Philly, NYC, Boston: Thanks for the coffee

On coffee shops, travelling and anxiety

Happy Sunday. Yes, it’s been a few Sundays since I last checked in and provided you with some words about coffee. I’m back this week with a piece about coffee on the (north)East Coast of the United States. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard much about the United States in recent times and so I thought it wise to reacquaint the newsletter with the obscure North American nation.

A year ago this month, I spent some time in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. I went to some coffee shops and I’ve listed a few of my favourite spots below. In reality, they became my favourite spots, largely because they enabled me to manage anxiety as I progressed through the trip.

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Anxiety and coffee shops: my thanks to La Colombe

I want to start with a special mention to La Colombe Coffee Roasters. This is a roastery and chain of coffee shops mainly on the East Coast, with a few stores in Chicago and California. I had never heard of them before I visited for the first time at their branch in Penn Square, opposite Philadelphia’s City Hall. They ended up being a staple of my visit to the U.S.

I know I won’t be the only one reading this who deals with anxiety in their daily life, even more so when travelling. Flicking through my journal to remember this time last year and begin to draft this newsletter, I know this was certainly the case for me. It’s obviously not unusual to feel anxious when out of routine, in a different country, sleeping in a hostel each night and by the time I reached Boston, quite low on funds.

Visting La Colombe in each city I visited, being served by their friendly staff and drinking some consistently good coffee and also finding it strangely easy to strike up conversations with others in those shops, made me feel better each time I went in. This was to an extent that I sought out one of their shops each place I went and found the same experience. Genuinely warm and welcoming staff, some beautiful cafes and locations. After visiting them in Philadelphia, I went several times to their NoHo store in NYC and also their Seaport store in Boston.

But La Colombe is not a chain in the same sense as Starbucks or Costa (it has 30 stores in total), but it is still an example of one of the things I actually like about much-derided chain coffee shops - familiarity. Independent coffee shops are my favourite option and always will be, but they can be a stab in the dark when you’re in a new city and not familiar with them. I’ll never use this newsletter to talk down a coffee shop, but there were several others I visited during my trip that didn’t make me feel less anxious and both in service and product, felt more allied to a sort of pretentiousness that gives independent coffee a bad name.

Of course, coffee shops are only obligated to serve coffee, not to act as some kind of sanctuary for their customers, but in reality that is the purpose they serve. They aren’t just meeting places. For many, they are important pit stops during days that can be overwhelming or fractured by anxiety.

There will have been people sat alongside me in each coffee shop I visited dealing with issues far more severe than mine. Coffee shops offer a place to be around others, to think, to focus, to talk with a stranger or to talk with no one at all. So, this feeling of comfort and ease and friendliness that you feel in a place is now for me, a metric of the quality of a coffee shop. Strike the balance like La Colombe do in their shops and I’ll keep coming back. Below, I’ve listed 3 other coffee shops that I enjoyed for many of the reasons I’ve spoken about La Colombe.

So, back to the start of my trip. I found myself in Philadelphia after a week spent working at a conference in D.C. I got a coach up the coast and made my way to a youth hostel. In what became a consistent theme of my trip, by morning, I really needed coffee. Not just in a ‘it’s morning and now I need a coffee’ sense. I had shared a room with five other people, attempted sleep and now I *really* needed coffee.

Bodhi Coffee, Philadelphia

As one of the few remaining loyal users of the city guide app, Foursquare, I relied on it throughout my trip to help me find the best spots. It didn’t disappoint. A short walk from the hostel, past the Korean War Memorial and tucked away down a picturesque street is Bodhi Coffee.

I might have been the first customer of the day as the shop was empty as I walked in, but a steady stream of regulars passed through as I settled into a flat white. My early start meant I could grab a window seat to read a copy of the Philadelphia Gay News after ordering from a very pleasant man who, after hearing my accent, told me about his favourite coffee spots in London. It was a lovely spot to sit for an hour, do some journaling and plan out my day of sightseeing. The coffee was also very nice.

Ultimo Coffee, Philadelphia

My second stop in Philadelphia came late in the day after hours of walking around reading about American Independence at various historical sites. By this time, the colonial shame had well and truly set in and I was looking for somewhere to rest and do some ‘gram uploads. Ultimo was great. Not only was the coffee excellent, but the shop had a London feel about it. Slightly cramped, but light airy with a great selection of snacks and sandwiches. Friendly and comfortable.

Devoción, New York City

After catching a train from Penn Station and spending the Amtrak journey sat next to an avid *Michael Bloomberg* fan, I arrived in NYC ready for another chastening hostel experience, followed by plenty of coffee. For my first morning in the city, I already knew where I was headed. Devoción in Williamsburg had been on my list for some time and I made a beeline for it straightaway. Thinking back and with COVID restrictions now in mind, it seems like the cafe was uncomfortably busy, but at the time, it was just bustling and lively. The poor staff looked visibly stressed but somehow remained chirpy. The customers were enjoying the big sofas and natural light from the roof windows. It’s a genuinely beautiful shop.

So there you go. My coffee experiences from a year ago, via my journal. Here’s some links to them on Instagram should you wish to know more about them: La Colombe, Bodhi Coffee, Ultimo Coffee, Devoción.

The Fourth Quarter

This week’s Fourth Quarter is courtesy of another newsletter I receive each week: Elgin Clothing’s Sunday Service. A new Zoom/Teams background for us all….

…thanks to Four Seasons Total Landscaping (link to Twitter)

That’s all for this week. As I said at the top, do share the newsletter if you fancy it. Also, drop me an email if there’s a spot you think I should visit, particularly if it’s in the U.K.! Have a great week! Love, Ashley.