Welcome to the second part of the 2016 instalment of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. I’m currently in America, doing a loop (of sorts) around the east coast. I started off last week, flying into Newark, spending a couple of day in New York then heading down to Philadelphia, all of which was covered in Part I. Part II covers Philadelphia, Washington DC and a brief return to New York, while Part III will deal with my return to New England.
We start with this, my third visit to Philadelphia. I first went there in 2014, at the behest of my friend Greg, who writes Coffee Guru App. I met Greg in New York in 2013, over a brief coffee at the Ace Hotel, where he told me all about the Philadelphia coffee scene.
As a result of that conversation, Greg convinced me to visit Philadelphia the following year. Initially, I was a little sceptical, suspecting home-town bias, although, in fairness, Greg knows what he’s taking about when it comes to speciality coffee. Suffice to say that it didn’t take very long for me to be converted and I’ve been back each year since then. Philly has a great, and very underrated, coffee scene (as well as being a great, and very underrated, city). You can see what I got up to as follows:
- Thursday 11th to Saturday, 13th February: Philadelphia
- Saturday, 13th February: Heading (Further) South
- Saturday, 13th to Monday 15th February: Centerville
- Tuesday, 16th February: Washington DC
- Wednesday, 17th February: New York
You can see what I got up to in Philadelphia after the gallery.
Thursday 11th to Saturday, 13th February: Philadelphia
In all, I spend three days in Philadelphia, arrive at midday on Thursday and leaving at four o’clock on Saturday. As I’ve said, Philadelphia has a much under-rated coffee scene, with some amazing coffee shops and some fantastic roasters which easily hold their own against the best in the land. It’s also a great place to visit and, one day, I’ll come back and just be a tourist for a day or two.
Philadelphia reminds me a lot of UK cities such as Manchester, where the coffee scene is also booming. Like Manchester, but unlike London or New York, it’s also manageable and I already had a good feel for the city. Therefore I had the luxury of re-visiting a lot of old favourites rather than constantly seeking out the new, something I rarely get the chance to do. Also, a lot of what’s new in Philadelphia comes from existing coffee shops opening second or third branches, so even when I was visiting new places, they felt like old friends.
I started my first day as I meant to go on, popping into Menagerie Coffee which was at the other end of the block from my hotel. I caught up with April, one of the owners, and Willa, the barista who had served me on my first visit in 2014, both of whom remembered me. I also started each of my subsequent days with a cappuccino at Menagerie.
From there, I popped into another old favourite, Ox Coffee, to see the “new” backroom and garden, which were on the verge of opening when I was there in 2014. I caught up with the owners, Max (who I’d met before) and Will (who I’d missed) as well as head barista, Nicola. The garden, by the way, is gorgeous, even if it was too cold to sit out there.
The rest of the day was spent checking out two originals, the original Plenty Café (I’d visited Plenty’s Rittenhouse branch in 2014), where I was so impressed, I went back for dinner that evening, and the original Ultimo (having visited Ultimo’s branch Ultimo, Graduate Hospital in 2014).
On Friday, I met up with Greg for lunch, as we descended on Double Knot. A collaboration between Evan Inatome of Elixr and restaurateur Michael Schulson, it had only been open for a week, and yet it was the one place everyone who I’d asked the day before had said I must visit. Double Knot has something of the Speakeasy about it; a cross between restaurant, bar and speciality coffee shop and something I suspect that we’ll see more of.
After trying most of the coffee and food at Double Knot, Greg obligingly drove me around the city. We called in on La Colombe in Fishtown to deliver its certificate as a runner-up in the Best Breakfast Award (but, disappointingly, weren’t offered breakfast in return: maybe I need to rethink my Biggest Pile of Cash Award) and also popped into Rival Bros Coffee Bar with its certificate as a Best Overseas Coffee Spot runner-up. In between we called in on ReAnimator’s new (well, new for me, at least) roastery/coffee shop in Old Kensington.
My final stop was Bluestone Lane, an Aussie-inspired chain from New York whose Manhattan branch I’d called into last year. Being Aussie-inspired essentially meant it served brunch all day, so I had brunch for dinner, which is how life is meant to be. My final stop that evening was an obligatory visit to The Franklin Fountain for ice cream, despite the fact it was -7⁰C and snowing outside!
My final day in Philadelphia was just as cold and also punctuated by snow flurries. I loaded up my rucksack and walked all the way from 3rd Street to the Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, where I was to catch my train to Washington DC. Frankly, though, it was so miserable in the morning that I didn’t want to leave Menagerie!
