After paying a visit to the incredible CREMA—our first stop of the #NashCrawl series—it was on to our next destination: Ugly Mugs Coffee and Tea. Ashley and I met up with a friend of mine from Twitter, Chris Ayers, who agreed to show us around his city’s coffee scene for a little while.
(And Chris, again, many, many thanks to you for showing Ashley and me around—we had a really great time.)
I’m glad he offered to be our official tour guide for the remainder of the day because if it weren’t for him, I’m sure I would have gotten lost again. Nashville has Interstate highways that zig and zag and curl and loop around the city so much that it’s almost dizzying, and this crawl had us driving all over the place!
After a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs, we made it.
Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of Ugly Mugs Coffee and Tea in Nashville, Tennessee. Feel free to pull up a chair.
Ugly Mugs is a little off the beaten path, so to speak—it’s not in the downtown area, rather it’s located in a seemingly suburban atmosphere; heading up a tree-lined two lane road, running through a neighborhood, the cafe is nestled inside of a little plaza. At one time, it seems, the cafe was probably an auto shop or garage of some sort—a big garage door opens to reveal a cozy, albeit industrial, little coffee shop.
The shop is low-lit, with darkly painted walls, cement flooring, exposed ventilation above, and massive floor-to-ceiling windows that allow in natural light. Scattered throughout the shop are tables and chairs and couches and benches and booths; there’s an outdoor patio with tables that spill over to the grass area between the cafe and their neighbor that gives a unique, sort-of “suburban backyard cookout” vibe.
They even serve you your coffee in an old mug—the kind that you’d find in kitchen cabinets and on thrift store shelves all over the world. My coffee came to me in an epic Norman Rockwell mug, but Chris’s mug really tipped the scales—I’m talking ugly; but awesomely so (both mugs are pictured below). Presumably this is from which Ugly Mugs derives its name. Could be the other way around too.
Regardless, Ugly Mugs offers the sort of atmosphere that almost forces you to relax, take it easy, sit down a spell. I guess it’s that whole “Southern hospitality” thing in full effect.
Don’t let the pleasantries of the place fool you, though—these folks aren’t content just to have a really relaxing atmosphere; they’re serious about the coffee they serve too. Behind the bar are all the high-tech essentials of the modern coffee shop: the burr grinders, the espresso machine, the drip brewers, the scales, the manual brew bar (where they chiefly employ the Clever—one of the only shops I’ve ever been to that is so reliant on the Clever, to be honest). Also behind the bar are some pretty talented baristas—I suppose they’re pretty essential to a modern coffee shop, too.
And in a city that is so culturally rich, Ugly Mugs is dedicated to keeping it local; there’s the aforementioned Drew’s Brews, they also provide some of the finest culinary delights from Nashville-based artisans like Star Bagel Cafe, IveyCake, and Dozen Sweet Shop; works by local artists and photographers decorate the walls; every Saturday night they feature local musicians (and in Nashville, of course, there’s no shortage of musicians).
While all of this is great, and while all of this puts Ugly Mugs squarely in the tradition of the classic coffee house, there’s not much that really separates it from its peers. I’ve been to Ugly Mugs a million times in all sorts of cities. Their space is pretty unique, they’re doing some cool stuff with coffee, their commitment to “local” is admirable, but there isn’t much about that’s very memorable. While I really appreciated the fact that they’re so infatuated with the Clever (which I am a champion of), there wasn’t much else that sent me back to Chicago thinking “Wow—I wish there was something like Ugly Mugs where I live”. They’re missing that elusive One Thing that would truly set them apart in the industry.
To paraphrase a classic Steve Martin routine, “some cafes have got it, while some… have… not… it… I guess.”
Then again, perhaps I’m being a tad too demanding.
I probably am.
I mean, I’m obviously aware that not every coffee shop out there is going to break the mold and not every shop is going to reinvent the wheel. Some don’t even try—they just want to serve great coffee.
Which Ugly Mugs, indeed, does. Which is admirable. Which is enough.