Philadelphia

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The Coffee Spot Guide to Philadelphia

Philadelphia's magnificent City Hall on a sunny March afternoon.The first thing to say about this, and every other Coffee Spot Guide, is that it’s not comprehensive, nor can it be. Coffee Spots come and go all the time and all that I can attempt to do is give you a flavour of the town or city, listing, in one place, all the Coffee Spots I’ve visited. There’s also a handy map.

Philadelphia is one of my favourite American coffee cities. And one of my favourite American cities. As much as I love New York City, in whose shadow Philadelphia sits, there is something down-to-earth and honest about Philadelphia, a working class, blue-collar city which lacks the flash, brash self-confidence of its more famous neighbour. A relatively compact city, it has some outstanding Coffee Spots, including a large number of roaster-cafes which are as good as you’ll find anywhere on the east coast.

A short train ride from New York City, the city centre is an easy walk or metro ride from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Radiating out from the magnificent City Hall, it’s an easy enough city to explore on foot and the public transport is pretty good too. Obvious tourist sites include the Liberty Bell, the outstanding Barnes Foundation (with its world-class collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Personally, I like walking around the city streets, particularly the brick-lined streets of South Philadelphia, down by the Delaware River.

If you’re ever in the area, pay it a visit, if only for a day trip. Who knows, you might be pleasantly surprised.


Header image: Penn’s Landing and downtown Philadelphia at night, seen from the Penn’s View Hotel.


Coffee Spots

Anthony’s Italian Coffee House

A classic, Italian espresso in a classic white cup at Anthony's Italian Coffee House, PhiladelphiaAnthony’s Italian Coffee House, on 9th Street, is a slice of culture/history in Philadelphia’s Italian Market district. Recommended (once again) by my friend and guide, Greg Cohen (of Coffee Guru App fame), Greg comes to the Italian Market to do his shopping. After taking me around several old-fashioned grocers and delicatessens, themselves a delight to visit, particularly if you like Italian food, he abandoned me at Anthony’s (“left” would be a more accurate statement, but abandoned has a more dramatic quality to it, don’t you think?).

Anthony’s is an old-fashioned (in style; Wifi being just one of the concessions to the modern age) Italian-American espresso bar/café of the type that I love. Less grand than say Boston’s Caffé Vittoria or New York’s Caffe Reggio, it has more in common with Soho’s Bar Italia. This, I feel, is much more in keeping with Philadelphia’s working class, blue collar roots.

Don’t come here looking for the latest third wave coffee experience though. The espresso is good, but you won’t find any single-origins or fancy hand-crafted pour-overs (although there is the obligatory bulk-brew filter). Instead, come for a slice of character and history, plus to put your feet up after all that shopping!

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Ants Pants

The text "Ants Pants Cafe" over the date the cafe was established: 2004In the grand scheme of Philadelphia’s suddenly booming speciality coffee scene, Ant’s Pants is something of a wizened old establishment, having been around since 2004 (although even that pales into insignificance compared to the likes of Anthony’s Coffee House). It proudly states its Aussie inspiration, going as far as to use Toby’s Estate coffee (Aussie-owned, Brooklyn roasted).

The Aussie heritage also shines through in the emphasis on food; breakfast is served all day (well, until closing time, which is four o’clock) and there’s table service, a novelty in American coffee shops. This puts it more on a par with an American diner, particularly with the emphasis on the food, albeit with better coffee than your average diner.

If all this is too much for you, Ants Pants is conveniently split into two, the front part being much more traditional coffee shop, with a four-seat window bar and the counter down the right-hand side. The second part is at the back, down a short corridor past the kitchen, where you’ll find all the tables (notwithstanding the pair out on the sidewalk).

Except that by the time you read this, there’ll also be an outdoor greenhouse at the back with more seating…

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Bodhi Coffee

The sign outside Bodhi Coffee. Bodhi's symbol, a leaf, topped by the words "Bodhi Coffee" with the address at the bottom.I can’t believe that it’s been six months since my trip to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Such was the embarrassment of riches that I found during my visit, especially in Philadelphia, that here I am, still writing up places from the trip.

