Craig LaBan rates Philly coffee houses

Craig LaBan, restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, rates his top 12 coffee houses in Philadelphia - and another 18 worth noting - after a lengthy and highly caffeinated investigation. If we missed your favorite, check back; we\'ll update soon.

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Ultimo (at Brew)1900 S. 15th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19145
Rank: 1
Phone: 215-339-5177
Espresso: First visit – 9.25 (could be hotter); final round: 10
Cappuccino: 8.5
Brewed drink: 9 (pour-over Kenyan)
Overall average score: 9.2
Craig's tasting notes: Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo’s self-named cafe tucked behind St. Agnes does more things right than any coffee shop in town, from meticulous pour-overs to perfect espresso with Counter Culture beans. From the roll-up garage-door walls to Billie Holliday on the stereo, to the addictive Four World bagels and the big fridge of craft beers for sale in back, this is a caffeine destination perfectly tuned to hipster Deep South Philly. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Shot Tower Coffee542 Christian St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Rank: 2
Phone: 267-886-8049
Espresso: First visit 9.25 (Intelligentsia Black Cat); final round: 9.5 (Stumptown single-origin Indonesian Sulawesi)
Cappuccino: First visit 8.5
Brewed drink: First visit 8.75 (Sulawesi pour-over)
Overall average score: 9
Craig's tasting notes: This handsomely airy new corner café in Queen Village from Matt Derago and Mariel Freeman is probably the finest local showcase for Stumptown beans, as well as the high-tech “Strada,” a gleaming machine with bobbing pressure gauges and manual controls for maximum finesse that appears to be part-espresso engine, part Lamborghini. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Elixr207 S. 15th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Rank: 3
Phone: 215-475-8221
Espresso: First visit: 9; final round: 8.75 (a little too cool, but still deliciously complex – Southpaw)
Cappuccino: 8.75
Brewed drink: 9.5 (Rwanda Cup of Excellence)
Overall average score: 9
Craig's tasting notes: Coffee nerds should feel at home at this ambitious new replacement to Hausbrandt, a sleek marble space with rustic wood communal tables where owner Evan Inatome, brother-in-law to Eagle Winston Justice (also a partner), presides with a super-geek’s passion over the Chemex pots, Clover, and La Marzocco Linea. The PT’s beans here shine, but so, too, does a seriousness that risks bordering on attitude. Still fine-tuning consistency, but it’s already elite. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Chhaya1823 E. Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148
Rank: 4
Phone: 215-465-1000
Espresso: 8
Cappuccino: 9 (Indian decoction)
Brewed drink: 10 (vacuum pot Malabar Monsoon)
Overall average score: 9
Craig's tasting notes: Coffee and waffles will never be the same after this quirky world beat café on East Passyunk, where Varnana Beuria and husband, Brett Shangold, have perfected the coffee perfomance art of the siphon vacuum pot, “Indian Decoctions” circus poured into a chai-sweet milky froth, as well as pour-overs, French press, and an intriguing alder wood-roasted espresso from Seattle’s Caffe d’Arte. Other beans come locally from Philly Fair Trade Roasters and One Village. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Spruce St. Espresso1101 Spruce St.
