When we first covered the coffee scene in Philadelphia way back in 2011, there was already a wealth of cafes to choose from that made narrowing down the list a difficult task. Unfortunately for us (in the sense that the list of good cafes to choose from has doubled… nay, tripled!) but fortunately for you—everybody wins when the amount of great coffee in a city multiplies!—there are even more places to choose from now. We’ve featured more than a few build-outs from Philadelphia on the site in the intervening years; yet anyone would be hard pressed to keep up with all the exciting stuff happening in this city. From the grid-like warren of streets in South Philly to the rapidly changing Fishtown/Northern Liberties/Girard area, Philadelphia is now bursting with destinations for the travelling caffeine connoisseur. Here are some of the best cafes to check out between your oozing cheesesteaks at Geno’s or Pat’s and Revolutionary pints at the City Tavern.
Please note, this is just a snapshot of what the City of Brotherly Love has to offer in the coffee department. Elixr, Joe Philly, Bodhi, Shot Tower, Win Win, Square One, and Ultimo Coffee are all doing excellent work—truly this city is an embarrassment of riches on the coffee front, and home to one of America's most dynamic cafe scenes.
Cross-country coffee purveyors La Colombe call Philly their ancestral home, and their latest cafe here is a doozy. After spending most of my week-long trip at their Rittenhouse Square location—a fancy affair that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, New York City—I decided to troop out to the new Fishtown flagship “cafe” before I left. I use scare quotes around that because this is anything but a normal cafe.
From outside, you can tell that its warehouse location means it will be big. But I’m not sure anything can prepare you for just how big. At the front is the retail area, selling everything from bags of coffee and t-shirts to kits of the Dragon brewer, which comes in a weapons-grade portable case. Beyond this lies an impressive marble countertop, and past that you'll find the baked goods and coffee machines. (Don’t forget to notice the cute little tiles at your feet when you order.)
But it just…keeps…going. Beyond the bend in the counter lies a cocktail menu that includes the strongest coffee-based White Russian you’ll ever drink, a graffitied seating area, a pizza oven (!!!), a shelf of barrels that wouldn’t be out of place at a vineyard… and then overseeing all this, perched in the very back, is a secret coffee ninja mezzanine for things like cupping, test roasting, and talking shop. I’m not entirely sure what happens up there—surely whatever it is, it’s magic, because all I could do was stare at it slackjawed as I sipped my boozy, caffeinated White Russian. It’s a veritable cathedral to coffee, and it’s glorious.
ReAnimator’s newest venture is another impressively large cafe in north Philadelphia, just a 10-minute walk from La Colombe. The area, Kensington, is still industrial: a vacant, boarded-up brick building faces the cafe, and around the corner is an empty, slightly dusty grass field behind a broken chain link fence. It feels like you’re on the edge of the city, which makes it all the more surprising when faced with the beauty of this cafe-cum-roastery-cum-training center.
From outside you can see the tall windows that allow natural light to flood into the open-plan space. The former factory retains a warehouse feeling—with concrete floors, steel girding, cinderblock walls—with a veneer of Scandinavian cafe cool in the form of wooden benches and marble counter and tabletops. Beyond the counter, their roasting operations take place, churning out all the coffee for their two cafes, as well as the many cafes around Philadelphia that they also stock. ReAnimator offers two espressos and a few filter options on their bar, with shots pulled expertly on their shiny Synesso espresso machine. While this might feel like the the outskirts of town to a visitor like me, ReAnimator has created a wonderful destination for the canny coffee consumer.
United By Blue
It might seem weird to include a shop that is first and foremost a clothing/lifestyle store rather than a cafe, but United By Blue has the heart, charm, and coffee chops to back up the recommendation. Founded in 2010, United By Blue is an outdoors company with a mission to clean up waterways and oceans to leave the environment better for the future. For each item they sell, they pledge to remove one pound of trash from the water through clean-up efforts they organize.