Today it’s the turn of Bodhi, the first stop on the Sunday Coffee Spot tour of Philadelphia I took with my local guide, Greg of Coffee Guru App, and journalist, Drew Lazor, who was writing about my visit You can read Drew’s piece on-line and also see what Greg’s made of this leg of my trip.

Other than being a lovely spot for coffee, especially on a sunny Sunday morning, Bodhi’s main claim to fame is that, as far as Greg knows, it’s the oldest building in Philadelphia that’s in use as a coffee shop. Situated on Headhouse Square in Philadelphia’s south side in the historic (and beautiful) Society Hill neighbourhood, the building dates back to the 1700s, although Bodhi’s only its most recent tenant.

Serving Elixr on espresso, and with beans from both Elixr and Stumptown available as either bulk-brew or filter, Bodhi certainly makes the grade when it comes to coffee.

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Double Knot

The words "Double Knot" written with the picture of a piece of rope tied into a Double Knot in the middle.Philadelphia’s Double Knot is a collaboration between local restaurateur, Michael Schulson, and Evan Inatone, the man behind Elixr, which roasts all the coffee. From the outside, Double Knot seems a very modest place, but step inside and you’ll soon realise that no expense has been spared! The sumptuous interior is gorgeous, while Double Knot boasts a full Modbar installation.

It doesn’t stop there. Double Knot also has a full service restaurant downstairs in the basement (which is bigger than the coffee bar upstairs!) which, from 5 o’clock onwards, serves Sushi & izakaya. If you get a chance, do pop down, since it’s as sumptuously-appointed as the upstairs.

Talking of which, upstairs starts the day as a coffee bar, with cakes and breakfast on offer, while at lunchtime, there’s a small (but excellent) menu from the kitchen downstairs. Then, mid-afternoon, it starts its transformation, becoming a cosy bar in the evening, although the coffee and food are available all day.

The coffee just as impressive, with a house-blend and single-origin joined by a decaf on espresso, plus four single-origins on filter which change every month or so. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a fully stocked bar and, naturally enough, coffee cocktails!

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Elixr

A chemex of Elixr's own single-origin coffee is being lovingly prepared.Elixr is something of a legend in the fledging Philadelphia coffee scene. It’s been around for just three years and, as is often the way with such places, it’s already seeded other local coffee shops. Menagerie Coffee, for example, was set-up by ex-Elixr manager, April. It’s also a fairly small world since I ran into Willa (the barista who I met at Menagerie the previous evening) who works weekends at Elixr. Indeed, it was something of a disappointment not to find Willa working in all the coffee shops I visited while I was in Philadelphia!

Elixr offers the usual range of espresso-based drinks, the obligatory bulk-brew filter and hand-poured filter via Chemex. When it opened, Elixr used PT’s coffee, but now the coffee is roasted in-house by Elixr’s owner. While I was there, there were five single-origins on pour-over, with a house-blend and guest single-origin on espresso.

Elixr is another physically beautiful space in a city that’s full of such places. It’s a long, thin coffee shop of the type that I seemed to run into quite frequently on my trip. It was very busy while I was there, and, despite its size, seating was at a premium.

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Greenstreet Coffee Co

A decaf piccolo with amazing latte art from Greenstreet Coffee Co, PhiladelphiaGreenstreet Coffee Co is something of a fixture in the fledgling Philadelphia speciality coffee scene. It’s been around for five years as a roaster, supplying local cafés such as Cafe Twelve. Two years ago, it opened its first (and so far only) coffee shop on the corner of Spruce and S 11th Streets, just south of the centre where it joins a growing band of speciality coffee places.

Greenstreet itself is pretty small, with just enough room for a couple of small rows of tables along the windows and some more seating outside. Although the interior is lovely and the outdoor seating’s some of the most comfortable-looking that I’ve seen in a while, the real draw is the coffee, with a wide range of Greensmith’s considerable output available at any one time.