Philadelphia, PA 19176
Rank: 5
Phone: 267-285-6464
Espresso: 8.25
Cappuccino: 9
Brewed drink: 8.5 (Kenya)
Overall average score: 8.58
Craig's tasting notes: This small but ambitious caffeine corner from daughter-mother team Faith and Betty Ortiz was city’s first cafe to go Third Wave-style three years ago with pour-overs and single-origin beans from Counter Culture. The tiny L-shaped banquette hampers lingering, but a much larger new sibling shop is slated to open a block west this summer. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Lovers and Madmen28 S. 40th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Rank: 6
Phone: 215-243-9851
Espresso: 8.5
Cappuccino: 8.25
Brewed drink: 8.75 (Baroida)
Overall average score: 8.5
Craig's tasting notes: A serious coffee shop for West Philly, where Counter Culture beans are served-up to academics who camp out with laptops in the mellow room and ponder the pleasure of a proper pour-over. If only they didn’t use those odd insulated glass cups, which let the espresso cool too fast. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Town Hall Coffee Co.358 Montgomery Avenue
Merion Station, PA 19066
Rank: 7
Phone: 484-270-8041
Espresso: 8.50 (Toscano – bright, good, but needed to be remade with warmed cup)
Cappuccino: 7.75 (first try); 8.25 (second try with different barista)
Brewed drink: 9 (Ethiopian Sun-Dried Worka)
Overall average score: 8.37
Craig's tasting notes: Main Line coffeeholics will brave traffic on the perilous hairpin curve here for the java revelations at Tim Noble’s pour-over/espresso haven, a cool space with industrial-rustic accents in Merion Station. The baristas manage to share their craft without too much pretense, brewing vivid cups from beans by mostly Counter Culture, but also cameos by Western stars Ritual, Novo, and Verve. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
La Colombe130 S. 19th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Rank: 8
Phone: 215-563-0860
Espresso: First visit – 8.5; second – 8.75 (Nizza); 8.5 (Savoia)
Cappuccino: 8; Macchiato: 9
Brewed drink: 7
Overall average score: 8.33
Craig's tasting notes: The mother ship of Philly’s coffee culture, this bustling urban space remains the see-and-be-seen epicenter of the tony Rittenhouse scene. It’s still by far the busiest cafe in the city, but longtime habitués think the sponge-painted room could use a makeover, and coffee quality has become inconsistent since the arrival of new machines. The Nizza espresso is still an elegant alternative to the more intense Third Wave competitors', but the cappuccinos have at times been sloppy – making the stronger macchiato a better-bet milk drink. Look for La Colombe to freshen up its cafe game with a stylish second location set to open in April across from City Hall and Dilworth Plaza. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Bodhi410 S. Second St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Rank: 9
Phone: 267-239-2928
Espresso: 7 (intense, syrupy, and not hot)
Cappuccino: 9
Brewed drink: 9
Overall average score: 8.33
Craig's tasting notes: This espresso-sized white slip of a café on Head House Square epitomizes Third Wave style, with thimble-sized shots of supercharged espresso, aromatic cups of brewed-to-order single-origin beans, and tasty local nibbles, from Zahav’s humus to addictive chicken salad brioche sandwiches. Stumptown’s Hair Bender espresso was too acidic (and consistently lukewarm) for my tastes on its own, but worked wonders in a luscious cappuccino that was the best of our tasting. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Ray's Cafe & Tea House141 N. Ninth St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Rank: 10
Phone: 215-922-5122
Espresso: -
Cappuccino: -
Brewed drink: 7.5 (Sumiyaki on siphon); 8.25 (Blue Mountain on siphon) 8.25 (cold-drip with sweet milk)
Overall average score: 8
Craig's tasting notes: The seemingly random combo of Chinatown dumplings and high-end coffee still satisfies at this true local pioneer in gourmet brew, where for two decades-plus the science lab array of siphon pots and Bunsen burners has turned out pricey-but-flavorful cups of brewed-to-order Jamaican Blue Mountain and charcoal-roasted Japanese Sumiyaki. Not quite as vivid as Chhaya, but still worth a lunch visit. The intense cold-drip coffee iced down with sweet milk, though, may be its best cup. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
One Shot Coffee217 W. George St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Rank: 11
Phone: 215-627-1620
Espresso: 7 (could be 8, but temperature too cold)
Cappuccino: 8.5
Brewed drink: 8 (Stumptown Bolivia)
Overall average score: 7.83
