Old City Coffee

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Every two or three months, I emerge from my basement chambre to stretch my legs in a journey across town for a perusal of the WW2 section at Book Trader and an attempt to relive my Paris years through a falafel at Maoz. Such a self-indulgent exercise is justified by predicating the trip upon a work session in Old City Coffee.

Old City appears to be an inviting place for work; it is well lit and spared from excessive accoutrement, being instead fitted with uniform, sturdy furnishings; the seating is in a room separated from the rowdy preparation and ordering area by a short hallway (see Novel Cafe). The only adornments upon the walls are reproductions of images and articles representing pleasant working environments on coffee farms at the turn of the century, a time when, in fact, most coffee was picked by slaves under murderous conditions. The lack of distractions and abundance of open wireless networks couple to suggest a suitable work environment — at least, this is how it appears in the abstract form buried in the recesses of memory of previous visits.

Situated on a dead-end, cobblestone side street in Philadelphia’s Old City, natch, entrance into Old City Coffee is a case study in how the other half lives. Old City is the domain of order-expectant yuppies – those who value structure over texture and place demands upon cafes accordingly; a parade of such characters marches through the periphery of your perception. Teenage girls express excitement about riding horses through Gettysburg on their father’s birthday. Clerks for the Federal Appeals Court brag about taking their bosses to Chili’s. A middle-aged man in a goatee and mules is diverted from the sports page when his velour tracksuited wife chatters about the access to Metropolitan Bakery in Farmicia. A father neglects his heartbroken tweenie daughter as he utilizes his newspaper as a barrier between them. A barista displays his obliviousness to irony as he shouts about a loud customer who helped herself to tea. A grey-haired male pulls an adolescent girl of dubious relation onto his lap and rubs her bare belly. Each of them is consuming cream cheese-filled French toast or a hazelnut steamer covered with cocoa and whipped cream.

These gastronomic perversities and the egregious shallowness of the customers is contrasted by the grave and sincere interest in decent coffee held by the operators of Old City. They roast their own beans and sell them in bulk, including Jamaican Blue Mountain and the only Indian Plantation beans we have ever seen; they sell a variety of contraptions, such as Chemex and vacuum pots, for brewing coffee superior to that extracted from typical domestic devices; they publish a newsletter extolling the virtues of coffee-producing regions and proper methods of storage; they maintain a calendar alerting you to upcoming coffees-of-the-day such as Zimbabwe AA or Sumatra Gayo Mountain.

Like many Philadelphia cafes, then, Old City would be exemplary if not for the patrons. Rather than annoyances such as screaming kids (Mugshots), insulting service (La Colombe), and head-splitting, invasive music (Last Drop), the disruptions at Old City are supplied by more or less clueless caricatures of self-entitlement. As a cast of clowns cheapens the appreciation of splendid coffee in an unobtrusive space, the most work you may accomplish here may be a series of craigslist rants and raves addressed to the showboats sharing the room with you.

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Old City Coffee

221 Church Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106

soymilk: no extra charge
wifi: free access

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