Back in late February, Rasheed Jabr had just returned from an extended weekend in New York. He hadn’t taken any time off in more than a year. Getting a small business off the ground in a tough economy takes a lot of sweat equity—especially for a now year-old coffeeshop in overcaffeinated, Starbucks-dense Dupont Circle. Jabr’s shop, Filter, is tucked away in a rowhouse basement on a quiet stretch of 20th Street NW, which might not seem like the most obvious place to get noticed. Connecticut Avenue, a block away, has more foot traffic from those visiting Dupont Circle (which explains all those Starbucks and otherwise mediocre coffee places). Twentieth Street, meanwhile, provides a more direct route for some Dupont Circle commuters heading to and from the Red Line. You might miss it if you’re walking by—look for the tangerine-colored doorway.
It’s a cool refuge for those who know to step down into Filter from the sidewalk. “You feel like you’re in somebody’s hideout or club,” Jabr says. “There’s brick, there’s wood. It’s cozy.”
I first heard of Filter when I was searching for a flat white, a latte-like drink that’s popular with Australians and New Zealanders. Jabr explains that the drink, essentially a double latte that’s about half the size, is in a concentration that allows the flavors of the coffee and creamy froth to shine.
Aussies and Kiwis take their flat whites seriously, and the fact that Filter has it on its coffee menu has given the tiny shop a larger international profile. Melbourne Coffee Review, an Australian guide to the world’s best coffee, has already rated Filter with three beans on a three-bean scale. Jabr says that listing has prompted visiting Australians to patronize his shop.
The guide, naturally, gives Filter’s flat white a thumbs up: “Rich, creamy and beautifully balanced between the base and the milk.” That description is spot on, along with this one: “I’m not mucking around when I say [Filter] jumps to the head of the class in the city—not just for their ability to masterfully craft great coffee, but because their differing approach will contribute mightily to the education of Washington’s coffee consumers.”
Jabr, you see, is particular about his customers drinking the best coffee, which means limiting add-ons that Starbucks-influenced consumers use to mask (or ruin) the flavor of their coffee. Translation: There are no flavored syrups and the staff will make recommendations on how to craft a coffee drink to a customer’s desires without compromising the high-quality nature of what’s being served.
Filter sources its coffee from Annapolis’ Caffe Pronto. “I love their coffee,” Jabr says. “They let me do a lot of experimentation with roasting. I love it that they’re local. I’m a small business helping another small business succeed.”
The coffee-as-fine-wine approach might discomfit some folks in search of mere caffeine. But it hasn’t prevented Filter from attracting loyal customers.
“The whole philosophy here is that you make a good product and have good service, they’ll come back,” Jabr says.
Filter’s staff is friendly and knowledgeable. On a recent visit, Jabr chatted with me about the Ethiopian Sidamo coffee he was making at the sleek coffee bar, explaining fruit and floral aromatics found in those particular beans. Filter’s “pour over” coffees can take a few minutes to make, but like a good cocktail bar, half the fun is watching how your drink is being constructed, which sometimes allows Jabr and his staff to chat with customers.
“I feel like a daytime bartender,” Jabr says, “in a good way.”
Jabr says he’d like to expand Fliter to include another location or two. And considering that the cozy 20th Street basement can be packed, that’s not a bad idea. In the meantime, coffee lovers will have to endure a crowded, busy coffeehouse—but for a business that’s celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, that’s not a bad problem to have.