Their aesthetic ranges between Kinfolk and #LiveFolk, offering clothing, shoes, and other items that recall a life lived simply in cabins or tents, brewing your morning coffee over a campfire and reading an issue of Hearth while you watch the fog roll in. Thankfully, they offer more than campfire coffee here, serving up beans roasted by ReAnimator, hot in enamel mugs or handsomely bottled up as cold brew. No matter the weather, United By Blue is a cosy place to settle down with a cup of coffee and dream about that Instagram-perfect outdoors life…outside the Philly limits.
Just minutes from the hustle and bustle of Market Street, Menagerie Coffee holds court on 3rd Street with its cheeky A-board art and friendly-looking pair of sea green chairs on the sidewalk out front. Like many of the coffee shops in Philadelphia, it is deceptively larger on the inside than it appears.
What at first seems to be a simple one-room cafe opens up further back into two more nooks for cradling your mugs and typing away on your laptop or reading a book. The front room offers a few different modes of seating: the typical communal wooden tables with benches; what appears to be a bench from an old ‘50s diner; some rather large tree stumps for tables, or perhaps seats if you really needed the extra room. Along the right-hand wall there’s even a narrow shelf made for the drink-n-dash espresso crowd, something that’s rarely observed outside certain parts of Europe.
Yet it’s little touches like this that draw you into Menagerie’s charm—this espresso rail, the tip cup full of little animal figurines, a nod to the name of the shop. Menagerie could also refer to their menagerie of espresso offerings, since they are one of the few multi-roaster cafes in Philadelphia. At the time of my visit, they had a diverse selection, including Ruby Coffee Roasters from Wisconsin and Dogwood Coffee from Minnesota.
Rival Bros Coffee
Compared to most other coffee shops, in Philly or otherwise, the brick-and-mortar incarnation of former truck-only Rival Brothers Coffee definitely stands out. It’s the distinct lack of marble, concrete, blond wood, minimal white walls, etc… anything that seems to define the current accepted aesthetic of cafes. Instead, it feels a bit like it swaggered onto the scene with a glint in its eye and a whole truckload of matte black stuff.
Upon entering, you’re faced with a sign that says “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” hung on a wild black-and-gold hexagonal wallpaper. This little nod to Clint Eastwood is echoed elsewhere in the shop in a reverently placed portrait of the man himself on the shelf behind the counter, amongst the cups and bags of espresso. As a result—and also probably because of the #matteblackeverything—Rival Bros feels a bit more punky, a bit more whimsical, a bit less po-faced than some cafes can be. They roast their own coffee, and while their menu might look standard to any frequent specialty cafe visitor, you probably haven’t seen a “Derringer” on a menu until you’ve visited here. It’s just their version of a Flat White or Gibraltar (or whatever the hell you want to call it, a small latte, I guess), served in a tall, thin glass, and named for the 19th-century pocket pistol commonly known as the Philadelphia Deringer.
Moving away from the city center again, but this time to the south, we find Ox Coffee close to the Italian Market and the Delaware River. Of all the cafes in Philly, it may be one of the most visually stunning. The moment you walk in, you're face to face with an utterly beautiful counter—a herringbone pattern of different types of wood, topped with simple cream-colored granite. The visual effect was particularly amazing on the day of my visit, with a bright, colorful painting from local artist Michael Vincent Ferreri reflecting in the shiny steel panels of the La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine.
Ox Coffee is big on the community aspect, which is shown in many ways: the company's decision to forgo Wi-Fi in an effort to foster more interaction, their stereo system and vinyl collection (which will earn you a free coffee if you add a record to it), their rotating exhibition of local art on the walls, and the music gigs they host every once in a while. It is an especially great summer/autumn cafe for the semi-hidden garden out back, where you can take your Stumptown coffee and bask in the warm sun, inhale the crisp air, and engage in a bit of real conversation with your fellow human beings.
Kate Beard is a Sprudge staff writer based in London. Read more Kate Beard on Sprudge.
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