La Colombe, Gold Coast

My espresso, a single-origin Papua New Guinea, served in a glass at the Gold Coast branch of La Colombe.Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based coffee shop/roaster chain with branches in various east coast cities, California and Chicago, where I visited the Wicker Park branch on my round-the-world trip in 2016. Today’s Coffee Spot, the Gold Coast branch, is Chicago’s fifth La Colombe, having opened in February 2018.

It’s a small spot, with just enough room for the counter (which has a few bar stools at the back) and a row of four tables along the window at the front, plus, in the summer, a bench out front. The lack of size doesn’t stop it from offering pretty much the full La Colombe range though, with two options on espresso, another two on batch-brew and three on pour-over through the Silverton dripper. There’s also a range of in-house teas and draft lattes and, if you’re hungry, cakes and prepared salads.

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La Colombe, Wicker Park

A pour-over from Myanmar, made at La Colombe in Wicker Park, Chicago, and served in one of La Colombe's much-loved cups, complete with matching saucer.I’ve always liked La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based chain, ever since visiting the amazing Dilworth Plaza branch near Philadelphia’s City Hall. I’ve now visited a number of branches, and, other than the coffee, they all have one thing in common: they occupy amazing physical spaces. This is something that La Colombe shares with the UK’s Boston Tea Party: taking iconic buildings and turning them into amazing coffee shops. Like the Boston Tea Party, La Colombe manages the trick of making each branch simultaneously its own place and yet obviously a La Colombe.

In this respect, the Wicker Park branch, one of four (soon to be five) in Chicago, is no different. Almost directly underneath the elevated Blue Line, which thunders above Milwaukee Avenue, La Colombe is opposite Damen station, occupying a large, rectangular building with a glass front, high ceilings and exposed brick walls. Add in windows at the back and it’s a wonderfully light and airy space.

There’s all the usual La Colombe goodness, with multiple choices on espresso, bulk-brew and pour-over. All the coffee is roasted in-house, in a facility a few blocks from the coffee shop which supplies all La Colombe’s Mid-west outlets. There’s also loose-leaf tea and a range of cakes/pastries.

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La Colombe, Blagden Alley

My Ethiopian filter coffee in one of La Colombe's gorgeous cups in its Blagden Alley branch in Washington DC.La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based coffee shop/roaster chain, has branches in five US cities, ranging from Boston in the north to Washington DC in the south, as well as expanding west to Chicago. Blagden Alley is one of four branches in the nation’s capital, and has been here for three years, set in what was an old Department of Transportation bus depot/garage, an amazing setting for a coffee shop. Long and thin, Blagden Alley has incredibly high ceilings and multiple windows, allowing the sunlight to stream in, particularly in the middle of the day and during the afternoon, where it lights up the exposed brick and plain plaster.

All the usual La Colombe staples are here, with multiple options on espresso, bulk-brew (drip) and pour-over. There is also a small selection of cakes and savoury pastries. The coffee is split into Classic and Workshop brands; the Classic is a darker roast, more old-school and includes blends such as Corsica on drip and Nizza on espresso, where it’s joined by decaf. The Workshop is focused on single-origins and lighter roasts, with one each on drip and espresso, plus three on pour-over. The specific beans on offer change every two months or so.

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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, 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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La Colombe, Lafayette Street

A magnificent decaf cortado from La Colombe, 270 Lafayette Street, NYCI discovered La Colombe in its hometown of Philadelphia, visiting the glorious Dilworth Plaza branch. There I was recommended the Lafayette Street branch in New York City (several New York baristas suggested it too). However, they might have meant the flagship store at 400 Lafayette Street, near Union, which I only discovered having already visited 270 Lafayette. Although it looked impressive, there was a line out of the door when I went by, so perhaps I chose wisely.

Although Lafayette Street shares many things with Dilworth Plaza (excellent coffee, splendid crockery, soaring glass windows, high ceilings, interesting mural on the wall, no Wifi or menu, forcing you to engage with the lovely, friendly baristas) in many ways they’re like chalk and cheese. Compared to Dilworth Plaza, Lafayette Street is tiny, although by NYC standards (eg I Am Coffee, Gimme! Coffee, Bluebird or Everyman Espresso) it’s positively huge. However, it lacks Dilworth Plaza’s open spaces, multiple seating options and there’s nowhere to linger at the counter and chat with the baristas. That said, given how busy it is, it wouldn’t be practical if there were.

Despite this, Lafayette Street has more than enough positives to make up for any perceived shortcomings…

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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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