With more than 21 million annual visitors, the iconic Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan is one of New York City's loveliest – and busiest – public spaces. And befitting NYC's status as a glittering global coffee capital, Grand Central's Beaux-Arts halls are today home to a dizzying array of specialty coffee options, where delicious espressos, bright and lovely filter coffees, and every imaginable brewing doodad can be yours for the purchase. In this feature, Liz Clayton goes exploring amongst the pounding human beat. This is New York City coffee in 2013.
I can't speak for everyone, but in decades past, I'd come to to expect a certain degree of anonymity from transit hubs, even those as beautiful and special, as well-integrated into city environs, as New York's Grand Central Terminal. Before the fetishization of food took over where, you know, everything else cool left off, the best cuisine we could generally expect while on the run to our plane at point A, or our subway at point B, was a choice between the lesser chain evils of Dunkin Donuts or Sbarro. (What IS it about travel that makes Sbarro sound so good?) But, as you have no doubt already noticed, times have changed.
In the coffee-alert metropolis of New York City, a surprising thing has happened over the last couple of years. Grand Central Terminal, the railway nexus connecting Manhattan with the Hudson Valley, Connecticut and that soup dumpling place in Flushing, has become more like a Grand Coffee Terminal. No longer is it required to leave the beaten path and seek out the finest artisanal coffee tastes, or brewing bits and bobs. You can simply pick them up en route. Looking for a fantastic macchiato? V60 filters? A hand-prepared iced Kalita pourover brew? A selection of Cup of Excellence-winning beans? An electric Bonavita kettle? A cardboard box of coffee with a handle on it that comes with a handful of sugar packets and some bagel detritus stuck to the bottom? Look no further! However high your brow, Grand Central Terminal is now the one-stop one-hundred-year-old coffee shop for you.
I spent a jittery afternoon touring the concourses and passages of Grand Central, cataloging just how many specialty coffee options—and indeed, any kind of coffee options—exist within these halls. This is how they break down by area of interest:
Quality espresso is available at Joe (in the dark and somewhat elusive Greybar Passage) and at Irving Farm (newly opened in the downstairs dining concourse). Both cafes give one the option of drinking your espresso-based beverage in an appropriate ceramic cup, no matter how late you are for your train. Financier, a bakery with a three-group Linea, will also make you an espresso (they appear to use Brooklyn private-label roaster Stone Street), which will be quite astringent and come in an itsy to-go cup—but to its credit is also presented with an itsy cello-wrapped pastry perched atop the miniature lid. Points for effort. Should you swing that way, there is also a Starbucks in the Lexington Passage.
Unsurprisingly, filter coffee options are where Grand Central Terminal really shines, and if you're looking for something out of a Fetco you'll be unbelievably fulfilled in this train station. Three Fetcos continually crank out a dozen (!) rotating urns of fresh coffee at Joe, and another battalion of thermal soldiers does the same downstairs at Irving Farm. Starbucks, if for some reason you can't find the other coffee shops, at least maintains a batch of Blonde Roast on its urn rotation. And in an admirable move, Irving Farm also features by-the cup Kalita Wave brewing, in case you'd like to miss your train. And this reporter was able to suss out a bit of a scoop: Oren's Daily Roast, located within the weird and stressful Grand Central Market portion of the station, isn't technically allowed to sell prepared coffee (they stick to beans and gear)—but they do offer wee free samples from an airpot!
Gear and Whole Beans
Looking to outfit your countertop coffee bar en route to Poughkeepsie? You're in luck! Grand Central is, somewhat inexplicably and totally unexpectedly, the perfect place to shop for assorted coffee accoutrements. Joe heroically fits a wide range of brewing tools into its diminutive space: V60 drippers, Buono kettles, Hario range servers, Chemexes. And just a couple hundred labyrinthine feet away is a truly Texas-sized array of gear at Oren's Daily Roast: Clever drippers, Aeropresses, V60s, Chemex carafes in different sizes, a couple of Baratza grinders to choose from, Skerton hand grinders, Bonavita kettles and automatic coffee makers, Sowden Softbrew brewers, paper filters in all shapes and sizes…and that's only the nice stuff. If you also need a selection of Moka Pots, handheld milk frothers decorated with the Union Jack, or novelty mugs bedecked with Hello Kitty, tie-dye, Scrabble motifs, or the cover of Abbey Road: they have that, too. Oren's, Joe, and Irving Farm also all sell bags of their self-roasted whole bean coffee, though only Oren's is forced to share airspace with an olifactorily distracting spice merchant just a few feet away.
If you're looking for a 3WE (Third Wave Experience), your best choices in this building are clearly Irving Farm and Joe, though it's at Joe you'll feel most like you're in a hip cafe—the baristas look the part, may be ironically debating classic rock records released before they were born, and there is a picture of Angry Cat pasted over the tip jar—and also least like it—there is nowhere to sit, everyone in there is often a white male in a suit, etc. That said, people do linger and often order smaller drinks to stay, and the coffee is fantastic. Irving Farm, down below, features an entirely circular bar which extends the seating possibilities to those of the wooden benches of the crowded dining concourse. You can take your fancy coffee and sit with the pizza-eaters and tallboy-drinkers, but you can also drink it in ceramic. Their buildout is impressive, with a shiny white La Marzocco FB80, which pleasingly distracts you from the fussy customers ordering custom-proportioned Arnold Palmers and cucumber sandwiches. Because this is — did we mention—GRAND CENTRAL FRIGGIN STATION—the number of staff is also staggering for these tiny locations. When I visited there were at least six staff were on duty in the midday hours at each, and I have a feeling more were hiding behind the scenes or crouched low under the counter. It's a miracle how much is accomplished, how quickly, and in such magnitude, under these conditions. And pulling it off with quality? Very impressive, and very New York.
But this was meant to be a thorough exploration of Grand Central's coffee offerings, and so I'm happy to report that should you find the aforementioned high quality options for satisfying your short- and long-term coffee needs insufficient, a survey of the premises concluded that one does, indeed, have other options. Magnolia Bakery will make you a coffee, as will the Tri-Tip Grill, Junior's Most Fabulous Cheesecake, Mendy's Kosher Delicatessen, Ciao Bella Gelato, Dishes, Zoro's, Central Market New York, and hell—you can even get a cup of Lavazza at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. (We saw no brewing equipment visible at the Chirping Chicken or Feng Shui, but you might just have to know a guy.)
With these myriad options in place, your next trip upstate, crosstown, or just to the Apple Store should be more than satisfied by a selection of the finest in coffee and coffee-making equipment. And hey, should you also need a huge selection of makeup, olive oil, cigars, hard-to-find beers over $30 a bottle, or pret-a-microwave turkey meatloaf slabs, you're going to be super-duper satisfied there, too. And there's an even more coffee-ful future ahead for Grand Central. Rumor has it that Starbucks' lease will be up within a year or two, to be replaced by something more locally grown. Fantastic news. Until then, we'll be lingering awkwardly outside their entrance, soaking up the free WiFi signal.