters such as Four Barrel, Ritual, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle. There’s a simple photo of the shop, either interior or exterior, as well as a short blurb about the café that isn’t heavy on the quality of the shop. There are occasional comments like, “one of the best in-house roasts in Los Angeles,” “consistently excellent,” or sometimes a more snarky, “dotted with hipsters,” the reviews are helpful for getting a sense of what to expect. You’ll also find some helpful notes like whether there’s wifi as well as the availability of parking – a huge tip for car-centric Angelenos.
One major bug I found was the Directions button, which quickly takes you to the iPhone’s Maps app and routes the directions to the café. After the app asks if you want to be re-directed to the Maps app, it first tells you that it “Cannot Provide Directions.” After clicking out and returning to the Coffee App, it automatically takes you back to the Maps app and routes the directions based on your current location. Terrific. But then if you try returning to the Coffee App, it redirects you to the Maps app. It’s a trap! The only way to stop this function is to force-quit the app and then restart it. A little bit annoying but not hugely problematic.
Another one is the Roasters tab, which shows you a listing of some of the more prominent roasters available to consumers in the city, but clicking through to the roaster just takes you to the roaster’s website, not necessarily a directory or map listing the shops where you can find the beans. We want to know where the beans are!
The design is clean and functional, with purple tones and a blue coffee cup accenting the application. Subsequent buttons take you to the 25 Most Popular cafes in the city, based on rating, a number of top local and national roasters (the absence of La Mill Coffee is a bit glaring), a Map function with a Google Maps layout of every listing, and then a Search function in case you need get to a café on the fly.
For a first effort, I can see the usefulness of LA’s Best Coffee App. In general the listings are pretty egalitarian, though some praise is reserved for cafes that I think are doing a good job of pulling shots and brewing coffee. I’m hoping to see some further improvements to make it a bit more selective, showcasing the shops in our city that are truly excellent, committed to brewing and pulling excellent coffee for our daily consumption.