During my visit, there were two single-origins on espresso plus the house-blend, Lupara, and a decaf, Starlight, all on a pair of twin grinders. The two single-origins were also available as filter, where they were joined by another four single-origins, to be enjoyed through either Aeropress or Chemex. There’s also a Syphon option on the menu, plus cold brew and nitro cold brew. Even the tea selection’s decent!

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La Colombe, Dilworth Plaza

The La Colombe logo with Penn Square in the backgroundLa Colombe is, according to my host, Greg of Coffee Guru App fame, something of a Philadelphia legend and it’s not hard to see why. Although it has branches around the country, including New York City, its home is in Philly. As well this chain of coffee shops, La Colombe roasts all its own beans in the Fishdown district of Philadelphia, not far from the centre, where it has a new flagship cafe.

At Greg’s recommendation, I visited the Dilworth Plaza branch, right by City Hall, smack bang in the centre of Philadelphia. La Colombe offers espresso, the obligatory bulk-brew, iced coffee and, for filter coffee, it uses the famous steampunk machines. Something that sets La Colombe apart from the crowd is an insistence on only serving one size of drink (8 oz). No buckets of milk here!

Interestingly, there’s no menu, which, according to Katrina, my barista, forces customers to engage with the staff. And vice-versa. Certainly in the case of my visit it worked really well!  There’s also no Wifi, another move designed to promote conversation and interaction. As much as I like my free Wifi, I can only applaud the sentiments behind this decision.

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La Colombe, Fishtown

A cup of filter coffee from La Colombe's new cafe in Fishtown, Philadelphia, served in one of La Colombe's distinctive cups.Continuing a theme of slightly larger places doing more than just coffee, the Coffee Spot celebrates its return to America with a standout from my previous trip in March. Regular readers will already be aware of my affection for La Colombe Torrefaction, with visits to branches in Philadelphia’s Dilworth Plaza and NYC’s Lafayette Street.

La Colombe is something of a home-grown Philly coffee hero, starting out in Fishtown, an old industrial area north of the centre, where La Colombe still roasts its coffee. Since my first visit in March 2014 and my return a year later, La Colombe has opened a flagship new store in Fishtown itself, converting an old warehouse into a go-to location for breakfast, brunch and, of course, coffee.

It’s a large, rambling, high-ceilinged space with multiple seating options and a rum distillery at the back. And why not? All the food is cooked in an open-plan kitchen behind the counter, reminiscent of Caravan, King's Cross and Paddington’s KuPP, although unlike those two establishments, La Colombe’s kitchen closes at four o’clock. All the bread’s baked here too!

The coffee is, of course, excellent, with espresso, bulk-brew and hand-pour filter, supplemented by beer and wine. And cake, naturally.

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Menagerie Coffee

A cappuccino in a classic white cup, sitting on a tree-stump table in the window, half in shadow from the sunlight.If I lived in/around Philadelphia, I could see the delightful Menagerie Coffee, just off Market Street down near Penn’s Landing in the Old City, becoming a regular haunt. Set up six months ago by April and Elysa, they’ve brought excellent coffee heritage (April worked at the long-established Elixr, another Philadelphia stand-out) and married it with a lovely space in an area that’s crying out for quality coffee.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a couple of blocks from the hotel I stayed in, which was a bonus! My host, Greg of Coffee Guru App fame, and I went there on Friday afternoon, not long after I’d arrived in Philadelphia. I popped back on my own on Sunday morning, preferring to start the day with a Menagerie cappuccino over the (adequate but unexciting) coffee served up by the hotel.

Menagerie uses Dogwood Coffee from Minneapolis for the house-blend (Neon espresso) and decaf (Sumatran mountain-water process), while four single-origins are available as pour-overs. These change on a regular basis and come from a variety of roasters (while I was there, two were from Dogwood, with one each from Ceremony of Annapolis and Boston’s George Howell).

