Want Great Coffee? Go to Ukraine

I am not one of those people who reflexively think European goods are superior to American ones—you know the kind of people I’m talking about—but boy do I sometimes wonder about the coffee in this country. The average American takes his or her daily caffeine in the form of a tepid, mud-like beverage that delis, diners, and commercial chains have chosen to call “coffee.” Is it? It can’t possibly be. Even the coffee at Starbucks, which is supposed to be something special, more often than not tastes like the business end of a drainpipe. It’s a shame so many people have been duped by words like “venti” and “macchiato.”

This dislike of mine has nothing to do with snobbery. I don’t care about price, brand, origin, or other markers of prestige. I know precisely nothing about the agriculture of coffee beans or the chemistry of brewing. I do know, however, that the proof of the coffee is in the drinking, and the motor oil served at most American establishments is barely potable.

I suspect I’m not alone in this judgment. If not, follow me, dear reader, on a mental trip to the beautiful city of Lviv, in western Ukraine—a place where I found some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. This was after I had tried the product of Vienna’s famous Cafe Hawelka. In fact, to imagine what Lviv is like, picture Vienna, only not as well preserved, with extra grit and grime on the buildings, and with occasional glimpses of drab Soviet architecture.

You can’t really walk a block or two in this city without spying a quaint shop selling its own beans and brew. To enhance the experience, it is best to tour these boutiques at night, when the streets around Rynok Square take on a distinctly old-world aura, the stone facades bathed in the warm yellow glow of the street lanterns. This is the best time to visit such places as Coffee Manufacture. After dark, the place resembles a Dickensian storefront, with burlap sacks of coffee beans piled on wooden shelves and a gleaming, old-fashioned bean roaster sitting like a golden steam engine in the front window. It is here that you get some of the very best European coffee—bold but never bitter, requiring only a bit of cream to bring out the full body.

If it’s sweetness you crave with your coffee, you needn’t go far. If you’re with a significant other, I recommend Lviv Handmade Chocolate: several floors of delightful chocolate treats, with a dark, romantic cafe at the top of the winding staircase. You must also wander into the Galician Cheesecake and Strudel Bakery—the names of Ukrainian eateries tend to sound blunt and literal when translated into English—where I had the tastiest strudel and coffee combo I am ever likely to enjoy.

Walking into a cozy establishment, decorated with light rustic wood, the customer has a pick of strudels. This being a former Habsburg territory, I recommend the apple. You are then ushered along a cafeteria-style line to pick from a number of sauces, which the servers drizzle generously over your plate. Under such circumstances, too many people pick chocolate without thinking. Resist this impulse. Harness your contrarian strain and go for the vanilla instead. The coffee served there is, of course, smooth and bold and delicious, even for those who don’t normally like it strong.

Yes, this city has many forgotten pleasures. I would feel it my duty to write about them under any circumstances, but the fact that Ukraine is now known almost exclusively as a fractured war zone makes me feel much more obliged. I had the good fortune of visiting the country before the latest troubles set in. “Latest” is a necessary word, since, like its neighbor Poland, Ukraine has suffered from an especially tumultuous history. Lviv, located in the historical region of Galicia, instantiates this difficult past. Its strategic position in Europe, near the Carpathian mountains, meant it was always susceptible to seizures and power struggles. “If there came dark days for the realm,” a travel writer named Jozef Wiczkowski wrote in 1907, “then Lviv was the first gate the enemy knocked on.”

It is difficult to keep track of all the powers that have asserted their dominance over the city. Controlled by the Poles from the mid-14th century on, Lviv came under siege by the Cossacks briefly in the mid-seventeenth century and also briefly by the Swedes. After Poland was partitioned in 1772, ending Polish sovereignty until after the First World War, Lviv fell under the control of the Austrian Empire and became known as Lemberg. (One sign of the area’s complex history is the number of names you have to remember. The Ukrainian name is “Lviv”; in Polish, it’s “Lwow”; in Russian, “Lvov”; in German, “Lemberg.”) The city’s coffee obsession is one legacy of Austrian control, having been brought in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by the large numbers of German-speaking people who moved there.

When Austria-Hungary fell apart, in 1918, the city eventually came under Polish control once again—though not without violent resistance from the ethnic Ukrainian minority. In 1939, the Soviets took over. The Nazis invaded in June 1941, murdering thousands and occupying the city until the Soviets recaptured it in 1944.

Such history makes for more than gastronomic pleasure. Consider ducking into the many little curiosity shops nestled on the labyrinthine streets, for instance. Collectors will enjoy the old currencies you can pick up for almost nothing, as well as the Soviet army medals, which were of particular interest to me. (I bought two of them and felt slightly guilty doing so, for reasons I can’t quite articulate.) Lviv also has the interesting honor of being the birthplace of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the writer after whom “masochism” is named. The city celebrates his legacy with a bizarre restaurant in which patrons are whipped by the waitresses—trust me, they don’t hold back—before getting their meals. But if it’s a quick pick-me-up you want, stick with the coffee.