Who doesn’t know the song “Streets of Philadelphia”? Until now I didn’t really listen to the lyrics. But, of course, I’m aware of the part this song plays in the movie with Tom Hanks.
As I wandered through the streets of Philadelphia this past summer 2016, the melody accompanied my way. Fortunately my impressions of the city and the scenery have been much more positive!
Philadelphia has an incredible diverse and colorful street culture with mural art wherever you look! I was in an ‘Oh’ and ‘Awe’ all the time and couldn’t stop photographing…
The scene for specialty coffee in Philly is small. Everything started with Aaron Ultimo and his first cafe in the Newbold neighborhood he opened in 2009. A lot happened since then in Philly and the community is growing year after year!
This coffee guide accompanies you on a tour through the city.
It’s a ‘walking guide’ that also highlights street culture, several sightseeing spots and the diverse food culture.
I’d suggest to go see the 6 respectively 7 cafes on 2 days. This way you’re able to see the western part of the city, the southeast (starting with Ultimo Coffee in Newbold) and North (with La Colombe in Fishtown) on the other. I’d suggest taking the Metro going up there, though.
If you’re doing this tour according to my suggestions, you’ll come across many walls and buildings that got mosaicked throughout the city.
This is the work or better the creations of Isaiah Zagar, who is – for many years now – embellishes the city with his art. Not only in public spaces, but a lot also on private ground.
A definite ‘Must Go’ is the Magic Garden. This place is full of his mosaics on one place.
There’s even a spot for the best view over the garden: On the rooftop of ACME Markets just across the street! But, shh…. Don’t tell anyone! 😉
My ‘walking tour’ starts in the second cafe Aaron Ultimo opened in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood in 2013.
A nice and bright location with a lot of wooden details and big windows. For everyone looking for a sun tan the outside seating is perfect. When I visited the café it was way too hot to sit outside, so I went inside for some air-conditioned cooling off.
What a great excuse to chat with Drew, General Manager, about the local specialty coffee scene. Everywhere I go, baristas loved to talk coffee. With my camera around my neck, it’s always easy to start the conversation, anyways.
The same way they like to talk coffee, they’re passionate about brewing coffee. Drew made two different Espresso Macchiato for me: One with beans from Colombia, the other one with beans from Ethiopia, both roasted by Counter Culture Coffee. Drunken side by side, I definitely noticed the broad variety of flavors in coffee.
Ultimo is roasting their own coffee by now. In the Newbold cafe you’re able to try them. They’re mainly focusing on filter coffee or espresso based coffee drinks.
For the little snack or sweet treat you can choose between Cookies and Biscotti that are showcased in the glass cabinet on the counter.
Besides some Insider tips on the local cafe, food and craft beer scene, Drew recommended the most crazy Dim Sum, I’ve ever tried: Bing Bing Dim Sum is creating and serving modern interpretations of the Chinese classic.
I decided for a Veggie version with beets and tofu after leaving Ultimo in Newbold and walking along Passyunk Avenue towards Northeast.
Passyunk Street is a street full of street art, small shops, restaurants and diners.
Do you like sandwiches with meat and a LOT of cheese? Then I’d definitely recommend going to one of the ‘Cheesesteak’ places that are typical and popular for Philly.
Only a couple minutes on foot from Ultimo is Rival Bros. Coffee. Rival is roasting their own coffees, too. 5 days a week in Northeast Philly. Until fall 2014 Rival only sold their coffee from a coffee truck that was located close to the university.
The cafe on Lombard Street was packed on this hot summer day 2016. Every single one of the small tables was occupied by students – as I was guessing, since the university of Philadelphia is only a short walk over the Schulkyll river away – absorbed in their laptops and sipping on a cold coffee drink, a cold brew, iced coffee or iced latte.
I decided for a batch brew, a filter coffee that is prepared in a larger batch. What I didn’t expect was this huge mug of filter coffee!
While being on my coffee tour through the US I experienced those large mugs for filter coffee a lot!
I have to admit, the coffee has to be really great, if they want me to drink the whole thing. Which wasn’t the case all the time, unfortunately…
Of course Rival is serving cappuccino, Latte and such as well. Hand filtered coffee is brewed with a Chemex.
Who likes to have some little snack to munch on while drinking their coffee, Rival is offering macaroons, cookies and all sorts of other sweet treats.
While spending some time at Rival, I talked to Steven, Assistant Manager and barista. He gave an insight on the work of the two owners, Jonathan and Damien.
Both their background is the food service industry and the coffee industry. One of them is a Chef; the other one is coffee roaster.
Both pay close attention to two things, when it comes to opening a new coffee shop:
The rent and the ‘walk by’ traffic of the new place. Meaning, how many people actually pass by that very place during the day? This also played a big part in their newly opened cafe on Spruce Street.
This cafe already was recommended to me during my coffee trip to New York City! It didn’t disappoint me!
From the outside it looked rather unimpressive lying in a side street of City Center in Downtown Philly.
The cafe itself or better the interior and the design, is incredibly creative! Wonderfully designed wallpaper, a lot of wooden details and flowers feel like a ‘golden thread’ throughout the – admittedly – large location.