February 2016: true to my word, on both my subsequent trips to Philadelphia, I have stayed near Menagerie and have started each day there with a cappuccino.

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One Shot

The One Shot logo, an eight-engined, propeller-driven flying boat, painted on the side of the wall of One Shot.After my recent Manchester exploits (Cup North, Pot Kettle Black, Caffeine Magazine), I thought it high time I returned to Philadelphia, a city with many similarities to Manchester, to finish writing up the Coffee Spots from my trip back in March. So, I present, without further ado, One Shot, which was introduced to me by my host, Greg of Coffee Guru App.

To the north of the centre, One Shot is a lovely spot, best known for its food and, as a result, a very popular brunch spot. Naturally enough, Greg and I went there for Sunday brunch. It’s been serving great food and equally great coffee since 2005 and, in 2011, moved a short distance from its original location to its current premises, spread over two floors on the corner of W George and N American Streets.

A long, thin store, downstairs is dominated by the counter, while upstairs is given over to a wide range of seating options, including a lounge/library area (with its own motorbike) right at the front. There’s also seating outside. The food is varied, with numerous specials, while the main menu changes on a seasonal basis. The coffee, meanwhile, is from Stumptown.

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Ox Coffee

A beautiful Gibraltar (Cortado) from Ox Coffee.Ox Coffee, on Philadelphia’s South Side, is a lovely spot and the first I saw in Philadelphia which wouldn’t have looked out of place in either New York City or London. It has the stripped-back, clean looks that I particularly associate with New York spots such as Gimme! Coffee or the Bluebird Coffee Shop. It also reminded me of London’s White Mulberries. Not that this is a knock on the other Philadelphia Coffee Spots, more a commentary on the rents: most places in (central) London or New York just can’t afford the sort of floor space I was regularly seeing in Philadelphia!

Ox has a similarly clean, stripped-back menu, with just a selection of cake to accompany the coffee, which comes from Stumptown. The standard Hair Bender espresso (a blend of five different beans) is supplemented by a single-origin espresso at weekends, with a choice of two beans on the bulk drip-filter. There’s also decaf on a separate grinder and plans for a third grinder so the single-origin can be offered all week.

Owners Max (who I met) and Will (who was having a rare day off, but who I met on my return in 2016) have created something special in Ox, a delightful, friendly neighbourhood spot.

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Plenty, Rittenhouse

The A-board outside Plenty in Rittenhouse, proudly displaying its coffee credentials with local roasters Rival Brothers and Square One CoffeeWe continue my mini-coffee tour of Philadelphia with Plenty. It seems harsh to call Plenty a chain, since there are only two of them, but there you go. I visited the second one, on Spruce Street, which has only been open since Thanksgiving last year. It’s in the area known as Rittenhouse, just south of the centre, around the corner from such luminaries as Elixr. The contrast between the bustle of Elixr and the relative, relaxed calm of Plenty was striking.

Plenty was introduced to me as a “sandwich joint” which, I feel, is understating its coffee credentials. With local Philadelphia roasters, Rival Brothers, providing the house blend, and guest roaster, Square One from Lancaster PA (not Lancaster, Lancashire, and not, as I first read it, London’s Square Mile!) providing the beans for the pour-over and guest espresso, it’s coffee credentials are pretty decent.

Add to that perhaps my favourite space in Philadelphia (although it had plenty of competition from the likes of Menagerie Coffee and Ox), a great atmosphere, amazing cakes and probably the best cup of coffee I had in Philadelphia and you have a clear winner! Ironically, the only things I didn’t try were the sandwiches…

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ReAnimator

ReAnimator Coffee, painted black on a white background on the brick wall above the door.If there was a Coffee Spot Award for "Weirdest Shape for a Coffee Shop", I think Philadelphia’s ReAnimator would win it, hands down. It beats even Dublin’s 3FE and London’s FreeState Coffee. Some coffee shops are L-shaped, or variations on a square or a wedge, but ReAnimator is genuinely a triangle, and a pointy one at that.

