It’s a glass of beer, of course, that’s usually on Joe Sixpack’s mind. But a moment of unscheduled sobriety the other day compelled me to reflect on my other favorite intoxicant:
In a paper cup at a convenience store, in fine china after a big meal, in a mug at a diner, in a demitasse at a darkened cafe, in a thermos at work – I don’t care, I drink it all.
In fact, if I kept count of these things, I’d say that like the average American, I drink about two cups of coffee for every bottle of brew.
So, I suppose I’m addicted like the rest of you. The good news, though, is it’s never been a better time to be hooked.
Not long ago, the only thing available in these parts was Maxwell House, which is “good to the last drop” only if you prefer waking up to a nice, hot cup of battery acid. Regular or decaf, that was your choice.
These days, there’s a decent cup of coffee around every other corner – diners, restaurants and bars all regularly offer high-quality, fresh-ground blends. Even Sunoco A-Plus brews pots of rich, black Kenya-AA, to go along with that jug of windshield washer fluid.
About the only spot I won’t buy a cup is one of those expensive, generic, out-of-town coffee chains, like Starbucks and Xando. It’s not the silly menu of froufrou decaffeinated mocha-raspberry lattes I loathe. . .well, actually, it is. But I also hate the notion of spending my time and money in a sterile, faceless, portion-controlled chain, when there are plenty of excellent Philly joints with extra cream and character.
I mean, why eat Burger King when there’s Tony Luke’s?
Or Java Jitters on Castor Avenue. Or Rosalena’s on Passyunk. Or Aramingo Diner in Port Richmond.
“It’s a very good coffee town,” says Jennifer Linden, co-author of “Cafe Philadelphia,” a guidebook to the local coffee scene. “It’s leveled off since the mid-’90s. But today, everybody’s got a favorite coffee shop, and they’re the ones going strong. ”
“Coffee houses,” her co-author, Scott McCormick, writes in the preface of their guidebook, “rival bars as places to meet and hang out. ”
Which is true, if you ignore the fact the city boasts about 10 times as many bars as coffee houses.
Nonetheless, java is a social lubricant in this town. A cup, a spoon and a friend – it’s one of the pleasures of living in the city.
OK, we’re not Seattle, where drive-in espresso stands line every highway. But if you’re looking for a buzz, Philadelphia offers something for every taste.
My personal favorites are the diners. I think I’ve been in every one of them in this town, from the Mil-Lee’s Luv Inn on Rising Sun to Oregon Diner in South Philly, and I haven’t had a bad cup o’ joe in one of ’em. I know, I know – many of these places boil their grounds to excess, then continue to heat the ooze in huge vats that would not feel out of place among the refineries below the Platt Bridge.
But the delight of coffee, like that of beer, reaches beyond mere taste. The finest brew in the world goes flat when the room is stale.
A diner – a good one, with long, open counters where you can spread out your newspaper – can be a joy without even taking a sip. But with a mug of coffee and a sharp, friendly waitress, a diner feeds the soul.
Reg’lars at Silk City (435 Spring Garden St., Northern Liberties) know what I’m talking about. There, the coffee is rich Lacas, and the waitress is Mary Kratofilow.
She is a treasure, and not just because she always knows when you need a refill. She’s been pouring coffee with a sincere smile since 1971, back when the neighborhood spot was called Dee-Dee’s.
When you ask Mary her secret, she says “fresh ground beans. ”
There are Mary Kratofilows in every diner across town. At the Domino Diner (5110 Umbria Ave., Manayunk), she’s serving La Torraine in a bottomless cup for 75 cents. At the Melrose Diner (1501 Snyder Ave., South Philadelphia), she’s got a pot of ink-black Ellis at 65 cents.
Like I said, though, there is coffee for every taste in this town – and some of it among the best in the world.
A handful of local roasters have cropped up in recent years, to supply the city with a distinctive variety of excellent beans. These roasters are the moral equivalent of the city’s microbreweries; they’re raising the quality of coffee everywhere, despite their relatively small niche.
