Long in the works, Sprudge.com is proud to present our unofficial guide to coffee in Philadelphia! One of the most buzzed and blogged about coffee cities in the world, Philadelphia has emerged in recent years as a serious destination for the discerning coffee Hajji – perhaps not the Mecca to the north that New York has become, but a Medina in its own right.
Two excellent Philadelphia coffee guides already exist, from Oliver Strand / The New York Times and Liz Clayton / Serious Eats. Both were published earlier this year, and both cover several of the same shops that appear in our own guide. In some ways this overlap is inevitable; Philadelphia lacks the sheer volume of amazing coffee shops found in, say, New York or Portland, to say nothing of Seattle (where there is coffee everywhere, though only a thin percentage of it is amazing). But what Philly lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality – there are high-flying design shops, charming neighborhood shops, gorgeous empire showcases, and feisty newcomers edging for a piece of the action. New spaces are seemingly popping up all the time. The growth of specialty coffee culture in Philly shows absolutely no sign of slowing.
Best of all, the Philadelphia coffee scene has that x-factor new nucleus energy particle feel to it, an ineffable excitement that happens when your city’s high-end coffee culture is still new and shiny, everyone knows each other, and the caliber of work being done is of the highest quality. We’ve written rhapsodically about Philadelphia’s monthly Thursday Night Throwdown – likely the greatest coffee party of its kind in the world – but you don’t have to be there for an event to feel that spark. Go to Philly, visit some shops, tell them you’re from out of town and ask for recommendations. See if you don’t feel it too.
As always with our guides, what follows is a snapshot of the Philadelphia cafe scene – nothing authoritative, just another notch on the bedpost of love that Philly coffee has amassed. There are great coffee shops here, serving coffee from world-beating roasters, crafted by the talented, hilarious barista social network of friends, lovers and acquaintances who make Philly coffee a world-class reality. If their hospitality and charm shines through in the following 1000 words or so, then we’ll have done our job.
Welcome to Philly! Let’s go drink some coffee!
Bodhi (410 S. 2nd Street, Queen’s Village)
Open for just about 1 year, Bodhi, in the cobblestone and carriage house bedecked Queen’s Village neighborhood, is one of the cutest, most carefully appointed coffee shops Sprudge has ever had the pleasure to visit. Some of that is the gracious gorgeousness of the setting; Bodhi sits on Headhouse Square, a quaint block of red brick sidewalks, intercut with ancient storm cellar doors that jut out of the walkways like gaping lion’s mouths. There’s also a charm to the space itself, with its interior walls painted in shades of muted egg shell, the whole thing modest, small and just so: a handmade wooden bar built by Bodhi’s owners, another handmade metal and wood pour over bar, yet another handmade wooden display wrack, featuring a small selection of sundries from Green Isles Grocers, including local honey, maple syrup, chocolate, crackers, pickles, marmalades, and the stuff that dreams are made of.
Even better is the coffee. Bodhi is a Stumptown account, one of three such accounts appearing in this roundup, and they’re doing especially top-notch work with Hairbender Espresso. During our visit, four coffees were available via pour-over or by the bag: Guatemala Vella Vista, Burundi Bwayi, Rwanda Kenzu, and Costa Rica Montes de Oro. Befitting the tight confines of the space, Bodhi runs with a small, dedicated staff, and the Barista during our visit, Grey, was professional, courteous, and gifted behind the bar. That in-house chicken salad sandwich on brioche is a must.
Town Hall Coffee (358 Montgomery Avenue, Merion Station)
Located just outside of Philadelphia city limits, in the heart of the Main Line, Town Hall has been open just more than a year, during which time owner Tim Noble has put together top-notch multiroaster program on par with the likes of Barista in Portland or RBC in Manhattan. On our visit, the featured espressos came from Counter Culture, while the pour over list included the El Salvador Altamira from Gimme! and some Sulawesi Toarco auction lot roasted by OQ Coffee, out of New Brunswick.
The coffees served at Town Hall change often, but in permanent rotation is a bevy of gadgetry sure to impress the gear nerd behind every coffee geek. Compak K-10 autogrinders, 4-rack pour over bar from Visions, and coolest of all, a gorgeous, low-slung Cleveland Browns brown La Marzocco GS2, a 1973 restore originally owned by Fonte in Seattle. Rebuilt by the folks at Gimme!, this GS2 features variable line pressure, manual pre-infusion, and that certain swagger you can only get with machines built in the Brezhnev era. It pulls a damn fine shot of espresso, too – a shot of Counter Culture Rustico from that machine tasted of cloved crema spice, with honey on the back end.
