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Creative cafes pour it on in Philadelphia's new coffee wave

It was just a few short years ago that caffeine-minded Philadelphians got their first jolt of the lighter roasts, latte art, and prized single-origin beans of the so-called third wave movement.

La Colombe's new shop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia on November 20, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
La Colombe's new shop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia on November 20, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )Read moreDavid Maialetti

It was just a few short years ago that caffeine-minded Philadelphians got their first jolt of the lighter roasts, latte art, and prized single-origin beans of the so-called third wave movement. (See related story here.)

Suddenly, there are so many exciting new players, small-batch roasters and well-crafted spaces taking the city's cafe culture to a distinctive new level. We've now entered a golden age: the Philly Coffee Wave.

Here are some of my favorites among the newer spots perking up coffee standards around town:

Ultimo (Graduate Hospital location: 2149 Catharine St., 215-545-3565; Newbold location: 1900 S. 15th St., 215- 339-5177; Ultimo's second location, a sunny modern slip of a room wrapped in pine with bare Edison bulbs, brings the same intensity of coffee nerd-ness to the neighborhood of Graduate Hospital, where the Counter Culture coffees are hand-poured into Chemex pots for the morning rush and there are two separate grinders for the espresso program alone. Ultimo's departure from traditional espresso blends in favor of single-origin beans caught me off guard at first sip. But a recent visit produced two stunning shots: one Tairora from Papua New Guinea with the rich cocoa mouth feel and bright fruit of a raspberry truffle, the other a long shot of Ethiopian Idido ground on a special grinder that highlighted the beans' earthy, floral, and tealike qualities. Not for beginners, but if you want some mind-bending espresso, this is where to find it.

Elixr (207 S. Sydenham St., If getting evicted was ever a good thing, Elixr 2.0 is a prime example. Evan Inatome's first shop on 15th Street was steaming along nicely when the building was suddenly slated for demolition to make way for a Cheesecake Factory. His next move was counterintuitive - into an obscure space on the little-traveled side street of Sydenham. But as designer Niko Dyshniku of Kolemade put it, "We wanted to create a place so cool that people want to go there." And he succeeded, outfitting the long, bilevel room with salvaged metal fire doors, end-cut wood floors from a coffin company, a loungelike sofa pit, and communal tables in back where students and Market Street suits camp out and caffeinate in Center City's most public hideaway. Inatome has also upped his game with his own excellent coffee roasts - including a fine espresso and Guatemalan El Injerto worth the price.

Menagerie Coffee (18 S. Third St.; If Elixr is a Batcave expression of masculine cafe design, Menagerie Coffee's partners Elysa DiMauro and April Nett (an Elixr alum) asked Dyshniku to give their Old City cafe a lighter, feminine sensibility. With lots of natural wood and light, white walls, and repurposed bowling-alley tabletops reaching back to a wall-sized photo of an Icelandic landscape, they've captured a Scandinavian feel that DiMauro calls an "austere coziness." With Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday, and Fleetwood Mac on the stereo, there may be no early-morning pose more serene than my back against the tufted gray cushion along Menagerie's wall, with an expertly pulled Neon espresso from Dogwood Coffee swirling mottled bronze on top of an Americano. That lemony Neon is typical of the bean policy here. Menagerie strictly sources small artisan roasters from out of town (Ceremony, Heart, George Howell, Four Barrel) that can be hard to find elsewhere in Philly. The baristas do them justice.  

La Colombe Torrefaction Fishtown (1335 Frankford Ave.; see info La Colombe's two other Philadelphia locations at La Colombe's stunning new Fishtown location is more than a high-style coffee hall. It's a bold experiment in the exciting possibilities for coffee-driven hybrid concepts, which are likely to become a trend - in this case, a bakery and rum distillery. (The coffee-infused rum is intriguing, but the stellar baguettes and "French drip" sandwiches will keep the crowds coming.) More impressive, though, is the clear evolution of La Colombe's coffee philosophy. Cofounder Todd Carmichael was once dismissive of his third wave competitors. But he and cofounder Jean-Philippe Iberti have since embraced single-origin coffees, lighter roasts, and even pour-overs in a big way, featuring some extremely elegant takes on Panamanian Esmeralda Geisha (among others) methodically hand-poured on shiny steel Silverton drippers.