However, eventually I dragged myself away, calling in on Double Knot to get some photos (and to try the espresso) before dropping in on Bluestone Lane, again to grab some photos. From there I headed north and onto my final stop in Philadelphia, ironically calling in on the only coffee shop I hadn’t visited before in one form or another, Peddler Coffee, a couple of blocks from the Barnes Foundation. Fortified by a lovely Chemex of a Costa Rican single-origin, I headed for the station and my train south.
You can see what happened on the train, and how I wasn’t really going to Washington DC, after the gallery.
Saturday, 13th February: Heading (Further) South
One thing I’ve discovered while travelling by Amtrak is that not all Amtrak trains are created equal. Take, for example, the train I caught to Washington DC. This was, in fact, the train for New Orleans, a train I one day hope to take all the way to its final destination, having previously done the route from Chicago to New Orleans. I should also point out that while I’ve been saying that I’m going “to DC” (because in my head I am going to visit my friends in DC), I was actually getting the train to Manassas, two stops further on from DC’s Union Station. This is because, while in my head my friends are my “DC friends”, they actually live in Centerville, which is out by Dulles Airport. This is due west of DC and about as far out of the city as Guildford is out of London (this is true, by the way, of my Boston friends and my Chicago friends, all of whom lack the common decency to actually live in the cities my head says they do).
Anyway, back to the matter in hand. Because of my friends’ unreasonableness in living somewhere convenient for them, I was on my way to Manassas, which is far easier to get to from Centerville (there is another irony here: Centerville grew up as a major railway junction, but now has no passenger service…). I could, of course, have got a train to DC and changed there, catching a commuter rail service to Manassas, but there was this convenient direct service from Philadelphia, so I caught that instead, which is how I ended up on the train to New Orleans.
This was similar to the sleeper service I caught on my way to Chicago last summer and, indeed, it had several sleeper cars at the front. I, however, was at the back in coach class, although to return to my original point, not all Amtrak trains are created equal. While on the face of it, all the single-decker carriages look the same, the internal layouts are subtly different. As I’ve mentioned before, compared to any British train, Amtrak’s rolling stock is really spacious. However, compared to Amtrak’s standard DC to Boston (Northeast Corridor) rolling stock, these long-distance coaches are even more spacious.
On a British train, I can’t sit in an airline seat and comfortably use my laptop, struggling at times to get my knees in behind the seat in front. On Amtrak’s services, there’s so much room that I can fold down the table (which projects nicely out of the seat in front and is just at the right height: I really should have thought to take a picture of one) and use my laptop with ease. There’s even room for me to put my bag on the floor (on a British train it’s either my bag or my feet). Now, I appreciate that for short people, this isn’t much of a novelty, but for tall folk like me (6’2”) this is a serious advantage! On the long-distance trains, there’s even more room: when I put the table down, it’s so far away from me that I have to pull it out on little runners in order to get it close enough to me to type on. Now, that is luxury.
The other advantage of long-distance trains is that they have proper dining cars on them, of the sort I enjoyed on my coast-to-coast trip last summer. However, for this particular journey, it was a moot point. The fact I was catching the New Orleans train had somehow passed me by, so I’d bought something to eat on the train when I was at Peddler Coffee in Philadelphia. Even if I had wanted to eat on the train, I doubt I could have: dinner was only being served once we’d left DC’s Union Station and since it was only 50 minutes to Manassas, I probably would have struggled to get served in time. However, useful to know for future reference.
Dining car aside, all the trains have café cars and in my experience all the café cars, if you ask them nicely, will provide you with a cup of hot water, free of charge. Then all you need is your Aeropress, grinder, some coffee beans and preferably a metal jug and a decent cup, and you’re away.
So, that’s the positives. The downsides to the long distance trains are, as far as I can tell, two-fold. The first is that the Wifi is even more flaky than normal. In fact, when I asked the conductor if the Wifi was working on the New Orleans train, he just laughed and said there wasn’t any (although the train seemed to disagree with him: there definitely was a Wifi network to connect to, it just didn’t let me! Plus, for about two minutes, while we were stopped at Union Station, I did actually connect and get online).
This brings me onto the second downside. The local distance trains do seem more prone to delays. For example, it only took us two hours to get to Union Station from Philadelphia. We were then scheduled to have a 30 minute layover while they swapped the engines over (the lines aren’t electrified south of Washington), with Manassas another 50 minutes after that. However, we ended up at stopped at Union Station for well over an hour: personally I think someone lost our engine down the back of the sofa…
By the time we left, we were running 40 minutes late, so from arriving at Union Station to getting to Manassas took another two hours, at which point I did wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off jumping off the train at Union Station and getting the metro out to Vienna… As I’ve said, Amtrak’s a great way to travel as long as you’re not actually in a hurry to get there on time! I was happy enough though: I had my laptop, at seat power and bags of room. My friends, on the other hand, had a 40 minute wait for me at Manassas….