Town Hall’s interior space has a very open flow, unobstructed from front to back with seats clustered around the bar, and a few leather chairs and tables to the side of the entry way. Rotating menus, when they’re done right, can be an awful lot of fun, and they’re doing it right at Town Hall, a Philadelphia coffee destination set a bit off the beaten path. It’s well worth the trip.
Ultimo Coffee (1900 S. 15th Street)
A Counter Culture Coffee account in the Newbold neighborhood of South Philly, Ultimo has been open for just under 2 years, during which time they’ve established themselves as one of the premiere destinations for coffee not just in Philadelphia, but throughout the entire East Coast. Their beautiful, distinctive glass panel menu, with smoked white lettering on the window panes, gives way to an ever-changing assortment of coffees from CCC, offered via Chemex til 11am or all day long on a custom brew bar. The lovely Ultimo Griffin insignia abounds inside this shop – on bags, to-go cups, t-shirts, hot cup cozies, and in the very hearts of Ultimo’s loyal clientele.
Philly does the locavore thing in this intrinsic, almost tribal kind of way – there’s regional pride, and then there’s Philadelphia pride. Ultimo does a fantastic job of representing the astounding bounty of agricultural and dairy products coming out of Lancaster County, PA; they use milk from the Amish-owned Maplehofe Dairy, source their honey and butter from Green Meadow Farms, and offer a goat cheese spread from local ungulate purveyors Apple Tree Farms. When we visited, shots were pulled on a Marzocco GB5 3-group with custom lighting, but these days Ultimo is home to a Strada EP, one of the few places in the world that can make such a claim.
We could go on and on, but if his mid-2000s murky coffee / Spruce Street Espresso pedigree isn’t enough, you can trust us on this one: Ultimo is a must-visit on any Philadelphia coffee tour.
Shot Tower Coffee (542 Christian Street)
Another must-visit on your Philly coffee tour, Shot Tower is a top-end Stumptown account in the Queen’s Village neighborhood of South Philly, pulling shots expertly on a Strada MP via Rober-E grinders and offering Bee House pour over service. Enormously bright, huge open glass windows look out on a pleasantly sleepy street scene, while inside the cafe is carefully appointed with charming details: streetlamp interior lighting, an industrial-college-cafeteria-chic milk dispenser, orchids and ferns on the front bar, light wood floors, a worker’s communal lunch table with swivel stools salvaged from the Tasty Kake factory, and an electro-swinging Japanese maneki cat in the bathroom.
You’ll find great coffee here, but even if you just get a shot, find an excuse to linger. An ebb tide of Queen’s Village quirk washes in and out of Shot Tower throughout the day, co-mingling a rogue’s gallery of newly moved-in bicycle enthusiast types, fresh-faced college students, and pleasant old Italian dudes who have never actually set foot out of South Philly a day in their lives, and have no intention of doing so.
Shot Tower is forward thinking by anyone’s standards, with daily employee and public cuppings and an ambitious guest espresso program (recent visits saw coffees from Coava and Sight Glass on the bar, and El Reposo from Barismo is slated next). You could live in any neighborhood in America – including the East Village, the Mission District, or anywhere in Portland – and still consider yourself lucky to have Shot Tower within walking distance.
La Colombe (1414 South Penn Square)
This entry is for the newer of La Colombe’s two cafes in Philadelphia, their Center City space, just off Penn Square in the first floor of a highrise office tower. It’s hyperbolically stunning - sparsely appointed, this place is all about the angles, the key feature being floor-to-ceiling windows that look out from a crooked vantage point at Philadelphia’s City Hall, the world’s tallest freestanding masonry building. Sun and shadows bounce off the ancient stone of City Hall as morning turns to afternoon, and the whole cafe sort of…tilts…towards the magnificence of this remarkable structure. Just gorgeous.
The space itself employs an enormous amount of wood, aluminum exposed piping (a must for every Philly cafe space, and seemingly every Philly bar), all placed so as to show off La Colombe’s working 1957 Faema lever machine. Along a luxuriously curved bar, a multi-spiget spout system offers filtered cold, filtered room temperature, and sparkling waters on tap.