Of course, just having an interestingly-shaped building doesn’t amount to much if you don’t have very good coffee. Fortunately for us, ReAnimator has very good coffee indeed. It’s one of that breed of roaster-coffee shops that seems, to me at least, far more prevalent in the US than here in the UK.

Right now there’s just the one ReAnimator in the Fishtown neighbourhood, north of the centre, although plans are well underway for a new headquarters, which will combine roastery, training centre and a second café. In keeping with ReAnimator’s neighbourhood philosophy, this will also be in Fishtown.

If you like the coffee, you can buy it on-line, where, according to ReAnimator’s website, it’s roasted to demand. Alternatively, pop into the store itself, where you will find shelves and shelves filled with bags of coffee waiting for you to take them away!

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Rival Bros Coffee Bar

Two bare-chested men, dressed as old-fashioned pugilists, but each holding a large coffee cup in their hands.On my first visit to Philadelphia in 2014, I missed Rival Bros who, back then, were a roastery with a growing reputation and a coffee truck that wasn’t open at weekends. Naturally, I was there for the weekend. Two months later, having waited until I was safely out of town, Rival Bros opened its first (and so far only) shop on the corner of 24th and Lombard Streets.

It’s a brick-built building in a residential part of south Philadelphia, on the end of a row of two-/three-storey terrace houses. In many ways the setting, on a sunny March afternoon, couldn’t be lovelier. The exterior brickwork is painted grey and white, while the interior has white-washed walls with dark grey woodwork and ceiling. Windows, glass doors and plenty of lights make it a wonderful, bright spot.

The focus is firmly on the coffee, allowing Rival Bros to showcase its output. There’s a blend (Whistle & Cuss), single-origin (Ethiopian) and decaf on espresso, the Revolver blend (which I’ve previously had as espresso) on bulk-brew and a choice of four single-origins through the Chemex. If you’re hungry, there’s a small range of bread-based goodies, including toast and toasted sandwiches, plus cake, of course.

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Shot Tower Coffee

Shot Tower Coffee, on the corner of Christian & South 6th Streets.My friend Greg, of Coffee Guru App fame, and my number one source of all things coffee-related in Philadelphia, described Shot Tower Coffee as “one of the best” in Philly. No pressure then. Fortunately I loved it from the moment we drove past along Christian Street on our way to the 9th Street Italian Market. Greg had to do his shopping then head home, leaving me free to wander back to Shot Tower at my leisure, which I did.

Sitting on the corner of Christian and South 6th Streets, Shot Tower is perhaps twice as long as it is deep, and ever so slightly wedge-shaped. Windows run the length of both sides, which, coupled with a high ceiling, give it a bright and airy feel. Well-spaced seating adds to the sense of space.

The coffee is from Counter Culture, with a fairly standard espresso-based menu, the obligatory bulk-brew drip coffee and hand-brew pour-over, with a choice (while I was there) of a Rosales from Columbia, a Kinyara from Kenya or decaf. There’s also decaf available for the espresso and a wide selection of loose-leaf tea and iced drinks. Pastries and oatmeal provide food options if you’re hungry.

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Square One, South 13th Street

The words "SQUARE one COFFEE" one word per row, white on black inside a white square.In a desperate attempt to publish all the Coffee Spots from my last trip to Philadelphia in March 2015 before I return there next week, I present today’s Coffee Spot, Square One, which started life as a roaster in Lancaster, PA.  It still roasts all its coffee in Lancaster, in a purpose-built roastery and training space, having previously roasting on-site on its Duke Street café. I first came across Square One’s coffee in 2014 at Plenty in Rittenhouse and then, last year, I called into the first of its two Philadelphia branches which opened its doors on South 13th Street in 2013.

Square One is in good company, the area just south of City Hall turning into something of a go-to spot. Coffee-shop-cum-roaster Greenstreet Coffee Co is a few blocks away, as was Cafe Twelve until it closed on Monday. Just a few blocks more on the other side of Broad Street is another Philadelphia café/roaster, Elixr, while the aforementioned Plenty is nearby.