Craig's tasting notes: The new location for this Northern Liberties Third Waver may be Philly's coolest caffeinated space, a bi-level clubhouse of a cafe done in the shabby chic of mismatched salvaged materials, with plenty of fun nooks for study and contemplation. The Stumptown coffee is happening, too, though as at Bodhi, I found the Hair Bender far more satisfying in a striking glass tumbler of cappuccino than on its own as espresso. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
High Point Café602 Carpenter Lane
Philadelphia, PA 19119
Rank: 12
Phone: 215-849-5153
Espresso: 7.75
Cappuccino: 8.25
Brewed drink: 7.25
Overall average score: 7.75
Craig's tasting notes: The co-op spirit is still alive and well at this Mt. Airy institution across from Weaver’s Way, where locals coffee-up to a mellow, folky soundtrack, munch on house-baked quiche and scones, and savor the owner’s loyalty to her Seattle roots with full-flavored True North beans that are especially resonant in milk drinks. The cappuccino wasn’t latte-art pretty, but the foam was steamed to a perfectly moist, yet full-bodied creamy richness. (Photo by David Maialetti, Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News)
Garces Trading Co.1111 Locust St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Rank: 13
Phone: 215-574-1099
Espresso: 7
Cappuccino: 7
Brewed drink: 8.5 (GTC Reserva French press)
Overall average score: 7.5
Craig's tasting notes: Most come for the superb cuisine at chef Jose Garces’ market and BYOB, but the pastry cafe end of this multipurpose venue also does a far better job than most restaurants of serving coffee, becoming the city’s prime showcase for Lambertville micro-roaster Rojo’s, under the Garces label. A French press of the “GTC Reserva” blend is the best, full-bodied expression of these artisan beans.
Rocket Cat Café2001 Frankford Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19176
Rank: 14
Phone: 215-739-4526
Espresso: 7.5
Cappuccino: 7
Brewed drink: 7.25
Overall average score: 7.25
Craig's tasting notes: A funky Fishtown standby with mismatched retro furniture and an effortlessly grungy vibe, this is still a worthy place to camp with a good book or journal, and discover one of the few local coffee shops using coffee from Norristown’s Fonseca in the espresso machine. It’s a rich, dark, balanced surprise.
Beauty Shop Café2001 Fitzwater St.
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Rank: 15
Phone: 215-546-1002
Espresso: 7
Cappuccino: 8
Brewed drink: 6
Overall average score: 7
Craig's tasting notes: A very solid and friendly neighborhood cafe for the Graduate Hospital area, where locals hang in a former salon decorated with flea-market flair. The barista quotient is reasonably high, and downtowners have access to Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. beans. As at CHC, the espresso drinks here are better than the slightly metallic-tasting brewed house blend.
Chestnut Hill Coffee Co.8620 Germantown Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19118
Rank: 16
Phone: 215-242-8600
Espresso: 8
Cappuccino: 6.5 (with cocoa); 7.5 (redo plain)
Brewed drink: 5
Overall average score: 6.75
Craig's tasting notes: From satisfying past experiences, we all expected more on this visit to Chestnut Hill’s artisanal roastery. And the bold and balanced espresso was still the Coffee Company’s best brew (and remains a personal favorite for home use). A thin cappuccino strangely auto-dusted with the distraction of cocoa, though, launched a funk that concluded with brewed coffee so lacking in character, one taster muttered “diner coffee,” and we all nodded in agreement.
The Lola Bean1325 Frankford Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Rank: 17
Phone: 215-634-5652
Espresso: 7
Cappuccino: 6.5
Brewed drink: 6.75
Overall average score: 6.75
Craig's tasting notes: You can’t miss the Hot Lips pink walls of this slender Frankford Avenue newcomer, which makes the most of its small but sunny contemporary space, and turns out respectable espresso drinks with La Colombe beans. It may be the city’s only caffeinated tribute to a pit bull nicknamed…Lola Bean.
Nook Bakery & Coffee Shop15 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Rank: 18
Phone: 215-496-9033
Espresso: 6.75
Cappuccino: 7
Brewed drink: 6.25
Overall average score: 6.66
Craig's tasting notes: Coffee lovers in the Market Street business district should root for this homespun and ambitious alternative to neighboring Starbucks from the couple behind the former Walnut Street Bridge Cafe. The house-made baked goods are fresh, there’s cool brewing gear for sale, and Michael Caro knows his coffee. The brewed-to-order cups, though, need a slightly larger dose of beans to realize the full effect of each coffee. French press is the best bet.
