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At the 24-hour Broad Street Diner, some regulars come just for the late-night coffee.
Server Donna Klum sees finals-frazzled undergrads who need to get away from their roommates. Police officers on the graveyard shift. Old friends tossing laughter back and forth across the booth. They come for that diner mug and endless pot of black.
Some people are just lonely.
“They come in every single day,” Klum said. “Some a couple times a day, you know? And they spend a lot of money here.”
American diners are well known for that midnight cup of joe. The one at Broad and Ellsworth still smacks of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks” painting — with median parking out front.
It’s a dying breed. Over the past few years, Philly has lost many of its late-night hangouts, with erstwhile proprietors citing declining revenues as fancier bars and restaurants multiply. Rest in peace, Little Pete’s. See you, Aramingo Diner. Most neighborhoods outside of Center City now lack any 24-hour hangouts. Those that remain are toying with cutting hours.
Though Philly’s boutique cafe scene is booming, few spots stay open past 7 p.m. Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown is a rarity in that it stays open through 9 o’clock, and 11 on weekends.
What’s left for night owls prowling for coffee?
‘People have replaced their late-night coffee spot’
Sure, there’s always Dunkin. A majority of the city’s army of pink-frosting franchises offer indoor seating 24 hours a day. Many Philly Starbucks stay open until 9 p.m. But outside the chains, pickings are slim.
Philadelphia isn’t alone among cities lacking in late-night java spots. Pittsburgh has just one 24-hour coffee shop, not counting fast-food outposts.
Jeff Benjamin, a longtime restaurateur who co-founded Vetri and now runs the Fitler Club, said cafes are not in demand during evening hours these days.
“People have kind of replaced their late-night coffee spot with other activities,” Benjamin said. “I don’t think it was ever about the act of drinking coffee, it was the act of continuing your night.”
Coffee shops have become popular places to work, he noted. Conversely, many co-working spaces capture the coffee house vibe, with maybe better Wi-Fi. Benjamin thinks it makes sense fewer people are interested in spending their night in the same setting.
“The more we equate our coffee space with our work space,” Benjamin said, “the more we want to leave our work space for the day.”
Campuses are something of an exception, although they’re mostly dominated by chains like Starbucks. Independently-owned Saxbys, which operates student-run cafes at many Philadelphia colleges, closes its doors at 9 p.m. at the latest, with earlier hours on weekends.
Some of the city’s other boutique players have considered getting into the late-night game.
Ultimo Coffee co-founder Aaron Ultimo says he used to keep his original location in Newbold open until 9 p.m., but never later. It just didn’t make sense financially. The issue came up when he and wife/business partner Elizabeth Ultimo considered opening a University City location, he said, which never came to fruition.
“It’s the student culture,” Ultimo said. “There will be people interested in [coming in at] midnight and sitting there studying.”
RIP, 24-hour diner. Hello, all-day cafe?
Then there’s the fast-growing trend of places that operate as a coffee shop during the day, and turn into a bar at night.
W/N W/N in Callowhill (say it “win win”) was one of the city’s first forays into the hybrid model, but it had pulled back in recent years, shifting focus to its more popular nightlife offerings. In April, the original proprietors sold the joint, and it reopened under new ownership this summer. The new concept brings the Spring Garden spot back to its roots as an all-day cafe.
The model has other success stories in Philly. From Old City’s High Street on Market to Gran Caffe L’Aquila in Rittenhouse, the European-style model appears to be attracting more investors — even as some members of the clan have bowed out (Hungry Pigeon no longer does weekday breakfast), or closed entirely, like Cappofitto and Plenty Cafe.
North Broad recently picked up its first with Gabí, a kind of Parisian diner. But all-day cafes don’t all operate the same, and some that use the term are more food-oriented than a place where a single cup of joe is license to hang. Plus, some close relatively early anyway.
It’s a more economically sound decision for those spots to emphasize food rather than just java, said Fitler Club’s Benjamin: “It’s not solely a cup of coffee place.”
A room full of people ordering a $2 to $5 cups for several hours doesn’t make for good business, industry people say. Yet popular culture speaks of a demand — you don’t have to look far to find long threads of Philadelphians complaining about how few of the city’s coffee shops stay open past 10 p.m.
For some, the 24-7 diner is the answer — and though their numbers are shrinking, Philly still has a few that will be around to caffeinate the city’s nocturnal population for years to come.
Back at the Broad Street Diner, Klum recalls many customers who’ve found a home away from home.
Years ago, Klum said, a woman came to Philly as an 18-year-old in the military reserves, not knowing a soul. She came in to eat almost every night, returning later to hang out for hours with the Broad Street coffee slingers.
The diner staff became her clan, Klum observed, and helped her feel at home.
“We were her family,” Klum said, “until she made her own.”
Where to find sit-down coffee after 9 p.m. in Philly
- Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown, open to 9 p.m. on weekdays, 11 p.m. on weekends
- Starbucks 34th and Walnut, open until 11:30 p.m.
- Dunkin’, most open 24 hours.
- Saxbys 30th Street, open until 10 p.m.
- Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery, open until 10 p.m.
- Broad Street Diner
- Midtown III in Center City
- South Street Diner
- Mayfair Diner
- Oregon Diner
- Melrose Diner
- Gran Caffe L’Aquila, open to 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. on weekends
- W/N W/N, open to 12 a.m, 2 a.m on weekends
- Front Street Cafe, open until 2 a.m. (cafe drinks stop serving earlier)
- Gabí, open to 10 p.m.
- Double Knot, open to 10 or 11 p.m. weekdays, 12 a.m. on weekends