Having arrived safely in DC (err, Centerville), you can see what I got up to after the gallery.
Saturday, 13th to Monday 15th February: Centerville
I spent a very quiet weekend hanging out with my friends in Centerville. Cunningly, I’d managed to arrange my trip so that the first weekend coincided with Valentine’s Day (Sunday, 14th February). For various reasons, I’d left planning my trip (and hence booking accommodation) rather late, so by the time I started looking, hotel after hotel was showing no vacancies that weekend, particularly on the Sunday evening, which puzzled me no end. Surely, I reasoned, Saturday would be the busy night, with people returning home on Sunday night for work in the morning.
It was then that I discovered that Presidents’ Day, a US Federal holiday, fell on Monday, 15th February and I quickly come to the conclusion that America was making the most of the long weekend and using it for a romantic getaway. Given the lack of available hotels and the fact that I was trying to do this trip on a budget, I sheepishly phoned my friends in Centerville, asking if I could come to stay… Sure, they said, and so there I was.
When I’d been here last year (admittedly in early March) I’d started off in Boston at -15⁰C and got to Centerville two weeks later where it had been a balmy +20⁰C. This time, having started out in New York, where it was around 0⁰C, and then heading south to Philadelphia, where it was -6⁰C, I was quite looking forward to Centerville and some warmer weather. However, it was not to be…
When I arrived on Saturday evening, it was a chilly -8⁰C and by the time I arose on Sunday morning, it was a distinctly not very warm -11⁰C! What was going on? However, the best was yet to come. Monday morning saw the temperatures shoot up to the dizzying heights of -5⁰C, complete with a blanket of snow, 15cm having fallen overnight…
We did have plans, vaguely, to go out that day: Centerville is close to several Civil War sights, as well as being in striking distance of some lovely mountains, including Skyline Drive. However, it was definitely a staying at home day, so that’s what we did, the weekend consisting of sitting around, enjoying good company, good food, and, since my friends are tea-drinkers and I’d brought the Aeropress, good coffee too. But mostly it was all about recharging my batteries.
We did manage to sneak out for some food, calling in on IHOP (International House of Pancakes, a nationwide chain – I’ll let you work out what they sell) on the way back from the station, plus we did that most American of things, brunch, which involved a 50-minute wait for a table (and I don’t think it was just because it was Valentine’s Day).
This year I’d also learnt some logistical lessons from previous trips. Knowing I’d be at the my friends in the middle of the trip, I did some laundry, which had the advantage that instead of packing three weeks’ worth of clothes, I could manage with a week-and-a-half. That might not sound much, but, as I discovered as I lugged my backpack around three cities on three consecutive days, it made all the difference!
However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. You can see what I got up to when I left Centerville after the gallery.
Tuesday, 16th February: Washington DC
The only downside to staying with my friends in Centerville is that it’s a bit of a commute to get into Washington DC for the day. Last year, I spent a day in DC on my way to Centerville, checking out three Coffee Spots (Filter Coffeehouse & Espresso Bar, Peregrine Espresso and Slipstream) and this year I got to spend a day on my way back.
The previous day’s snow had been replaced during the night by torrential rain, which at least washed the snow away, but left me with the prospect of getting very wet. My original plan to catch the 8.30 bus to the metro station at Vienna was abandoned in favour of getting a lift to the park and ride, where I could get a bus to the metro station, but with the added advantage of being able to wait in the dry. As it turned out, we pulled into the park and ride, about 30 seconds before the bus. What excellent timing!
The next part of my original plan not to survive contact with reality was leaving my rucksack at Union Station. I was catching the evening train to New York and so had planned to drop off my rucksack while I wandered around some of the local coffee shops, a tactic I’ve used before to good effect.
Now, some Amtrak stations have excellent left-luggage facilities. Unfortunately, Union Station is not one of them. When I’ve paid $49 for my train ticket to New York (a very reasonable price) I am not about to pay $30 to leave my bag at the station for six hours (a very unreasonable price). Instead, with the rain still hammering down, I covered up my rucksack with its waterproof cover (a very reasonable investment at £15), hoisted it on my back and splashed along Massachusetts Avenue to my first stop, Chinatown Coffee Co, just under 20 minutes’ walk away.
Mind you, it was such a modest store front that I almost walked past and, had I not been looking for it, I may well have gone sailing on by. Long and thin, Chinatown proved to be a good first stop since I was able to camp at the back and let myself and my stuff drip-dry without getting in anyone’s way. Although not a basement, it only has windows right at the front, so it feels like a basement, particularly at the back. Naturally, I felt right at home.