The espresso and macchiatos of Colombe’s Haitian coffee were drinkable, but almost like disappearing ink on the palate. Delicious milk texture in the macchiato, but again, this coffee was like drinking a magic trick, more Houidini than Haiti. The “Corsica” drip we tried tasted like, well, the bottom of a brewing urn. Think that last cup of Mr. Coffee left to wilder past 3pm in the office break room of your nightmares. The iced coffee at La Colombe is made from drip coffee, ice cubes, and a shot of espresso on top. This may very well have cut it in the go-go-go dot-com red-eye buzz stop Seattle of the mid-90s, but these days, it is a travesty to the good name of iced coffee, a step backwards masquerading as a preservation act. There are guides for this – La Colombe, your iced coffee could be much, much better.
Ultimately, we were simply dumbstruck by the space itself. It’s gorgeous, really impressive, and the baristas were all super nice, and they’re clearly doing brisk business, and they’re super successful nationally, with a loyal die-hard clientele, hard-earned and well-retained. Not our favorite cup of coffee, but spend an hour in that space, sitting on the bar, watching the shadows creep across City Hall…
OCF Cafe (1745 South Street, Rittenhouse Square)
Another choice CCC account, serving Toscano, multiple coffees on french press, and a pour-over “quick cup” service til 10AM. Neon green walls, a black bar-length chalbkoard across a lengthy service bar, low ceilings, exposed Edison light fixtures and a wooden back bar, all of it minimalist and unassuming. Open just a few months, OCF recently played host to its first TNT, an event that saw the space packed to bursting with people, pizza, and plastic cups of pale ale. A welcome new addition to the Center City cafe landscape.
SIDEBAR: A brief note on coffee slang in Philly "Hobo Latte" - 2 shots of espresso over ice, with milk. "All City Special" - a shot of whiskey with a beer (usually Kenzinger, Philly's beloved swill beer of choice). Not specifically a coffee term, but if you hang out with Philly coffee people for long enough it's bound to come up. "C-Squared" - coffee shop customer crushes.
One Shot (217 W George Street, Northern Liberties)
Repeated visits, hours spent lingering, and we’re still not sure what to make of this place. It’s easily the nicest cafe in North Philly – will someone please open a dope shop in Fishtown, please? – but it struggles from the juggled identity problem that befalls so many cafe / brunch spot / full menu / coffee bar hybrids. “Captain Crunch French Toast with Marshmallow Fluff”? Sure, why not? “Vanilla Cherry Lattes” and “Honey Almond Breve Delights”? Not so much.
Curious, then, that One Shot is home to its very own proprietary Stumptown coffee, the “One Shot House Blend”, which has been served here since the cafe made the switch to Stumptown a few years ago. It seems like ancient history now, but once upon a time One Shot was the first cafe serving Stumptown in Philadelphia. Since a great many coffee nerds have probably never heard of the One Shot Blend, here’s the notes from the little Alecco insert card on the bag:
“Stumptown created a blend for One Shot. This blend was designed to serve as an excellent cup of coffee at any time of the day, but also doubles as a well-balanced espresso. It consists of coffees from Latin America and East Africa.
One Shot House Blend displays a foral aroma with flavor notes of ripe fruit and underlying sweeteners.
Location: Latin America & East Africa
We love to go on (and on and on) about cafe interior design, and the space at One Shot holds the distinction of warranting the most Little Black Notebook pages in Sprudge.com history. Designed by Chris Sheffield of SLDesign, One Shot sets a new bar for American contemporary cafe design – just a thousand little details, almost too much to write about, but here goes. A plethora of succulents and flowers from Beautiful Blooms greets the customer on the medium-high front bar, set apart from a charming flannel gray banquette that curves along the window seating, giving way to a choice upstairs seating area that boasts leather couches, formica counter top tables, an almost impossibly vast library wall with titles from Danielle Steele to “A Guide To Psychotherapy”, yarn lamps, tea cozies, and most astonishing of all, a friggin’ Honda motorcycle set on its jackstand in the middle of the seating area. An incredible sound system pipes Casey Casum Top 40 best-ofs from yesteryear, locals lounge with dogs outside, and another order of Marshmallow Fluff Toast comes up from the unobtrusive back kitchen. There’s a TON of printing, shirts, zines, branding from local artists and zines from as far away as Portland for sale at the front counter. There’s about 30 other things we aren’t mentioning…just an immaculate interior design job at this space, the very best that money can buy, a showplace pantheon to that newest new school in the cafe design style lexicon, which we’re dubbing “Post-Baroque Port-lyn Gaudy”.
