Let me establish a setting for you. It's a very boring setting. You're in Lower Manhattan, in the heart of the Financial District. It's gray outside, or at least you think it is, as being in this part of town doesn't often involve a lot of being outside. The streets are narrow and buildings crowd the sky, and almost anyone around here is shuttling quickly from point A to point B with their head down. You find yourself in a beige, nondescript basement corridor leading toward the massive Fulton Street subway interchange, when suddenly you're compelled to double back.
Was that a spaceship you just passed, in the form of a coffee shop?
Iconoclastic Voyager Espresso landed, much to the business-focused neighborhood's surprise, in the subterranean depths of 110 William Street, just in mid-December. But as unlikely as a spacecraft-themed, bachelor-pad-styled, high-end-espresso bar in a subway passage might have seemed, to owner Aaron Barnard, this was always the vision.
“I had been thinking about the concept for a long time before we found the space,” said Barnard over an e-mail chat with Sprudge. “I knew that I wanted to open a [place] in the Financial District and be a part of the revitalization downtown. Retail space in the Financial District is insanely expensive, and I wanted a place with low overhead so we would be able to do high-quality coffee.” Plus, he added, “I was really excited about the idea of doing something surreal as part of the subway.”
And surreal it is. The minimally fitted-out shop, designed by Only If Architecture, sticks to a slick and shiny, black and metal, hard-edged vibe that's the polar opposite of the ubiquitous barn-wood-and-subway-tile aesthetic so popular in coffee today. There are no Edison bulbs here, but rather, the haunting glow of fluorescent-light ballasts. The shop's two small rooms are subtly staged within silver-painted plywood walls, and each echoes the other in curve-shaped harmony.
The main space is anchored by a circular, perforated metal bar on which you'll find two Mahlkönig K30 grinders and an EK43; a matte-black-and-silver three-group Synesso Hydra; a bunch of fussy jam funnels for dosing coffee; and some custom Voyager-branded glass flasks. The flasks, along with the ceramics and other wares with the Voyager space-probe graphic, are part of the store's design concept created by Darol O'Kane and Benjamin Wright Coleman. And in the alcove adjacent, a round silver banquette illuminated by a modern pendant lamp nails the space-age '50s feel, allowing an intimate-ish respite in the storefront window of this otherwise anonymous hallway.
Where other shops might stick a chalkboard menu, Voyager's uber-minimal, backlit, movie-marquee-style menu arcs along the back wall of the bar, proffering a decidedly limited set of coffee options: Black, White, and Filter. (More advanced and detailed descriptions of the cafe's selection of coffees are available on paper menus at the bar, near inset pastry shelves which conceal treats from Brooklyn's Ovenly.) A small set of retail shelves offers tea, Voyager Keep Cups, and $15 bags of rare Alba cinnamon. Coffee purveyors will rotate quarterly if things go according to plan, and will change from Portland's Heart Roasters to that same city's Roseline Coffee in April.
So what's all this spaceship stuff about, then?
“I am a massive Carl Sagan fan,” Barnard told me. “I have read most of his books and love the original Cosmos series. Sagan was almost as much a poet as he was an astronomer. He had a way of presenting science in a way that made you feel the way you would feel looking at a great piece of art or listening to an amazing piece of music. It is this intersection of science and art that really excites me,” Barnard said of his inspiration.
“The Voyager missions Sagan was a major part of, I feel, is the crowning achievement of science,” continued the cafe owner. “So this shop is my ode to Carl Sagan, and also is a model for how I want progress with coffee. I want to take a scientific approach to brewing coffee, but I don't want to lose the human and artistic side of hospitality and connecting with other people.”
Indeed, for a spacepod that's docked in the financial underground, Voyager is surprisingly welcoming. WiFi—a rarity in New York City coffee shops—flows freely; wall outlets (and USB jacks) abound.
“In the Financial District, the vast majority of drinks are taken to go, so I would rather have my shop as full as possible all day,” said Barnard of his decision to offer amenities that many of his colleagues don't. “I think a shop that is full of people and is bustling has a good vibe to it, and as baristas, we feed off that energy and provide better service,” he said.
Staff, too, are warmly willing—but not alienatingly eager—to chat with you about the coffee selections, or even what the cafe's concept is in the first place. Voyager's style is new to many Financial District dwellers, many of whom arrive at Voyager in search of a drink they call “dark roast.”
Barnard likens the shop's approach as “If G&B Coffee in LA and Patricia Coffee Brewers in Melbourne had a lovechild.” This half-American, half-Aussie shop owner—with the fire of Sagan's excitement fueling him—is surely steering his craft in the right direction.
Liz Clayton is the New York City chief and the associate editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.