By the time I left, it has stopped raining and I made my way to the second stop of the day, La Colombe on Blagden Alley, a 15-minute walk. This too was long and thin, but this time with glass down one side. By now, the sun had come out and the contrast between there and Chinatown Coffee Co was like chalk and cheese.
There is another La Colombe in Chinatown itself, two blocks from Chinatown Coffee Co, but I’d put some thought into this, wanting to space out my stops. From Blagden Alley, it was just a 10-minute walk to my final call of the day, Compass Coffee, another lovely, bright, airy spot and the newest of the three, having only opened 18 months earlier.
I met with the owners while I was there, Michael and Harrison, a pair of ex-infantry officers from the Marines and spent a happy 20 minutes chatting with them before I had to run off (well, walk briskly off) back to Union Station to catch my train. By now the sun had come out and the wisdom of packing that little bit lighter was paying off during my 30-minute walk down Jersey Avenue.
From there, it was on the train up to New York for a day. You can see how I got on after the gallery.
Wednesday, 17th February: New York
My journey to New York was smooth and uneventful. I stayed at my usual hotel, Hotel 91 in Chinatown. I went there in 2011 and have been back every year since. For New York, it’s very reasonably-priced, the rooms are spacious & clean and, after my experiences in Philadelphia, most importantly of all, it’s warm and has working Wifi! The location’s good, on the south eastern side of Chinatown, near the Lower East Side and right by the Manhattan Bridge, one of my favourite routes into Brooklyn. And, of course, with New York’s Metro system, it’s easy enough to get around. The main downside is that it is, literally, right by the Manhattan Bridge: you might, if you opened the windows and leaned right out, be able to touch it, but to be honest, I’ve never had a problem. The triple-glazing cuts the noise right down and whatever does get through, my earplugs easily deal with.
I had one day to explore New York: once again I was catching an evening train, this time up to Providence, my last but one stop. As I did in Washington the day before, I’d decided to spend the day wandering between coffee shops before ending up at Penn Station in time for my train, so I hoisted on my backpack and off I went.
When I first started the Coffee Spot, I discovered Pushcart Coffee, a delightful, neighbourhood coffee shop just a few blocks further down East Broadway from Hotel 91. It made the ideal morning coffee stop, but sadly it closed a couple of years ago. Rather embarrassingly, having discovered Café Grumpy in Chelsea last year, I belatedly realised that there was a branch of Café Grumpy in the Lower East Side, no further from my hotel than Pushcart had been. And what’s worse, it had been there for four years! Major fail on my part.
I was therefore keen to rectify this egregious error and headed straight over there for a flat white. In a proper, flat-white-sized cup. A tulip one at that. Café Grumpy’s only small spot, not built for lingering, but it was the perfect place to start my day. After that, I needed breakfast. There used to be a really great diner a few blocks from my hotel at the other end of East Broadway, but that got turned into a bakery over the summer. Instead I headed back into Chinatown and along Grand, until I reached an old haunt of mine, the Landmark, a self-styled Coffee Shop and Pancake House. It’s not quite on a par with Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in Boston, but nonetheless it’s a great place for breakfast (or in this case, by the time I’d got there, brunch). I had my usual: eggs, home-fries and toast, with a pancake on the side.
Landmark’s on the same block as Gasoline Alley, although this time around I didn’t have time to pop in and say hello since I was heading across the street to a designer boutique called American Two Shot, also home to Café Integral. The boutique and coffee shop were set up together 3½ years ago, sharing the space equally. Café Integral, as well as being a great coffee shop in its own right, is (I believe) the first coffee shop in New York to champion coffee from a particular country, in this case, Nicaragua, importing micro-lots from individual farms.
César Vega is the driving force behind Café Integral, and he selects and roasts all the coffee. While I was there, I met his mother, who told me their story. The family comes from Nicaragua, hence the connection, but moved to Florida 25 years ago. Although they were not involved in the coffee industry, they have family and friends back in Nicaragua who own coffee farms. Café Integral was set up out of a frustration of not being able to find a decent cup of Nicaraguan coffee in New York.
My final stop of the day was a recommendation from my barista, Adam, who rolled out a whole list of suggestions, including one, Third Rail Coffee on Sullivan Street, Greenwich Village, which was on my way to Penn Station. It’s another tiny spot, not much bigger than Café Grumpy where I started my day, but fortunately large enough to contain a few (very comfortable) seats. It’s been on my radar for a while: I meant to go there when I visited Caffe Reggio two years ago. Unfortunately that day was cut short due to illness and so it was good to finally pay it a visit.
From there, it was onto the metro and off to the station to catch my train to Providence, but for that you’ll have to read Part III.
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