The Galaxie Coffee staff thought might be fun to search through the records with the hope of finding the oldest coffeehouse in the U.S. What began as a fun project turned into an obsession, as we searched one source after another looking for a straight answer. It turns out that determining the oldest coffeehouse in this country depends a lot on how you define the terms. But that shouldn’t be surprising.
There is a lot of disagreement over ‘firsts’ in the food service industry. For example, there are two sandwich shops in Philadelphia, within sight of each other, that claim to have been the original purveyor of the Philly cheese steak sandwich. Likewise, there are two bars in Buffalo that claim to have come up with the chicken wing. Even the beef on weck sandwich is a matter of dispute. Determining the oldest coffeehouse in America engenders the same kinds of disagreements.
Where It All Began
One of the first things we discovered in our quest for the oldest coffeehouse is that the entire coffeehouse concept is not a modern one. It didn’t originate with Starbucks in the 1990s or even the espresso bar fad of the pre-war era. Coffeehouses actually date back to the 16th century Constantinople.
Coffeehouses made it to America by way of English and French culture that was exported here prior to the start of the Revolutionary war. This is where some of the disputations come in. There are records of a number of coffee houses having been built in Philadelphia during the decades just before the Revolution. Merchants Coffee House, also known as City Tavern, was one of the last such coffeehouses built in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1770s. But that means there were others built before Merchants.
It is possible that the earliest coffeehouses in America were opened in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia where coffee imports were common. If you’re looking for the oldest coffeehouse still in operation, that may fall to our very own Caffee Reggio in Greenwich Village. They opened in 1927 as the first establishment in New York to use an imported espresso machine direct from Italy. Caffee Reggio was the favorite New York spot for Italian cappuccino and espresso well into the 1950s and 60s. Today it is still one of the most loved coffeehouses in America.
The Bean and the Culture
It turns out there’s no way to pinpoint the oldest coffeehouse in America with complete accuracy. There are just too many records along with disputes about those records. What we can say is that the long-standing tradition of the local coffeehouse is all about the bean and the culture that goes with it.
Coffee remains one of the most consumed beverages in America several hundred years after it was brought here from Europe. Coffeehouses from coast-to-coast continue to propagate the coffee culture with great products for every taste. Here at Galaxie Coffee, we are just happy to be part of it.