Cafe La Maude816 N. Fourth Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Rank: 19
Phone: 267-318-7869
Espresso: 6.5
Cappuccino: 7.5
Brewed drink: 6
Overall average score: 6.66
Craig's tasting notes: This quaint little NoLibs café is handsomely appointed with vintage Parisian details and takes its coffee seriously enough to be one of La Colombe’s better outlets. But it’s the French café fare with Lebanese accents – from kibbe-salad pita sandwiches to giant nicoise bowls and decadently rich baklava – that make this the neighborhood’s most stylish spot for the ladies (and crisply-suited businessmen) who lunch.
Capogiro117 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Rank: 20
Phone: 215-636-9250
Espresso: 7
Cappuccino: 6.5
Brewed drink: 6
Overall average score: 6.5
Craig's tasting notes: Philly’s gelato juggernaut has, at times, served La Colombe coffees better than La Colombe itself, with a couple of Victoria Arduino espresso machines (especially the seasonally open scoop shop on E. Passyunk) that can deliver rare intensity from Nizza beans when the right barista is working. I haven’t hit ‘em recently, though. The coffee at the Rittenhouse location was just fine, but a distant second interest to the sublime ice cream creations.
Betty’s Speakeasy2241 Grays Ferry Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Rank: 21
Phone: 215-735-9060
Espresso: 6
Cappuccino: -
Brewed drink: 6.25 (Americano)
Overall average score: 6.13
Craig's tasting notes: Betty’s automatic machine does a better job with the light-bodied beans from neighboring Café Laube than Café Laube did, which are most enjoyable in an Americano. Still, I come for what may be the best cupcakes in Philadelphia, infused with beer, plus other decadent baked delights like a honey-soaked Egyptian semolina cake.
Ants Pants Cafe2212 South St.
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Rank: 22
Phone: 215-875-8002
Espresso: 4 (mega-burnt)
Cappuccino: 6 (dark roast speaks through milk)
Brewed drink: 8 (Blue Water Smokey Cafe)
Overall average score: 6
Craig's tasting notes: This fun little brunch nook in G-Ho has some quirky Australian accents, including the espresso beans, which, brewed on their own into a demitasse, are dark-roasted to the point of tasting burnt. They worked better tempered by the milk of cappuccino. But it’s really the brewed Smokey Cafe blend from local Blue Water – one of my favorite local roasts – that is worth seeking out here.
Cafe Estelle444 N. Fourth St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Rank: 23
Phone: 215-925-5080
Espresso: 3.5
Cappuccino: 5
Brewed drink: 7.25
Overall average score: 5.25
Craig's tasting notes: The city’s best funky bruncherie offers the bonus of excellent beans from local micro-roaster Blue Water, which shine in the brewed Havana Blend. Too bad no one here knew how to properly work the espresso machine, resulting in weak, overpulled shots without a trace of crema that dragged the total rating down.
Jersey Java and Tea140 N. Haddon Ave.
Haddonfield, NJ 18033
Rank: 24
Phone: 856-428-0707
Espresso: 5.5
Cappuccino: 3.5
Brewed drink: 6.5
Overall average score: 5.16
Craig's tasting notes: Java-poor South Jersey would be completely lost to Starbucks if it wasn’t for this somewhat ambitious successor to Three Beans, whose grunge-look has been replaced with a sterile look more suited to a real estate office. The beans from PT’s are certainly high-grade, but the barista doesn’t always make the best use of them (with an especially pale one-shot cappuccino for a large milky mug.) The retail shelf also has too many old beans.
