North Shore Oahu Coffee Guide
When I travel, I usually cut down on day-to-day expenses in more expensive locations by packing trail mix and bars in bulk, and I can usually get away with almost exclusively living on that for at least a couple of weeks. Coffee can be a different story, though. If coffee is part of your daily ritual, and if you care about good coffee, that's usually one thing that has to be found on-location.
I've been periodically traveling to and staying on the North Shore of Oahu for years. During the course of the 2016–2017 Winter season, I became a regular at a few spots. If you're visiting the North Shore, this might help point you to the better ones. Here are the places that I reviewed:
- Turtle Bay
- Ted's Bakery
- The Sunrise Shack
- The Coffee Bean / Foodland
- Island Vintage Coffee
- Coffee Gallery
- Brew and Foam
I should probably qualify this review by saying up front that I've been preferring bullet coffee lately, so my evaluation of available options leaned more toward that variety. Still, my general ratings took the overall experience into account: coffee quality, service, environment, etc. Personally, my favorite spot was The Sunrise Shack in Sunset Beach, which only does bullet coffee. If you're looking for a true espresso bar, however, I think Brew & Foam in Waialua is the best. Read below for the complete review.
Here are the things Turtle Bay has going for it: nice surroundings, great view, and generally easygoing people. I would go here fairly often from over by Malaikahana on the east side just to get away from all of the local insanity. A decent latte or cappuccino and a few hours of semi-quiet, productive work could make me feel like a human being from the mainland again. It's clean, it's got comfortable couches and seating, everyone is generally happy, and the view out over the ocean is first class. What's not to love? The coffee is about average. Sometimes it's pretty noisy. And it might seem a little bit pricey if you aren't used to the North Shore economy—though that's a point that's going to apply to everything from here down. The people at the coffee counter/bar were always very cool; once it was apparent I was actually living there (rather than just someone on vacation), there was a noticeably different kind of friendly vibe, which I personally appreciated. Mid mornings were a good time to go, but I also got into a routine of getting a couple of vegetarian samosas from Fiji Market in Kahuku around dinner time about once a week and enjoying them with chocolate coffee while working later in the evening. (turtlebayresort.com)
Ted's Bakery is a North Shore landmark and definitely somewhat of a local institution, but I always thought this place was kind of gross. (Just walk around back and take a deep breath and you'll know what I mean.) But that said, if a basic cup of brewed coffee and a pastry or breakfast sandwich is your kind of thing, this definitely beats any fast food chain option. I've had a few mornings where I've gone there just for a quick, cheap breakfast. Easy. (tedsbakery.com)
The Sunrise Shack
The Sunrise Shack was my personal favorite coffee spot on the North Shore. I'd often make the 15-minute drive up here from where I was staying on the east side to ground out, get charged, and sit for a while to organize my thoughts before the day got started.
Initially, I had passed on this place for a long time because, honestly, it looked ghetto, and I figured the coffee couldn't be any good. Then, one day, I was with my friends Uncle Bryan and Lisa at their house, and Lisa started telling me about this stuff they had gotten from one of Laird Hamilton's companies, Laird Superfood. She was raving about the Instafuel and Cacao Creamer, specifically. I had heard of the Laird Superfood company before, but had never taken it seriously because, while Laird Hamilton himself had always been super down to earth and genuine the couple of times that I'd talked with him, the products just seemed like a gimmicky thing aimed toward a market that I didn't really identify with. But Lisa and Bryan were good people and were honestly liking the stuff, so I decided to check it out.
