First Taste: Philz Coffee
California Coffee Chain Lands in Bethesda
Rick Chessen Photos
You may have noticed the mid-December opening of Philz Coffee at 7247 Woodmont Ave., next to Mon Ami Gabi, and wondered whether Bethesda Row needs another coffee shop. After all, Quartermaine and Starbucks are a stone’s throw away and Panera, Paul and Le Pain Quotidien can all scratch the itch if you’re in the mood for coffee-and-a-little-something.
The short answer is this: Philz is different. Philz is part of a new generation of coffee shops that takes a slower, more hand-crafted approach to the art of brewing. The District has other roasters like Blue Bottle taking a similar tack but Philz is the first to open in Bethesda.
Philz has targeted the Washington market for its first expansion outside of California where it operates nearly 40 stores. Besides Bethesda, Philz has opened in Navy Yard, Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan and is coming soon to Arlington, Virginia.
The Philz credo is that every cup of coffee is individually brewed using the pour-over method and then customized to order with cream and sugar. That means you need to reset your expectations a bit. There is no espresso machine, so Philz doesn’t serve cappuccinos or lattes. There are no tanks or thermoses, so don’t expect to grab-and-go. And there’s no condiment bar, so if you want Splenda, you’ll have to ask the barista.
Still, some of you, like me, will find Philz a welcome and authentic departure from cookie-cutter coffee culture. I’m a sucker for passionate tinkerers like founder Phil Jaber, who spent seven years developing his first coffee blend. And I give those people a lot of leeway when they tell me the best way to consume their product.
But Philz won’t be everyone’s cup of coffee. Indeed, my guess is that Philz will engender strong feelings on both sides, like the Tom Brady of the coffee world.
Philz is a bright, open space with concrete floors and seating that includes couches, comfy chairs and a communal table. Unlike many coffee shops, it’s a place designed for hanging out and catching up without feeling cramped or rushed.
Food and drink
Ordering coffee at Philz takes a bit of practice. Philz even has a card labeled “How to Philz” to take first-timers through the process.
First, choose your coffee. There are 15 proprietary blends listed on the wall like ice cream flavors at Baskin-Robbins. Want your coffee to smack of of dark chocolate, smoke and nuts? Jacob’s Wonderbar could be the call. Or how about something on the lighter side with citrus, cherry and floral notes like New Manhattan? You can find your favorite and stick to it or change things up to fit your mood.
Next, select a small (12 ounce) or large (16 ounce) cup. No need to try to recall what tall, grande and venti mean.
Finally, tell the barista whether you want cream and sugar (cream alternatives and artificial sweeteners are available). While I typically drink my coffee black, Philz is an exception. I order my cream and sugar “Philz way,” which is medium sweet and rounds out the flavors without getting in the way.
The coffee itself is very good. I can’t say I could pick out some of the subtler tasting notes, particularly once cream and sugar were added, but the pour-over method makes for a smooth cup without any of the burnt notes that people often associate with Starbucks. Note, however, that Philz is a bit pricier than the big chains: a small cup is $3.60 and a large is $4.60.
Philz also offers iced coffees, teas and hot chocolate. One devoted Philz fan named Jung Byun, who had driven from Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, just for Philz, told me her favorite drink was the Gingersnap Iced Coffee, which turned out to be a not-too-sweet pumpkin-spice-type concoction made with real spices rather than artificial flavors.
The food at Philz is brought in daily from well-curated local purveyors. You can’t go wrong with a croissant or muffin from Fresh Baguette or a bagel from Bullfrog Bagels. The breakfast sandwiches from Well-Founded Foods are not in the same league, but are decent for pre-made.
Philz does a terrific job on service. Staffers are friendly but not in a smarmy or phony way. The interaction with the barista can turn into an interactive consultation for newbies or a friendly chit-chat for old hands. Either way, the barista will want you to taste your drink before you leave the counter (“to make sure it’s perfect”).
Go or skip?
Go if you’re someone who’s particular about your coffee and you’re tired of taking potluck at Starbucks or Peets. Go if you don’t mind paying a bit extra for Fiji Water because you think it tastes better. Go if you think Bethesda could stand a few more places that someone under 30 would think is cool. Go if you’re looking for a comfortable place to hang out or meet someone and not be on top of other customers.
Skip if you think coffee is coffee and you don’t understand why anyone would wait five minutes for a cup (and pay those prices). Skip if you can’t get through your mornings without a venti with five shots of espresso. Skip if you never liked tasting notes for wine and you don’t want to see the concept expanded to coffee. Skip if the whole thing seems too twee by half.