There's been jazz, there have been olive cookies, and there has been espresso. For the last nine years, landmark Manhattan coffee bar Abraço has provided love and beverages to denizens of the city's East Village neighborhood. At first it was a hole-in-the-wall kind of joint, with people pouring in and out all day. And as the lines got longer, the jazz only got louder. But now Abraço (from the samba classic by legendary Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil) has moved right across the street into a new home with plenty of space, and a complete food offering—all for the neighborhood family.
“Location was part good luck and part gut feeling,” shares Liz Quijada, co-owner. “It also was very fitting given the size of our original location.” She owns the cafe with her husband, Jamie McCormick. “I started getting involved with coffee while swinging on a swing. The image of a coffee came to my mind,” says McCormick. “I’m serious. It was a park in Alameda, California. On the rich side of town, where all the punks lived. I decided I wanted to open a coffee shop while on that swing. I will never forget it. I decided that that’s my thing—for life.”
They started Abraço with a shared desire to be in New York. “Both Jamie and I are from the Bay Area and had lived in New York before,” says Quijada. “We were friends in San Francisco and moved back here around the same time. Jamie has always been a barista and barman, so for him it was a logical step to open his own place after having such a cult following everywhere he worked. I was coming from catering and doing private dinners—I'm much more inclined to savory than sweet—but agreed to do some baking for his ‘new shop,'” Quijada shares with a laugh.
“Since I got to New York first, I scouted out the old 86 East Seventh street shop from an ad Jamie saw on Craigslist. I immediately knew it was right, even though the falafel shop that was in it at the time wasn't even open. Seventh Street just had the right glow. I called him up and told him to come out and see it. He flew out that weekend and never went back to SF.”
And now with the move, more plans are unfolding. “We've always had too many ideas,” says Quijada. “A couple years ago, we took over a store down the street as a summertime pop-up and filled it with an eclectic mix inspired by our aesthetic—so we are going to recreate that. Our food menu will bring back a lunchtime prix-fixe that includes three daily-changing seasonal plates.” A nighttime menu has plans to include Spanish, Greek, and North African-inspired small plates, wine on tap, and cocktails.
But really the great love here is the family vibe—including Quijada with baby in a papoose and another running around the shop. They even train their staff in a way that fosters a kind of family adoration. “It's not a quick entry in, meaning a lot of learning is by osmosis and paying your dues,” admits Quijada. “Consequently, most of our staff has been with us for awhile.”
“We are also democratic in structure—everyone does everything, from dishes and mopping to making coffee and expediting,” she explains. McCormick chimes in: “First of all, it’s osmosis. Second and beyond is caring. Giving a shit. Able to hustle. No fuckin' attitude—about coffee? Are you kidding? I really do not train my staff. There is a spiritual yes or no. It's obvious from the first 48 hours if you get it. And good, lovely folks sometimes don't fit. And sometimes, too-cool-for-school gangsters do fit—it's a matter of sensitivity.”
Speaking of giving a shit—McCormick is the roaster, too, and does it with such loving strokes. Coffee is sourced from around the world, with a focus on Brazil and Central America. Cold-brew coffee is done in small batches via Toddy system, while drip is prepared via individual pour-over. Espresso and macchiato drinks, prepared on the shop's La Marzocco GB5, are served to stay only—”mainly because half is wasted on the paper cup if you take it out,” says Quijada. And the milk in your latte, and the ingredients in your treat? “We don't write it everywhere or tell everyone but pretty much everything we use is organic: sugar, milk, eggs, flour, and butter,” says Quijada.
What makes this love nest so unique is an effervescent vibe that just draws people in—a sense of real belonging. “We live on the block and spend a lot of time there. There is also a community that has come out of Abraço—not by design, but organically—of neighbors and strangers meeting up,” says Quijada. “Part of what set us apart initially was the lack of space, so everyone had to squeeze in and converse, but even in our new space there is a convivial attitude to interacting and not a laptop-driven-solitude kind of space.”
But hey, these are the people you actually want to hang out. Quijada and McCormick have created an environment for lovers of coffee, and of life—a space that becomes more precious with each passing day, as the small business fabric of Lower Manhattan gives way to an ever-growing horde of chain stores, Duane Reades, and ATMs.
“I love Dunkin' Donuts. I fuckin' LOVE Dunkin' Donuts,” McCormick raves, and then offers by way of explanation: “It’s the first jam to chill in neighborhoods, offering a place, a neighborhood right? A place. And a bathroom for tourists. And a place for clean and sobers to do their mating ritual.” Abraço, then, extends the “neighborhood jam”—and does it one better.
So, go, find some new family and an espresso, at what has long been one of Manhattan's very best coffee bars. Enjoy it now with a bit more food, and a place to sit down for awhile. Coming up on 10 years in business, Abraço has become that rarest, most important, and fast disappearing facets of urban life in New York City—which is to say, in the highest compliment available, this place is an institution.
Daniel Scheffler is a Sprudge staff writer at large. His work has appeared in T Magazine, Travel And Leisure, Monocle, Playboy, New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Butt. Read more Daniel Scheffler on Sprudge.
Photos by Liz Clayton.