One wall in the front of the cafe caught my attention. It changes its ‘outfit’ quite frequently. How?
Elixr is inviting artist and designers about 6 times a year to be creative. What a wonderful way to connect the cafe, artists and the community!
Like many coffee places in the US, Elixr is roasting its own coffee. The green beans come via direct trade and are roasted in Philly. A large shelf showcases the broad variety of the coffee beans for anyone to buy.
Elixr Coffee Roasters are roasting their own coffee since 2010. And compared to other coffees I tried in the US relatively light. This leads to a fruity, almost tea-like coffee, as seen from the color as well as telling from the taste.
One more highlight that grabbed my attention – not to mention that all of the tables were occupied as well with youngsters and their laptops – was the glass apparatus in the back of the cafe that must have been almost one meter high!
Getting closer you could see that about every three seconds, thick black coffee dripped from top to bottom. It’s called Cold Drip Coffee, a coffee concentrate with a higher amount of caffeine compared to filter coffee.
Who haven’t had enough caffeine, yet, for one day, makes its way straight to Menagerie Coffee.
On your walk you’ll pass by several tourist attractions like the Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Who didn’t know, yet, Philly was the place where the declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
Menagerie Coffee is located in Philly’s ‘Old City’.
Here you can find small shops next to bars, clubs, restaurants, tattoo studios and cafes. The buildings as well as the walls are covered with street and mosaic art by Isaiah Zagar…
Don’t forget your camera! 😉
While talking to April, my barista, who prepared a filter coffee with beans from Reko, Ethiopia, roasted by Dogwood, Minneapolis, I learned about Menagerie selling and brewing coffees from roasteries outside of Philly only, because they don’t want to copycat the local roasteries, but appreciate doing their job well.
April told me, the cafe itself shows a Scandinavian farm house flair and highlighted the Danish word ‘hygge’ describing the way they want their guests to feel while spending some time at the cafe:
A place for enjoying life with friends and family, happy, comfy and warm.
I hope, you can tell from the photos I took… At least the wooden details, the deer’s antlers on the raw walls as well as the light might give an impression.
Of course you can walk straight from Menagerie to Ox Coffee on 3rd street.
But, you’d definitely miss Philly harbor, when doing so!
My suggestion is, walk the couple blocks towards the East and take a walk along the riverside!
Beautiful little townhouses that reminded me a lot of a small British town are waiting for you to see them.
Besides the view, if you’re hungry and are looking for something to eat, but haven’t managed to do so in one of the cafes (because of all the coffee…), then grab a bite at one of the several food trucks that are parked at the pier. You’ll pass them anyways. 😉
Ox Coffee is a specialty coffee shop established in 2013 and also roasting its own coffee.
My barista – whose name I forgot apparently – explained to me that their micro roasts can be tasted over the weekends.
He added that Ox Coffee is only importing beans they personally like. Ox Coffee is known for being one of the best places for specialty coffee in Philly.
I wanted to know why!
My barista told me, it might be their approach and the precision as well as the consistency, when it comes to coffee brewing and preparing:
Every single one of the baristas has to take a certain training. Also, every single espresso shot is weighed before AND after brewing!!!
I didn’t decide for an espresso that day – it was just too hot outside. I went for a Cold Brew on ice instead.
Ox Coffee is not just a coffee shop!
Definitely check out their record collection, they not only play on the record player at the shop – every barista is able to pick their favorite music and create a playlist during the shift they’re working. What a great way of making your staff happy! – You can also buy the records that are showcased in the shelves in the back of the location.
As mentioned before, I’d definitely recommend a second day for your cafe hopping tour in Philly.
I’d suggest the following route:
Start with Ultimo Coffee in Newbold -> walk along Passyunk Ave to the North East -> stop by at Ox Coffee -> then head all the way towards the harbor – Korean War Memorial Park, Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are all on the way.
Go back to Old City and to Menagerie Coffee and -> take the Metro from there up to Fishtown and La Colombe Torrefaction.
This place is definitely worth going! Not only because of the coffee. La Colombe committed itself to the following:
‘America deserves better coffee’!
The location of the flagship store in Fishtown is highlighting this approach!
La Colombe in Fishtown looks like an old plant with its many bricks and huge gates. Walking inside, though, you’ll experience a whole world of coffee, coffee gear and equipment as well as La Colombe brand merchandising – the flagship store in Philly is only one of their many locations.
You’ll find deliciously showcased food (savory and sweet), a huge copper pizza oven and a giant distilling apparatus for the liquors of the cocktail menu served at night.
Who knows me, knows also that I love to try new things wherever I go! Often I’d ask my baristas for the specials at the very location.
This time, though, I didn’t have to ask… The ‘Draft Latte’ already popped up in front of me on a little promotion board sitting on the counter.
What’s a ‘Draft latte’, you might be wondering?
Well, it’s a cold Latte infused with Nitrogen. Doesn’t sound too exciting at first, I know. But who already knows Nitro Cold Brew Coffee, might know about its sweetness and creaminess, too!
What can I say; the ‘Draft Latte’ topped everything I’ve drunken so far! It almost felt like a dessert plus the caffeine. Unfortunately it melted in front of my eyes, because I was too busy taking photos of this amazing cafe location… 😀