Initially, I bought a few gift boxes for friends on the mainland for Christmas. Then I wrote the company and asked if there was anyone on the North Shore that sold the stuff. And Laird Superfood referred me to The Sunrise Shack. I was like, Weird… That little place on the side of the road? Really? It just looked like a kind of place that, were it in the Caribbean, would have a dead goat hanging up in front of it. And I wouldn't bet money that that kind of place could serve good coffee. But the Almond Coconut Bullet quickly became my regular drink. It's just organic, single-source, mold-free coffee with MCT oil, the Laird Superfood coconut creamer, a scoop of almond butter, and a little bit of cinnamon, all mixed up in a blender. (It's really simple to make at home if you have the ingredients.) Anyway, this cup of coffee was the bomb and quickly became my favorite option on that seven-mile stretch of Kam Hwy. (sunriseshackhawaii.com)
Coffee Bean / Foodland
This place used to be a Starbucks years ago, and I would argue that, in a blind taste test, The Coffee Bean would be an improvement from what was there before. However, it's the Pupukea Foodland, and that place is just nuts. The whole area is just so packed with weirdos and social tragedy that I just try to avoid it. Unless I'm going to The Elephant Truck. Or unless I need to pick up a quick few items at a grocery store. Otherwise, it's like a grimey circus freakshow with a mix of semi-pro surfers, kooks, tourons, stressed-out mainlanders hanging on to the dream, and battle-hardened locals trying to make their lives balance out at the end of the week. Nothing personal against the product per se, but the whole place is one that I'd generally try to avoid. There were better options with less hassle. (coffeebean.com)
Island Vintage Coffee
Island Vintage is a decent local coffee shop chain, and like the others, the one in Haleiwa is in a slightly upscale tourist trap location. They serve the standard coffee and espresso menu and, overall, are much better than similar options running under the same model (e.g., Starbucks). They also have a better food menu, like these mango scones that are made by a really cool local haole woman who runs a bakery over by Kaneohe. Once I found out where the scones were made, I would special order them by the batch to give to a Hawaiian aunty who loved them. But I digress. The point is that I thought it was cool that this place was sourcing much of their food from a small, local baker rather than Costco or a big commercial bakery. And the coffee is decent if convenience near Haleiwa Beach Park is what you're after. (islandvintagecoffee.com)
Located in Haleiwa, Coffee Gallery is another North Shore institution. They've been there for a long time. Years ago, it was the spot to go get wi-fi and good coffee and sit on the patio. However, I think they got sick of backpackers camping out there all day with their laptops, because their wi-fi connection is so bad now that it's basically unusable. (But who still uses public wireless for work anymore, anyway?) Regardless, they have good coffee, delightfully unique food items, and the outdoor patio and convenient location makes it a good place to meet for a business meeting once in a while. And there's a huge parking lot, so parking is usually pretty easy. (roastmaster.com)
Brew & Foam
Brew & Foam is my other favorite coffee spot on the North Shore. It's a well-put-together cafe located in a simple, low-key shopping center next to the post office in Waialua. Personally, I think Waialua is one of the better communities on the North Shore. It's got an up-and-coming vibe. There are a lot of young people with young families looking to make a good life in a nice place. There's a lot of hope in a place like that. It's a town with creative people doing interesting small businesses and doing them well. And that's the kind of vibe that Brew and Foam has. It's got a young, contemporary style. They make really good coffee and food. It's relatively affordable. It's away from all the tourists and riffraff of Haleiwa, Shark's Cove, and Sunset Beach. My personal favorite drink was the Dawn Patrol, which was just butter coffee. They also make a really good acai bowl using sorbet from Acai Roots, which, in my opinion, is better than the more commonly-used products Sambazon and Tambor at other acai bowl places. (brewandfoam.com)
For the sake of completeness, here are some places that I didn't review:
- The Beet Box Cafe (good drip coffee and outstanding breakfast, next to Celestial Natural Foods)
- Okina Cafe (food truck cafe down by the 'Opae'ula Stream bridge)
- Wow-Wow Lemonade (smoothie and acai bowl place that also serves espresso, lattes, and frozen coffee drinks, located across from Haleiwa Fishing Supply)
I just never went to these places often enough for coffee to include them in a review, but maybe this will be worth expanding in the future. There is also a Starbucks that will be opening in the North Shore Gateway development, which will be located next to 7-Eleven at Weed Circle. In my opinion, Starbucks in the 2010s is like McDonalds in the 1980s, which is to say it's just a newer brand of junk food…
Where are some other food places that I'd recommend on the North Shore? From a vegetarian perspective, here's a short list of what were some of my favorite food spots through the winter 2017 season: