Those of us who live in cities and college towns sometimes like to think of local coffee shops as symbols of our sophistication. It's fun to order a cappuccino and imagine the link between ourselves and the sidewalk cafés of Rome, Paris or New York.
That said, it's important to recognize that espresso love has spread far beyond urban centers. Sure, Starbucks has opened stores near interstate exits throughout Kentucky, for example, but better options are brewing. When you're on the road, venture a few minutes off the highway in many Kentucky towns and you'll find locally owned coffee shops, some of which are well worth the detour.
Kentucky Coffee Tree Café, 235 W. Broadway St., Frankfort, Kentuckycoffeetree.com
Coffee Tree is worth visiting for the coffee itself with blends that are really rich, balanced and distinct. Even flavored coffees, a sip of which normally fills me with despair, are done right.
Coffee Tree has built a reputation as an intimate venue for live music, literary readings and community gatherings. One wall is devoted to bookshelves, and an open doorway connects Coffee Tree with Poor Richard's bookshop next door. The atmosphere is pleasant and welcoming, the décor includes a tiki bar, an upright double-bass and a plastic skeleton adorned with beads and wigs. You can overhear lively conversation from farmers, old hippies, students, lawyers, bureaucrats, and others who gather in the gentle lighting of the downtown Frankfort shop. It's also a great place to just sit and write or sip coffee or wine, facing the windows that look out onto West Broadway. You might even see a train rumble by.
Purdy's Coffee Co., 212 W. Main St., Richmond. Purdyscoffee.com
Purdy's doesn't just offer coffee, pastries and a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. It's offering visitors a coffee-shop experience that's easily among the best in Kentucky. Purdy's owners won an award for the work they did restoring the interior of a 130-year-old downtown building to house the shop.
Purdy's two-story interior is worth a visit by itself, with gleaming hardwood floors and a brick wall with arched entryway.
The food is attractively presented and the cashier didn't flinch with her "no problem" when I asked if I could add chicken to the Veggie Sandwich (a combo I highly recommend). The latté had just the right balance of soothe and kick, and the cinnamon muffin was so good I meant to get out my notebook to detail its contents but couldn't stop eating it long enough to conduct a proper analysis, so you'll just have to trust me.
Cobbler's Café, 125 E. Dixie Ave., Elizabethtown. Cobblers-cafe.com
Cobbler's Café has been in business since 2004, though the shotgun-style building it calls home was constructed in 1878. The place seats 24 and offers a skylight and gorgeous interior brick on both north- and south-facing walls, giving the shop so much character and texture that they could serve Folger's and Hostess cupcakes and I'd still leave at least partly satisfied. Happily, though, their menu has some real finds.
The GBLT sandwich initially struck me as something I might get from the food truck outside a marriage equality rally, but the acronym stands for Gyro with Bacon Lettuce and Tomato (and a little cheese), a surprising and successful combination.
The real taste delight of the Cobbler's Café is the raspberry white chocolate scone. Many coffee-shop scones have all the textural charm of fossilized rock; this one was soft but substantive, warm and moist, with just the right level of sweetness.
You & Me Coffee and Tea, 300 Main St., Corbin. Facebook.com/youandmecoffeeandtea
My dad grew up in Corbin, so this is the town on this list where I've perhaps spent the most time.
I remember thinking of Corbin as a somewhat rough, even bleak place in the '70s and '80s, so You & Me might be the shop whose emergence I've been most delighted to see. The décor is eclectic and seems to change every time I visit; not all the chairs and tables match, and on various occasions I've seen bicycles, including a tandem bike, serving as in-store objets d'art. The menu is pretty basic — a few sandwiches and a salad, plus bagels, scones and muffins (the strawberry is the best).
Overall, You & Me appears to have found a niche some may have doubted existed in small Kentucky towns, but does.
You & Me hosts local musicians and performers. Authors hold book signings there. Patrons can leaf through complimentary copies of magazines like Garden and Gun or The New Yorker or books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or a Jane Austen compendium. There are stacks of board games like Scrabble or Cranium along one wall.
Go in on a weekday and you'll see people working on laptops; on a weekend night, you can hear singer-songwriters perform. Local authors host readings and signings. Thursday is Tri-County Trivia Night.
You & Me is very active on social media, with more than 3,700 Likes on its Facebook page. You & Me co-owner Andy Salmons says, "It's been a great joy to be embraced by our community in such a strong way."
The truth is that unless you have a hyper-refined coffee palate (which I don't), there's not a huge difference between the coffees and lattés found in these shops or those in Lexington, Louisville and elsewhere.
In some sense, though, the appeal of coffee shops, particularly in small towns, is only partly found on their plates or in their cups. There's also comfort in the surroundings and in the idea many of us love about how a coffee shop nurtures a different kind of community than a bar, a shopping center parking lot, or a football stadium.
It's nice to know that some measure of café society is alive and well in small towns across Kentucky.
Graham Shelby is a food and travel writer who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Louisville. He can be reached through his online journal, blog213.com.