These days, everyone’s ga-ga over La Colombe, an 8-year-old roaster that routinely pulls in the monthly mag’s annual “Best of Philly” award. It’s the coffee Le Bec Fin serves after its $120 prix fixe dinners, and so does the Carangi Bakery (Oregon Avenue near 12th) for a somewhat more affordable $1.
La Colombe operates two coffee houses: La Colombe Torrefaction (130 S. 19th St., Rittenhouse Square) and La Colombe Panini (4360 Main St., Manayunk), both of which attract a disturbing population of Bohemians in Beemers. A single cup will cost you a buck.
For my money, though, the better flavor comes from New Harmony, which has been roasting beans on Vine Street in Old City for 10 years. (Ironically, New Harmony was bought out last year by La Colombe. ) To my palate, it’s richer and fuller.
You can find it at the smoky but comfortable Bean Cafe (615 South St.), where $1 will get you a cup and a fortune cookie. Big Jar Books (55 N. 2nd St., Old City) serves it, too, along with its fine selection of used books.
Until recently, New Harmony was also the caffeine of choice at the city’s most unusual coffee shop: Ray’s Cafe & Tea House (141 N. 9th St., Chinatown). Co-owner Grace Chen told me she switched to Kaffe Magnum of Vineland when she had difficulty getting her hands on affordable Brazilian Santos beans.
Ray’s is known mainly for two unbelievable brews.
One, its iced coffee, takes 12 hours to brew at room temperature. It drips, one drop per second, through a glass contraption that looks like it belongs in Mr. Science’s basement laboratory. The end product is liquid crack – it gives you a bigger buzz than espresso, and it’s thoroughly addictive.
The other is Ray’s remarkable, no-that’s-not-a-misprint $8 cup of coffee. It’s made from Jamaican Blue Mountain beans and brewed spectacularly in a glass siphon.
Served in a precious china cup, this coffee seems to fill your mouth with the sensual texture of milk chocolate.
Is it worth the price?
Well, each cup is individually ground, and Ray’s uses only filtered water.
Yeah, but is it worth the price?
Ray’s repeat customers certainly believe it is. Joe Sixpack, on the other hand, preferred the heartier, richer Philly Blend, which – at a still-steep $4.50 a cup – left me enough cash to afford a pint of ale.
Before I head back to that familiar, malty turf, though, I’ll leave you with my pick for the best tasting cup of coffee in Philadelphia:
Old City Coffee, 221 Church St. and Reading Terminal Market. Operating since the mid-’80s, it’s the oldest of the city’s specialty coffee shops. There’s no pretension here – just a terrific selection of more than two dozen different varieties, from Colombia to Tanzania.
On one afternoon last week, it was Guatemalan that poured into my cup. It was everything a great coffee should be: an aroma that lures you, a body that entices you, and a flavor that leaves you hooked for life.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are a few other unique spots around town for a decent cup of joe. (And, thanks to “Cafe Philadelphia” for good advice. )
Coffee Connection (6441 Frankford Ave., Mayfair) – the best coffee house in the Northeast. Live music on Thursday nights, open past midnight on weekends, a couch, Internet service and $1 cups of East Indies coffee.
Cafette (8136 Ardeligh St, Chestnut Hill) – This cozy luncheonette is sanctuary from the bustle of the Avenue; its bottomless $1.25 cups of San Francisco blend will stiffen you for the rest of the day.
Cafe Diem (8th Street & Washington Avenue., South Philadelphia) – Just off the Italian Market, this small, badly lit spot offers a traditional glass of Vietnamese-style coffee. Using dark, French-roasted beans, its brewed in a small drip pot with a generous helping of condensed milk. ($2. )
Varallo Bros. Caffee (1439 Snyder Ave., South Philadelphia) – The coffee is Grande Italia and the big-screen TV is just grand.
Philadelphia Java Co. (518 S. 4th St., near South) – Very casual with big, comfy chairs and $1 cups of La Colombe. Despite its proximity to the South Street anarchy, it attracts a grown-up crowd of neighborhood types.
Latte Lounge (816 N. 4th St., Northern Liberties) – Maybe the top neighborhood coffee shop in the city. Go here for a real feel for this always interesting section of town, and choose between La Colombe and Old City.