Hours: Weekdays 7:30am-11:00pm, Friday and Saturday open all night
Address: Manas 57/1, between Toktogul and Kiev (left of Russian Embassy)
Ever notice how when you go abroad, all of a sudden your eating habits change and you start craving things you never craved before? I do. For me, when I’m abroad, I crave carbonated water. Don’t know why, because when I’m in the States I rarely touch the stuff. But sure enough, now that I’m in Bishkek, I can’t get enough of it. Give me carbonated water that’s cold, at room temperature, or even salty and warm. I’ll take it.
Here is another thing that Bishkek is triggering in me: a desire for coffee. Again, rarely touch the stuff at home. But now that I am here, I need it everyday. What makes this craving even stranger is that I’m in a country where the coffee isn’t even that good. This is tea country. (I have an average of 7-10 cups of black tea everyday.) And yet that desire for strong, black, sweet coffee is insatiable.
So let me introduce to you my savior here in Bishkek that is helping soothe this inexplicable craving. Her name is Sierra. Sierra lives on Manas Street between Chui and Toktogul. She loves Ella Fitzgerald, old-school rock and roll, and Russian pop. For many people, Sierra is a shining light on a cold winter’s day, offering that perfect latte with a foam-shaped heart. Who is Sierra? Sierra is Bishkek’s best coffee roaster.
I was first introduced to Sierra by an American expat, whose claim that “It’s just like Starbucks!” piqued my interest. But having worked at Starbucks myself, I have to disagree. Sierra may be like Starbucks because it also offers free WiFi, gourmet coffee, and a safe and relaxing environment to plant oneself with a laptop the whole day. (And yes, I acknowledge that all three of those statements carry a lot more weight in Kyrgyzstan than in the States.) But Sierra gives much more to Bishkek than Starbucks chains back home.
Sierra Café is Starbucks with soul. It is not just a building with free WiFi and gourmet coffee. It’s like the American sitcom, Cheers!, where everybody knows your name. It’s the kind of place where it takes 15 minutes from the time you walk in to the time you sit down, because you have to first make the rounds, saying “Hi!” to all your different circles. Sierra could also be the Central Perks coffee shop from the sitcom, Friends, because it is familiar, comforting, and the setting of any given week’s juicy stories. I could go on. Sierra is Washington, DC on steroids. The amount of networking and the retelling of personal life stories within her walls could fill a tome longer than the Kyrgyz epic, Manas (and that book is three times the size of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined). Or, Sierra is that cozy, “first date”-kind-of-place in You’ve Got Mail, where Meg Ryan waits with a red rose to meet Tom Hanks for the first time — only at Sierra, first meetings and/or dates begin with a text or a phone call, saying, “I’m here!”, followed by, “Hiiii! Nice to meet you!”
To be sure, Sierra is famous here for many other reasons. It has the goods that other Bishkek coffee shops currently lack, namely, that magic combination of freshly roasted beans; wonderful customer service; a consistently delicious savory and sweet menu (my current favorites are the cheese steak sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, and chocolate muffins); and a sequestered smoking room. Indeed, Sierra is a game-changer in Bishkek, a business model so successful residents refer to times in Bishkek as being “Pre-Sierra” and “Post-Sierra.” But let me be clear that Sierra is special not because it’s like Starbucks, but because it’s not like Starbucks.
Come to Sierra alone, and you will leave with a friend. Meet that friend at Sierra next week, and you will leave with the contact information of her friend who happened to go to your alma mater. Meet that alma mater contact at Sierra the following week, and with her will be another friend whose husband works in an industry you’re trying to break into. Confused? Don’t be. Just know that soon you will be at the Bishkek Circus one weekend with about 10 people who are now your new best friends. Crazy, right?! But that’s Sierra.
So don’t wait for a coffee craving to kick in before visiting Sierra. Visit now and discover a coffee shop that is everything a coffee shop should be, and more. If you’re looking for a relaxing spot to chill for the weekend with your laptop, go to Sierra, plug in, and munch on their delicious cinnamon muffins. No one will disturb you, if you don’t want to be disturbed. If you’re looking to network, go to Sierra especially on Saturday mornings around 11:00am, where both foreigners and locals take over the main area and engage in casual conversation, introducing new faces to old faces. If you’re looking to practice your Russian, just go there and listen to the conversations around you. Russian and English waft through the air, as strong and as aromatic as the coffee that’s being served. Sierra attracts just as many locals as it does expats.
Or you can just come to Sierra for that cup of strong, black, sweet coffee — something that initially drove me there when my taste buds unexpectedly shifted gears. Just be prepared to leave Sierra with more than a drink and a receipt.
For groups and faculty-led tours, I definitely recommend Sierra Cafe. Prices are reasonable, the menu is extensive, and Sierra accepts reservations, and is generally accommodating for large groups.