The following is an entirely true story taking place in, around and underneath Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the back patio of Roberta’s (a Borough unto itself).
10:15 AM on the Q train from Flatbush (Parkside Station) to Union Square, and all around me the Q rolls its eyes in collective disdain: “it’s him again…time for more backflips...”. BOOM! UNHG! Gotta Get O-vahh! on the Hollywood prop blaster stereo, and sure enough, there are back-flips, real actual back-flips happening in the middle of the train car. He does one, two, then spins on his head, pops it, locks it, holds himself suspended in animation for just a little longer than seems possible…and then SRWWWWK, “stop” on the tape player, with a “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! I’m just a positive young man trying to make my way in the city, and if you have anything to give, anything you can spare, then God Bless you very much!”
We’re at Union Square already, where I transfer to the 1 train, running late, on my way to meet some dear friends both new and old for a day of coffee…and more coffee…and more coffee…and eventually egg creams, and German beer, and one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my entire life. Weeks later I’m not sure how to think about any of this from a wider perspective, and after all the conversations and interactions I’ve had, I’m not convinced New Yorkers do either.
Here’s an understatement for you: there’s a lot to do in New York
Does quantity mean quality? Is this the best specialty coffee city in the world? It’s certainly one of the biggest, LOUDEST, most vibrant specialty coffee city in the world, but does that mean it’s “the best”? You can only take little snapshots, jot little notes, try a shot in the moment and move on, because it’s a lot harder to consider the bigger questions. I genuinely don’t know if New York is the best coffee city in the world. But what I do know is, every single coffee nerd on the planet owes it to him or herself to travel to NYC, buy an MTA pass, see and try as much as you can, and grapple with that question for your own damn self.
First Up: RBC NYC Coffee (71 Worth Street, Tribeca)
Our first stop is in Tribeca, lower Manhattan RBC is a slick, sleek, modern spaceport of a cafe, tucked among Tribeca’s endless high-rises and art galleries and boasting what I’m told is the “most dazzling array of gadgetry in all of Manhattan”. This includes a real live cafe-setting Marco Uber Boiler, a workhorse space alien Slayer 3-group, and a smörgåsbord of woodnecks and vac-pots etc etc. Tech specs aside, RBC manages to incorporate their gadgetry into an otherwise quite comfortable, appropriate Manhattan cafe space. Think Moon Base Bagel Shop, or the Jewish deli on Neptune. Multi-roaster cafes are chockablock in New York, and RBC’s menu is attractively micro: two offerings from Ritual (Costa Rica Helgar de Zarcero, Panama Elida Estate), selections from Madcap (Costa Rica Los Lobos), Klatch (Ethiopia Gedro Worka) and Barismo (Ethiopia Michelle), as well as my first chance to try something from Brown Coffee Co. (La Vega Microlot Huehuetenango). At no point in my lifetime, or a thousand more lifetimes, will I be able to afford to live in Tribeca, but if I did I would go into RBC all the time. It’s worth hopping on the 1 train and stopping at Chambers Street, which is not such a bad little train route to be on around 11am or so on a Saturday.
Food Interlude: Your trip to RBC should be tied into a visit to Bubby’s (120 Hudson Street), just a few blocks away. Upscale slummy diner, fantastic pie, truly superlative house-made Cel-Ray sodas, and Counter Culture Coffee in your mug.
Second Round: Kaffe 1668 (275 Greenwich Street, Tribeca)
It’s a quick walk from Bubby’s to Kaffee 1668, a gorgeous, almost opulent space in another part of Tribeca. The space is dark wood, dim lights, shadows playing in the corners, several dozen pieces of quirky, self-referential art on the walls (“I take all my women to Kaffe 1668”, “Remember, men are from Mars, women from Venus…and Kaffe 1668 from Heaven”). They’ve got a Synesso Hydra and 2 Clovers on the brew bar, and a printed menu left curiously, intentionally opaque; one must inquire with the Barista as to who the roaster is behind the unlabeled “Colombia” and “Sulawesi” offerings (Intelli and Ecco, respectively). There’s one roaster I’m unfamiliar with on the menu, Ploughshares Coffee, whose Nicaragua Las Breses comes at us complex and floral, cooling clean and sweet.
As some of my fellow travelers remarked, Kaffe 1668 would be the perfect place for a throw down, or a convention after party, and it’d be fine for part of a date or for hanging out and reading the latest issue of Harper’s. Unfortunately, everything about my own brief experience there felt a little off-kilter. Mars was in retrograde, I’d been grappling with vampires (and thus low on plasma), the downstairs bathroom feels like a submarine latrine, and the moons failed to align for both my service experience and my shot of Black Cat. I’ll be back.
