Best Coffeehouse

Shaw's Coffee Ltd.

"We're coffee fanatics," proclaims Walt Boyle, referring to himself and Gail Maher, co-owners of Shaw's Coffee Ltd. on the Hill. And what else would you expect from a pair of java junkies other than the richest, most savory cup this side of Bogota? In fact, the far wall is piled with burlap bags stamped with the names of exotic locations -- Sumatra, Kenya, Zimbabwe and others. These bags are not mere props; they contain handpicked coffee beans that have traveled halfway around the world to be scooped into the formidable Probat roaster, which not only works magic on the beans, darkening them and bringing out flavor, but fills the small shop and the neighborhood with the aroma of fresh roast.

Only a few coffeehouses in St. Louis are serious enough to roast their own coffee. At a time when dilettante entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the trend, rent a space, throw in a coffee-grinding machine, hire a couple of groovy-looking baristas and call it a coffeehouse, Boyle and Maher have taken the long and painstaking approach. They started with the purchase of an old storefront and took a few years converting it to an elegant space for coffee drinking, pastry noshing and all the conviviality that goes with it. To their credit, they kept the ornate metal ceiling like it was 70 years ago. They resurrected a handsome floor of quarter-sawn pine from beneath scabrous linoleum tiles. They put in smart fixtures and halogen lighting, hung tasteful coffee-related prints. The resulting look-and-feel is a cross between a West Coast café and an Italian espresso bar. Of course, they still use Midwestern water for brewing. It's hard to get around that.

The owners met at Washington University Medical Center, where they work. Boyle, a physician, is co-director of the surgical intensive care unit, and Maher is a senior research technologist. They share a love of good coffee -- the sign on the door to their lab reads "Bohemian Espresso Bar and Vascular Biology Laboratory" -- and a passion to convert others. During the renovation and before the first customer ever took a sip of the house blend, Boyle and Maher were learning coffee. They talked with roasters and importers, attended seminars on the selecting, roasting and brewing of coffee beans. "We went into this as purists," says Boyle. "Quite simply, our goal was to import and roast the best coffee."

Shaw's Coffee, next to Viviano's, is open daily. Having just passed their first year, they have already attracted a following -- that is, the dozen or so cushions, stools and plush chairs are usually taken most mornings. The Hill is not a high-traffic area, but as word of mouth spreads, things are looking better. "We're presently a break-even venture," says Boyle, who works the counter on Saturdays, "and have yet to do any serious advertising." Not bad for what both owners refer to as "a hobby run amok."

-- Wm. Stage

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