ReAnimator Coffee (Kensington location: 310 Master St., 267-758-6264; Fishtown location: 1523 E. Susquehanna Ave., 215-425-5805; The tall-ceilinged building, a former elevator factory before a more recent life of crime as an urban pot farm, has been transformed into an homage to the neighborhood's history of industrial craft. Some digital start-ups now occupy the upstairs, while half of the spacious ground-floor room is perfumed by ReAnimator's 12-kilo Probat, which, in view of the cafe seats, is roasting top-notch Ethiopian Aramo (floral, fruity) and other single-origin beans to a lighter, tarter West Coast-style hue. Started just four years ago, and with another cafe in Fishtown, ReAnimator has quickly grown to become one of the most notable local roasters, with some national awards and a growing ambition to buy direct from farmers, like the exceptional Guatemalan Peñasco (citrusy, tealike), of which ReAnimator bought the entire crop. Soon to come in the other half of the cafe space: an as-yet-unnamed bakery 

Rival Bros. (2400 Lombard St.; Former Pub & Kitchen chef Jonathan Adams and his partner, roaster Damien Pileggi, have sold their coffee truck and focused on this sleekly styled corner cafe near Fitler Square, where regulars slip into the faux-leather banquette for an excellent hand-pour or milky "Derringer" cortado shot with a plate of toast from High Street on Market bread. An early focus on smooth, approachable blends (Revolver, Whistle & Cuss) has been augmented with some impressive single-origin beans (an excellent Papua-New Guinea) that occupy a roast profile between ReAnimator (lighter) and La Colombe (darker).

Plenty (Rittenhouse location: 1602 Spruce St., 215-560-8684; South Philadelphia location: 1710 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-909-8033; Plenty (which began with one cafe on East Passyunk, added a Rittenhouse location last year, and is building a new spot in Queen Village) serves excellent, globally inspired sandwiches with well-poured Rival Bros. coffee, plus a rotating list of prestige guest roasters like Portland's Coava and Seattle's Victrola. The tiny Rittenhouse location's biggest draw, though, is its marvel of stylishly efficient design, with a cozy mezzanine loft that feels like a clubhouse for secluded caffeination.

Chhaya Café (1819 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-465-1000; and Toast (1201 Spruce St., 215-821-1080; Varnana Beuria's sibling cafes each offer comfortable settings and signature hand-made carbs (waffle-ironed everything at Chhaya, which recently moved to a larger location; house-made English muffins at Toast), plus a serious approach to brewing local beans from ReAnimator, One Village, and Philly Fair Trade Roasters. While pillow-strewn Toast is among the most comfortable of Washington Square West's many cafes, the baristas lack consistency.

Bodhi Coffee (Washington Square West location: 263 S. 10th St.; Head House location: 410 S. 2nd St.; The Elixr and Stumptown coffees are fantastic at this airy and bright Wash West sibling to the third wave pioneer in Headhouse Square. Unfortunately, the austerely designed wood-and-metal furniture is so uncomfortable (and bolted to the floor) that I'm rarely encouraged to linger.

Green Street Coffee Co. (1101 Spruce St.; This tiny corner cafe outpost for one of Philly's newer roasters bristles with positive energy, sleekly polished wood banquettes, neat wrought-iron accents, and, occasionally, a guitar-geek's morning soundtrack I love. If you've moved on from really darker coffee roasts, though, Green Street may not impress. It's improved over time, but too many coffees here still taste burnt to me.

Square One (249 S. 13th St., 267-758-6352; This Wash West newcomer from Lancaster is one of the more impressive roasters to recently hit town, especially with elegant beans from Kenya, where the owners have a special connection. The iced coffee on nitro draft, which turns as creamy as a Guinness, is also a novelty worth seeking. A slightly off-kilter location, though, on a still-dodgy block of 13th Street in a space that feels like it's missing furniture, is a big reason Square One hasn't yet gained the wider attention it deserves.

Joe Coffee (Rittenhouse location: 1845 Walnut St.; University City location: 3200 Chestnut St.; Philadelphians are naturally wary of big names that touch down from New York, especially with the corporate look of Joe's. But the beans here are undeniably high-quality and relatively fairly priced (I like the nutty Nicaraguan Los Altos), and the friendly baristas know their craft. More important, Joe's has achieved something that should have happened long ago: putting a serious cafe across from the blooming park glory of Rittenhouse Square.

Ox Coffee (616 S. Third St., 215-922-2531; Old pals Max Cudworth (a former Joe barista) and William Gross (a former Stumptown roaster who left Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy) keep it simple at their homey, retro Queen Village space, a year-old neighborhood spot with great Stumptown coffee off the espresso machine and the Fetco drip brewer, wholesome local dairy for the cappuccinos, and real vinyl records playing on the stereo. The Coltrane ballads spinning when I visited more than compensated for the lack of WiFi.

Peddler Coffee (806 S. Sixth St., One of Philly's newer small-batch roasters has a pair of ambitious partners, Zachary James Urbanski and Richard Kessler, who between them have worked at Ultimo, Town Hall and Green Street and Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. They've made an early mark with custom-built "trikes" to dispense Kyoto-style iced coffee, as well as a stand at the current Franklin Flea market and a bare-bones start-up cafe (the "parlour") in Bella Vista. Their style is progressive, and I was impressed by the balance and complexity of their La Lagunilla beans from Oaxaca.