Third Stop: Third Rail Coffee (240 Sullivan Street, West Village)
Tiny, packed, bright, clean metal lines, open and compact at the same time, adorned with stunning Ashley Gilbertson New York crowd scene photography…Third Rail is a working cafe in every sense of the term. Dan Griffin pulls my Hairbender macchiato on a La Marzocco GB-5, and it’s like sweet marshmallow cream soda, a miraculous, improbably refreshing macch. It’s challenging to say that any cafe, restaurant, or other experience intrinsically “feels” New York…but Third Rail feels New York in the very best way: bustling, unpretentious, classy, and already on to the next thing by the time you realize how great it is. “Please Please Me” and “My Sweet Lord” run back to back on the stereo, two aging regulars haunt the bench out front, Intelli and Stumptown share the menu in baffling perfect harmony…a highlight, a must-see, one of my favorite cafes in New York.
Round Four: Grumpy Chelsea (224 West 20th Street, Chelsea)
Grumpy Greenpoint and Grumpy Chelsea are an exercise in opposites. Neighborhood vs. super urban, low-key vs. high energy, comfortably serene vs. gun barrel blastoff – about the only similarities are the quality of the coffee and the hardcore skills of the baristas. You can read this earlier piece we wrote about Grumpy Greenpoint, and in comparison the Grumpy Chelsea space was absolutely bumping, overheating, slammed to the gills, to the point that we took it to the to the curb for fresh air and a chance to enjoy our coffees outside. The 3 oz brewed sample of Honduras COE made for us by Kiera was some of the best coffee I had all week in New York, a cup that spun our little group into palate bliss: grapefruit, strawberries, Thai basil…
Stop Five: Bluebird Coffee Shop (72 East 1st Street, Lower East Side)
Another tiny little working space, this time just off Houston Street in the holy scepter of the LES, home to Katz’s Deli, the Cake Shop, and most of the best pop songwriting from the 20th century. Our baristas were Katie and Nikki, both super sweet and talented, serving up Counter Culture and riotously delicious baked goods made in-house. Bluebird fits the LES perfectly, and it’s a testament to any space that after a day of shops and shots, we lingered longer here than just about anywhere else. Bluebird is tiny and perfect for it. I’d give anything to live in the LES, so long as my deal with Satan provided for regular egg creams at Katz’s and daily stops at Bluebird. Great espresso and really, really good cookies…
Two different Stumptown outposts in NYC, one in the heart of the Chelsea bustle, the other in Brooklyn’s lovely Carrol Gardens foodie paradise. Reams have been written about Stumptown Ace’s thoroughly modern milieu, wherein: you wait in line with Russian supermodels and Petrodollar sires, the baristas are all gorgeous and model-esque and be-hatted with the finest sensibility, the space is jaw-dropping, and the lobby feels like a living, breathing matrix of cool-to-too-cool. A whirling blur of human motion, easily the busiest Stumptown location I’ve ever seen, yet still achieving top-notch work amidst the dervish. My Hairbender comes out like melted milk chocolate. Equally worth your time is the Hairbender out at Cafe Pedlar in Carrol Gardens, not far from the Stumptown Red Hook roastery. Pedlar serves these beans as well as any locale in Portland or Seattle, in an open space with tables clustered near the big bright windows out onto Court St. It’s the ideal cafe for a pre-or-post lunch shot (or if you’re me, both). Baristas Jeremiah and Johnny make fun of me for charging my phone, wealthy Manhattan transplants fuss with their chihuahuas, people are in and out the whole time, and the whole thing has a delightful x-factor to it. The shots are wicked too, all texture and mouth feel, finishing long and molasses-chewy. Visit Stumptown Ace for the spectacle, try Pedlar for the perfect Brooklyn coffee moment, and enjoy your shots at both.
Food Finish: Over-caffeinated and dying of hunger, we’re unable to get to the next few spots on our crawl list. Instead it’s an egg cream at Katz’s Deli, German beer and excellent pretzels at Radegast, and then really, one of the two or three best meals I’ve ever had in my life at Roberta’s (261 Moore St, Brooklyn). Black pepper and honey pizza, raisin-reduction crusted seared foie gras, endless cans of cheap beer (there are nicer options, of course, but swill fits the bill), remarkable desserts, just the right vibe, and oh God, the food…
To everyone we didn’t get to, you can’t see it all. We couldn’t even try to make this comprehensive, merely a series of snap-shots…we’ll be back to NYC soon, promise.