Square One occupies a fantastic spot, a large, open rectangle, with an island counter, and serves some excellent coffee. There’s a house-blend and single-origin on espresso and two more available through the Chemex, plus the obligatory bulk-brew.

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The Franklin Fountain

The Franklin Fountain sign, showing a man in a white uniform, mixing sodas.The Franklin Fountain is that most wonderful of things, an old-fashioned American ice cream parlour. Yes, I know this is the Coffee Spot, but every now and then I’m allowed a little indulgence and this is one such occasion. Besides, The Franklin Fountain serves coffee. Not that I’ve ever had any, mind you; I’ve always been too busy scoffing the ice cream.

Although it celebrates its 10th birthday this summer, The Franklin Fountain recreates an authentic turn-of-the-century ice cream parlour and soda fountain. It’s a lovely spot, with a mosaic, tiled floor, old tinned walls and ceilings and two belt-driven ceiling fans. It serves some truly gorgeous ice cream, with 20 different flavours, as well as sorbets and various sundaes.

It’s also extremely popular. Most of the times I passed by, there were queues out of the door (keeping in mind that this was back in March and the temperature had just gotten above freezing; I hate to think what it’s like in the summer!). It does a brisk trade, a lot of it takeaway, but there is limited seating inside and a couple of tables out front, not that there’s much chance of getting a seat in the evenings!

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Ultimo Coffee, Graduate Hospital

The Ultimo symbol, a Roman Eagle, here cut out of an iron plate.I’ve saved the first until last, so to speak. On my trip to Philadelphia back in March, Ultimo Coffee was my first port of call, fresh off the train from Boston, whisked there by my generous host for the weekend, Greg of Coffee Guru App fame. It seems appropriate that of the nine Coffee Spots I visited (11 if you count The Franklin Fountain and Jany's), it’s the last to be written up.

The Graduate Hospital branch on Catharine Street is the second of Philadelphia’s two Ultimos, the westernmost Coffee Spot that I visited (the original, on S 15th Street, is a long way out of town and would easily have been the furthest south had I made it there; next time, maybe). After leaving the Amtrak Station and crossing the river, turn right and it’s a straight run down 22nd Street to Ultimo, making it a logical place to start my coffee tour.

Ultimo serves Counter Culture coffee (with occasional guest roasters) with an emphasis on filter. Chemex is available until 11 o’clock in the morning, with V60 on the go throughout the day. There’s a choice of three single-origins, with single-origin house and guest espressos, plus decaf. There’s a range of sandwiches and cakes too.

December 2016: Ultimo now roasts all its own coffee which it serves in both its stores. You can also see what I made of Newbold, the original branch of Ultimo Coffee, when I visited in February 2016.

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Ultimo Coffee, Newbold

The sign, painted on an old window, on the back wall at Ultimo Coffee's Newbold coffee shop.The first ever speciality coffee shop I visited in Philadelphia was Ultimo Coffee’s Graduate Hospital branch on Catherine Street. It is therefore a little ironic that it’s taken me two years to visit the original, Newbold, on South 15th Street, where Ultimo started back in 2009. As is usual in these cases, the loss is all mine.

Ultimo, rather unusually, shares the space with Brew, a speciality bottle beer company, with Ultimo and the coffee taking the front of the store and Brew taking the back, the two sharing the seating. Ultimo, also unusually, has a strong focus on pour-over coffee, something which is slowly catching on in the US, but which Ultimo has championed from the start, using Bee House drippers to serve an interesting selection of single-origin filters to go with two more on espresso.

During my visit in February, Counter Culture was the house-roaster, with occasional guests on espresso and filter. However, since then Ultimo has started roasting its own coffee (with the roastery based at Newbold), which is now available on-line and in both stores. If you’re in a hurry, there’s bulk-brew until 11am, while for those with a sweet tooth, there’s a selection of cake.

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Map

If you don’t like lists or just want to see where everything is, you can use the map to find your way around.

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