Above: Specialty coffees at Tsubakiya are served in Danish blue china.
Got a yen for coffee in Japan’s tea-crazed capital? Then head to one of these four places to savor the perfect bean.
By Carli Ratcliff
Café De l’Ambre This Ginza stalwart turns out aged coffees in an atmosphere that has barely changed since the tiny café opened in 1948. From the menu, choose whatever origin or year that strikes your fancy—Colombian beans harvested two decades ago, say, or Mexican beans from 1976, all displayed in date-marked glass jars behind the counter. Each cup is deftly hand-poured through a muslin sieve, allowing the nuances to sing. Ichiro Sekiguchi, the spry, 95-year-old proprietor, can usually be found behind his small window-side coffee roaster, working away at hand-selected beans. A humble temple to caffeine, l’Ambre exudes a rich, earthy aroma that you’ll likely smell long before you find the place (8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-1551).
Paul Bassett The 2003 Australian World Barista Championship winner’s eponymous coffee bar and roastery serves the finest espresso in the city. Beans are prepared on-site and the baristi, abustle behind gleaming Italian espresso machines, have been well trained by Bassett. Their perfectly extracted espressos are wonderful—rich, thick, long on finish, and as good as any I’ve sipped in Italy. Lattes and cappuccinos come with perfectly textured milk and foamy rosettes on top, and bags of beans are available for purchase at the counter (Shinjuku Noamura Bldg., 1-26-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/5324-5090).
Sakan Shu Serving “coffee and cream” since 1953, Sakan Shu is one of seven speciality coffee bars operated by the venerable Shu group. At their spacious, pastel-hued Yurakucho outlet, waiters steeped in coffee lore explain the flavors on offer, and recommend a single-origin coffee to your liking. The siphon process is nothing if not theatrical: beans are ground to order, a gas burner is ignited under a double-bulb glass contraption, and coffee grinds are frenetically stirred as your brew boils to perfection. Enjoy it all as part of Sakan Shu’s “classical” afternoon tea, which includes towering plates of patisserie and finger sandwiches (Itocia Plaza, 2-7-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/3211-0542).
Tsubakiya With six locations in the capital, Tsubakiya is as high-end as coffee outfits come, and none more so than its Ginza address, a hushed haven just off the main strip. Here, sunlight streams through stained-glass windows into parlors appointed with velvet-cushioned chairs and paneled walls. Order from a range of top-quality (and top-priced) straight coffees—including a Colombian Huilla varietal grown at 2,000 meters and an equally altitudinous Guatemalan Antigua—all poured by waistcoated waiters into Danish blue china. Delicate tea sandwiches, Viennese-style layer cakes, and petit French pastries round out the menu (Sugawara Denki Bldg., 7-7-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3572-4949).
Originally appeared in the February/March 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine ( “Tokyo Perks Up”)