Before moving to the Northeast, I didn’t realize that people had such strong opinions about fast food coffee chains. I’d always been a Starbucks lady myself, but after being plopped down in Boston within walking distance of at least five Dunkin’s and listening to all the hype, I figured I’d give it a try. I wasn’t impressed. But when I told people that, they acted like I had just committed an act of sacrilege so foul I ought to be banished from the state entirely.
Since expanding my coffee horizons, I’ve learned that there really are notable differences between these coffee shops, their vibes and what they have on the menu—some for better, others for worse. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to do the hard work of ranking these coffee chains from worst to best, and I’m here to report what I’ve found. Feel free to disagree with me on any and all fronts, but rest assured my views here cannot be swayed.
I love donuts. Always have, always will. So, Dunkin’ has always had a place in my heart. I also think they serve a decent breakfast for a fast food chain. I pretty much never go out of my way to get breakfast there, but when I’m at the airport early in the morning trying to catch a flight and I need to eat something before I hop on the plane, you bet I’m going to grab a sourdough breakfast sandwich.
But when it comes to the coffee, Dunkin’ is a disaster. Sure, their plain drip coffee and their cold brew isn’t bad, and even the iced macchiato isn’t the worst coffee drink I’ve ever had. But if you go to pretty much any other spot that specializes in coffee, you can pretty much guarantee it’ll be better than what you’ll find at Dunkin’. I truly believe they should have stayed in their lane with the donut thing and left the coffee alone.
Dunkin’ may be my go-to for a quick airport breakfast, but Peet’s Coffee and Tea is where I’m going to be for an actual coffee when I’m at an airport. I actually don’t think I’ve ever had Peet’s outside of an airport in my entire life. The coffee there is solid, and I’ve found the quality to be quite consistent. But although some think it can compete with Starbucks, I just can’t agree. There aren’t as many different options at Peet’s, even though the drinks they do offer are, on average, really tasty. I’m looking forward to trying the new Cold Brew with Vanilla Oat Foam, but I think I’ll probably wait until the next time I’m at the airport to give it a try—I’m not going out of my way for the stuff.
Not everyone loves Caribou Coffee, and I’d be lying if I said it was my favorite chain coffee shop. But I have to admit that they sell some creative concoctions, and I’m fully here for it. The sweet Thai latte is a must-try, and since it’s not a drink you can find everywhere, it definitely warrants a visit to Caribou Coffee on occasion. That being said, the plain coffee there is not as nice as the stuff you’d find at other, better spots, though it’s not particularly bad either. Overall, this place seems to offer inventive drinks with decent beans, which makes it a solid option when you’re craving some caffeine—if there’s nothing better around.
If you’re big on coffee, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about Dutch Bros. lately, and for good reason. While this coffee shop isn’t popping up on every corner of the country, it’s still relatively widely available for those who are lucky enough to be in the vicinity of one. What sets Dutch Bros. apart is the fact that they actually don’t have a brewed coffee option. Instead, their drinks are all based on espresso. Even their standard coffee is made like an Americano with espresso shots and hot water. I personally love this approach to coffee, which is why Dutch Bros. comes solidly in second place for me.
Call me basic, call me boring, call me whatever you want to call me. I am all of those things. And if loving an espresso Frappuccino makes me wrong, then I simply have no interest in being right. There’s a reason there’s a Starbucks on seemingly every corner of the globe: They know what they’re doing. With a massive menu that changes on the regular, reliably good standard drinks and their general relaxed atmosphere, it’s clear why Starbucks comes in first place on this list.
Is it the world’s best coffee shop? No. The little local spot near you is probably going to have more character. But if you’re buying your morning joe from a chain, Starbucks is admittedly your best option.
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.