Starbucks1945 Callowhill St. Philadelphia
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Rank: 25
Phone: 215-557-8060
Espresso: 5
Cappuccino: 4
Brewed drink: 6 (Columbian Asoapia – savory, roasty bouillon flavor, but few of the expected aromatics – overall a pretty boring cup)
Overall average score: 5.13
Craig's tasting notes: Starbucks may be “the Man” of corporate coffee, but it’s at least consistent in its mediocrity, offering brews that are always decent but shy of great. A bid to step up to the brew-to-order fad with the novel high-tech Clover immersion machine, though, is stymied by the lackluster quality of the beans, with results that are less exciting than a hand-poured cup from Town Hall down the street.
Starbucks138 Montgomery Ave.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
Rank: 25
Phone: 610-617-9386
Espresso: 5
Cappuccino: 4
Brewed drink: 5.5 (Clover)
Overall average score: 5.13
Craig's tasting notes: Starbucks may be “the Man” of corporate coffee, but it’s at least consistent in its mediocrity, offering brews that are always decent but shy of great. A bid to step up to the brew-to-order fad with the novel high-tech Clover immersion machine, though, is stymied by the lackluster quality of the beans, with results that are less exciting than a hand-poured cup from Town Hall down the street.
Good Karma Coffee331 S. 22d St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Rank: 26
Phone: 215-546-1479
Espresso: 4
Cappuccino: 4
Brewed drink: 4.5 (Equal Exchange Mexico); 6.5 (One Village Artistry)
Overall average score: 4.75
Craig's tasting notes: It just feels good to be in this sunny cafe amidst the Fitler Square study crowd, laptops up, mellowing out to the folky soundtrack. It’s a shame the Equal Exchange coffee, while perfectly P.C., falls so flat. (Stick with the One Village specials, if available.) Then again, it may simply be the sweet but clueless baristas who pull espressos without crema, and top cappuccinos with foam as stiff as dry meringue.
Red Cup CafeFourth St. & Fairmount Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Rank: 27
Phone: 267-773-7812
Espresso: 6
Cappuccino: 5
Brewed drink: 3
Overall average score: 4.66
Craig's tasting notes: This low-key NoLibs corner shop has minimal ambience but good Italian La Cafferia beans and an Albanian barista who pulls a proper hot shot. The foam work gets a little careless with the cappuccino, but it’s the virtually flavorless brewed coffee that drags this score down.
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Mug Shots2106 Fairmount Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Rank: 28
Phone: 267-514-7145
Espresso: 3.5
Cappuccino: 4
Brewed drink: 5.5
Overall average score: 4.3
Craig's tasting notes: The original locale for this cleverly-named cafe across from the penitentiary is such a bustling neighborhood hub that sometimes feels like “Central Perk” in a Fairmount edition of Friends. The “fair trade” Equal Exchange beans fit the social agenda, and are adequate drip-brewed, but suffer in the hands of rushed baristas who turned out lukewarm espresso and pale cappuccinos. Every cup, for some reason, smelled vaguely of smoked vegan tempeh.
Cafe Laube1512 South St.
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Rank: 29
Phone: 215-546-1550
Espresso: 5
Cappuccino: 3
Brewed drink: 4
Overall average score: 4
Craig's tasting notes: The crepes are just fine at this South Street café, which also roasts its own beans. But the service can be so unpleasantly disinterested, as we discovered, that the light-bodied house-roast seemed especially thin and one-dimensional (the shot tasted of “a dirty machine” to one judge), and virtually disappeared in a weak cappuccino that was far too gone to be salvaged by a dusting of cocoa.
Nana Petrillo's1001 N. Second St.
Philadelphia, PA 19123
Rank: 30
Phone: 267-519-9715
Espresso: 1
Cappuccino: 2.5
Brewed drink: 4.5
Overall average score: 2.66
Craig's tasting notes: This sparse gelato take-out shop in the Piazza at Schmidts touts trendy “pour-over” coffee on a sign outside, but falls way short of the mark with a jury-rigged system using slow-draining flat-bottom filters (instead of the usual cones), hot water that’s about 15 degrees too cool, and diner-grade beans. The especially bitter espresso, served in a disposable cup, is even worse.
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