It’s not the best shot of espresso you’re going to have in Philadelphia, but it’s sure not the worst. When you go out for beer in Northern Liberties – and you really should go out for beer in Northern Liberties – stop here, gawk at the space, count yourself among the rare outsiders to try the One Shot Blend, and uh, get some Captain Crunch french toast if you want.
Spruce Street Espresso (1101 Spruce Street)
It’s almost impossible for us to write objectively about Spruce Street – let’s just get that out up front. The coffee community that Faith and Betty Ortiz have built around this cafe space is near and dear to us, and we count ourselves as a part of it. Some of our very favorite people – coffee or otherwise – run the bar at this small, homey space just south of Center City. So here, instead, is a slice of life from inside Spruce Street, captured on a day like any other in mid-2011:
I basically look as inhospitable as possible, slouched over both a laptop and a notebook, chewing on a pen, but my coffee is really, really good – a PNG Baroida from Counter Culture made via V-60, backed with a shot of Apollo, coaxing my neurons into a rapid-fire staccato thwack-thwack-thwack on the keyboard in front of me. This space is tiny, but it feels like you own it when you’re seated inside, and the outdoor seating stretches out for nearly a half block on the side wall, with more tables around the corner. And then this tiny space does something to me that rarely ever happens.
I start a conversation with a stranger.
“What’s that he’s got there?”, I ask the mother sitting on the other side of the room. (Given Spruce Street’s Lilliputian dimensions, this places her roughly 3 yards away from me.) Her son, small and blonde, is nursing something that looks like a macchiato, very much playing the grown-up out on a coffee date. “Oh it’s a baby-ccino”, she tells me with a lovely Australian accent. A baby-ccino, she goes on to explain, is a common Australian custom of serving steamed milk and foam in a demitasse with powdered chocolate on top. It gives kids in Australia something to do while mum and dad are out for their 8th espresso of the day, while training them in advance to be discerning coffee drinkers when they grow up. It is the ne plus ultra of “nurture” over “nature” in the coffee drinker’s evolutionary durée. Also, it’s adorable – “I’ll have a baby-ccino for my baby, please”. They’re on the menu here at Spruce Street. How droll.
So there we are, talking, random strangers, talking about baby-ccinos in a coffee shop, and it kind of hits me – this is why Spruce Street is a big deal. This is why you’ve heard of it before – for all of its competition history, its high profile at national events, and the top caliber of coffee they serve, it is Spruce Street’s intimate, profoundly neighborhood vibe that makes it one of a kind, the sort of cafe that can’t help but foster community and, dare I say it, bring even the chilliest-in-public Northwesterner out of his shell. “Espresso in Australia is a very big deal”, she tells me, “but I’m so lucky to live in Philadelphia, and have places like this to go everyday”. You don’t know how right you are.
Elixr (207 S. 15th Street)
Another choice Center City cafe, this time serving up the goods from PT’s Coffee. It’s always exciting for us to get a chance to try that coffee in a cafe setting, as it doesn’t exist on the West Coast and is sorely underrepresnted in New York. Elixr does solid, proficient work with it, and the space is a woodsman’s wonderland, everything in that bright blonde Nordic wood style with subtle undertones of chrome. Pretty well covered by other media outlets, by virtue of the fact that it is co-owned by a 300+ pound lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Philly TNT they hosted a few months back was a real highlight; relive our coverage of that night here.
A closing note:
We didn’t get a chance to visit these cafes, but you totally should! Check out these shops when you’re in town:
Milkboy Coffee (2 East Lancaster Avenue): A Counter Culture account with two locations, one on the Main Line in Ardmore and a 2nd, brand new location in Center City, near Thomas Jefferson University.
Lovers and Madmen (28 S 40th Street): Another Counter Culture account, this time near Penn Univeristy. “The best coffee in West Philly”, by reputation.
Gryphon Cafe: In Wayne, PA, on the Main Line.
Chestnut Hill: The closest thing Philly has to a specialty roaster…for now.
View Sprudge.com Philadelphia Coffee Guide in a larger map