Six noteworthy shops on the city’s crowded caffeine scene.
The best coffee shops aren’t necessarily those with the best coffee (though we found that, too). They’re those coffee shops that perfectly fit your craving. Whether you’re searching for a connoisseur’s espresso or a taste-of-childhood hot chocolate, an elegant sip of afternoon tea or a crazy caffeinated concoction, a Starbucks alternative or just a place to settle in with your laptop, we’ve got a spot for you.
The Coffee Shop
In the quirky suburb-within-a-city where energetic young families live in quaint stone houses, you’ll find Chestnut Hill Coffee Company. It’s bright and modern, with vaguely uncomfortable curvy black furniture and a garnet wall. A steady flow of stroller-ed moms, Mac-toting students and post-yoga middle-agers ebbs and flows.
They have one thing in common: They all crave that first utopian gulp of the small-batch, house-roasted, flawlessly brewed coffee and espresso that the hip baristas here pull. Which is exactly what owner Sultan Malikyar was hoping for. He caught the caffeine bug while living in Seattle, and upon relocating brought Northwest-style coffee to the Northwest corner of our city. (He also brought good friend and master roaster John Hornall, who minds the beans.) The duo is obsessed with every aspect of coffee — they compare it to wine, they talk about brightness and finishes, they analyze varietals and farms, and they are die-hard devotees of proper technique. The result is a coffee so distinctive — strong, yet light and ideally balanced — that this random shop makes total sense. — A.P.
8620 Germantown Avenue, 215-242-8600.
The Hot Chocolate Shop
Call this an alternative coffee shop, though it has none of the tattoo ink and hair dye the term has come to imply. It’s the menu at bright, polished Naked Chocolate Caf that veers from the expected. There’s coffee — from Small World Roasters, a dark fair-trade bean — in all its mocha-latte-cappuccino forms. But it’s not unusual to see a couple come in with one half bearing a Starbucks brew in hand. The other is here for hot chocolate that, for once, isn’t an afterthought. Philly’s hot-chocolate drinkers have never been faced with so many choices: classic (a blend of milk and dark chocolate that veers toward dessert); bittersweet; warm-spice-scented Aztec; and more sharply spiced and aptly named Spicy, each served in a thicker European style or a smoother American.
If you get your chocolate fix to go, you’ll miss the frills — frills you’ve paid for, at $5 for a six-ounce cup of the hot stuff, in an Irish coffee mug balanced on a cocoa-dusted saucer, with a messy mound of whipped cream stabbed through with a crisp, buttery tuile. Kiddie cupcakes, dense and flavorful beneath buttercream icing with all the nuance of candy corn, and the nudo, a lopsided pyramid with a crisp, almost cookie base and a brownie-like peak, get equal attention, served on miniature white plates with dainty forks. And when the warm weather returns, Naked Chocolate continues to serve the alternative crowd, forgoing the usual iced tea for excellent lemonades, like the floral apple version and the more-fire-than-ice ginger-lemon combo. — A.W.
1317 Walnut Street, 215-735-7310, nakedchocolatecafe.com.
The Tea Shops
The city has embraced not one but two tea cafés. They’re both owned by sets of sisters. They’re both stylish and modern — one anchored by a brilliant orange lacquer chandelier, the other showing its whole-leaf wares in a shadowbox counter — and both frequented by medical students and freelance writers, ladies who lean into Italian paninis and Vietnamese hoagies, and fellas who snack on chocolate-chip scones and strawberry white tea cookies. One is earthy-modern Tbar, which peddles lip-smacking herbal fizzes spiked with jujube, ginger and ginseng. The other is artsy-bright Remedy Tea Bar, which pioneered the cocoa-creamy dirty chai latte. Both sell umpteen loose-leaf infusions — mate or rooibos, chamomile or jasmine, white, green or black teas — and just might cure your cappuccino habit.
What we love about both places: the virtuous — and light — antioxidant-infused feeling we get after sharing a pot of rich toasted-coconut black tea at two-year-old Remedy, or while cradling a mug of fruity green blossom tea (made with mao seng green tea, safflower, passionfruit and peach) at nearly-one Tbar. Spend an hour or two at either place, and you won’t smell like a bean grinder for the rest of the day.
But you don’t have to give up coffee completely to be a regular: Lots of customers have been spotted drinking coffee — elsewhere — in the morning, and sipping tea in the afternoon. — L.M.
The Community Center
As the Peach Pit was to 90210, so Three Beans Coffee Company is to South Jersey. Teens flood in after school to get buzzed on smoothies and brownies, play pool and flirt. There’s the conversational French group on Wednesdays at noon, live Irish music on Thursday nights, stressed students languishing over Bar prep-course books, gossiping mommies with tots feasting on cinnamon buns in miniature blue chairs, hush-voiced business meetings, and, on a recent visit, a couple doing some heavy Thursday-afternoon canoodling near the flickering fireplace. Which isn’t surprising, considering that this vast shop feels as lived-in as Grandma’s house.
Dog hair from welcome furry friends covers mismatched vintage couches and chairs perched on almost-worn-through Oriental rugs, which are no doubt covering up heavily stained carpets. Large wooden tables and ledges are stacked with newspapers, magazines, paperbacks and community fliers. It’s messy, in the most comforting of ways. Still not convinced this is the hub of Haddonfield and its not-too-far neighboring towns? Look just below the menu on the wall when ordering your La Colombe cappuccino and Gilda’s biscotti (because really, while there are some sweet treats, you don’t come here for the Most Amazing Food or Best Coffee Ever). You’ll see more Christmas cards, photos and handwritten notes than at your local dry cleaners. — A.P.
140 North Haddon Avenue, Haddonfield, 856-354-2220.
This doesn’t look like your neighborhood coffee shop. Saxbys Coffee is too well thought-out, too well-designed, too, well, Starbucks. But it just might be your neighborhood coffee shop very soon. Three-year-old Saxbys, which recently relocated its corporate offices from Atlanta to Center City’s Curtis Center (and is in the process of moving its roasting facility to the area), already has locations in Wayne, Malvern and Lansdale, along with soon-to-come outposts in Kennett Square and Abington and at Temple and the Philly airport. And it plans to open at least 15 more in the region in 2008.
The franchise-based chain, with dozens of other locations across the country, is building on a simple business model: Quirky coffee shops have their charm, but when it comes to that must-have caffeine jolt, consistency and convenience have proven (see Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts) to be an even stronger draw. With Saxbys, too, you know what to expect: spacious suburban locations designed for lounging, with flat-screen TVs, wi-fi, leather couches and gas fireplaces, along with higher-traffic, quick-fix city shops. Inoffensive trans-fat-free pastries, and a large, user-friendly menu with drinks like the popular coffee-candy “British Islander,” flavored with macademia-nut toffee and white chocolate. You’ve seen this all before, and you drank the coffee: here, a high-quality medium roast, with more octane than at Dunkin’, more finesse than at Wawa, and less heavy-roasted bitterness than at Starbucks. And it comes in perfectly pronounceable sizes of small, medium and large. — A.W.
For locations, saxbyscoffee.com.