Colorful teapots and mugs at White Heron Tea & Coffee Community. All photos by Ryan Cashman.
The coast of New England stretches north from Long Island Sound to the Gulf of Maine, offering some of the most scenic waterfronts in the United States. Sitting at the mouth of the Piscataqua, the tidal river that separates Maine from New Hampshire, is the small, lively city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Considered one of New England’s hidden gems, Portsmouth is a walkable city brimming with historic architecture, trendy restaurants, festive evenings, and a loyal locale who’ve designated these four unique cafés as landmarks for every visitor to try.
White Heron Tea & Coffee Community
601 Islington Street
Mon–Fri, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. / Sat, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
After Jonathan Blakeslee graduated from high school in Portsmouth, he enlisted in the Coast Guard, which took him to Hokkaido, Japan, where his fledgling interest in tea blossomed into obsession.
“I’d always been into tea, but before Japan I’d never really tasted tea,” says Blakeslee. White Heron hatched in 2005, when Blakeslee, after a stint on the West Coast, saw a gap in the market. There was no place strictly for tea in Portsmouth, just coffee shops that offered tea as an afterthought.
Starting as a beverage stand at local farmers markets, White Heron’s reputation and popularity grew steadily. “I took each week as an opportunity to meet and share with new people,” says Blakeslee.
A regular favorite is American Breakfast, a patriotic take on English breakfast tea and one of White Heron’s original 24 blends; it’s an Assam and Darjeeling black tea with a strong but not overwhelming flavor. In 2013, the company moved into its permanent space on Islington Street in Portsmouth’s developing West End.
“This is our farmers market. We don’t have to move it,” says Blakeslee. “We’ve got a lot more options for people.”
One of those options is coffee, something Blakeslee was initially opposed to.
“More than anything we are a tea company,” he says.
Like his teas, Blakeslee ensures that all coffee is sourced from organic certified locations, a practice that has made White Heron New Hampshire’s first all-organic café.
“Knowing that most teas aren’t organic and sprayed with chemicals, I feel better offering organic out the gate,” says Blakeslee. “We know where we get things and why.”
Caffe Kilim & Market
163 Islington Street
Mon–Thu, 6:30 a.m.–6 p.m. / Fri–Sat, 6:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
Sun, 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m.
According to Caffe Kilim lore, no one in Portsmouth knew what a latte was in 1993. A beloved institution, Kilim was the vanguard of Portsmouth’s café scene. Caffe Kilim introduced Portsmouth to espresso, created its own blend, Dancing Goats, and cloaked drinks with a legendary velvet foam.
“What we did back then was not mainstream, but now it’s mainstream,” says Janice Schenker, who co-owns the café with her husband, Yalçin Yazgan.
Yazgan is the dominating personality of Kilim. A broad smile beams permanently behind his thick, gray mustache. Born in Turkey, he worked at his grandfather’s coffee shop in Istanbul before immigrating to the United States as a young man. The café walls are filled with memorabilia from over 25 years of business: postcards, customer art, kilims (traditional Turkish rugs), soccer scarves hanging from the rafters, and shelves stocked with Turkish delight, coffee pots, and apparel.
Kilim is all about family. Loyal customers sometimes spend all day refilling their coffee cups, stepping outside for a cigarette, and playfully debating with Yazgan and other regulars. Ahmet and Leyla, Schenker and Yazgan’s children, represent Kilim’s future.
“I really love this place,” says Ahmet. “I’ve been working behind that counter since I was 12. I want to keep this place going the way it is. The locals deserve Caffe Kilim.”
Kaffee Vonsolln Coffee Roasters & Cafe
79 Daniel Street
Mon–Fri, 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m. / Sat–Sun, 8 a.m.–6 p.m.
“If I’m going to be working in coffee, I may as well work at my own,” says Emma Nelson. At 23, Nelson is one of the youngest café owners in Portsmouth. She worked at Kaffee Vonsolln in high school, then at La Maison Navarre, before buying the kaffeehaus with her parents in 2016.
Though not German herself, Nelson continues Vonsolln’s tradition of offering selections of favorite German pastries like Bienenstich, “bee sting cake,” with a vanilla honey frosting.
Locals have developed a devoted following to Vonsolln. Nelson sometimes refers to her shop as a “police substation,” as it has become a favorite spot among local law enforcement. All of Vonsolln’s coffee is roasted on-site by Nelson in small batches to ensure quality. The Guatemalan is a rich medium roast with a chocolatey finish, while the Ethiopian roast used for espresso is bright and floral.
Soft light illuminates the aged brick walls, filling the café with a warm glow. The space is intimate, which allows for something unique to the café industry: a bond with customers.
“We’ve had people send their dry cleaning here,” laughs Nelson. “It’s a lot of fun.”
La Maison Navarre
121 Congress Street
Sun–Tue, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. / Wed–Sat, 8 a.m.–9 p.m.
Entering La Maison Navarre is like walking into the glittering Parisian metro of yesteryear. White tile and mirrors line the walls to give the illusion of space, and a long, black bar stretches the length of the café. Colorful, handmade macarons are on full display, and the smell of fresh crepes create an atmosphere of coziness where one could easily imagine spending an entire day. Owners Victor Navarre and Charlotte Reymond, both from France, saw that Portsmouth was lacking a bit of Paris, and so created it themselves.
George Howell Alchemy Espresso beans are used for all the coffee drinks at La Maison, which range from simple espresso to affogato. Baristas train in the French tradition, ensuring a continuity of quality in every drink. La Maison also serves a full line of Palais de Thés tea.
“We try to give the full French experience of quality,” says Navarre. “Everything not imported from France is made here in the shop.” That includes croissants (traditional or made to order), crepes, croque monsieur, quiche Lorraine, and 15 flavors of macarons. At the back of the café is a set of stairs, which lead up to the evening wine bar.
“You can have a crepe, a pastry, and good coffee and tea, then come back at a different time of day and experience something completely different,” says Navarre. The bar is stocked with wine, cheese, and charcuterie, all imported from France.
“We like it here,” says Navarre. “There is great community here and people get rewarded for what they do.”