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Corby's Table
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The Best Coffeehouses in New York City


Chains/ Upper East Side/ Upper West Side/ Midtown/ Gramercy Park/Flatiron District/
Chelsea/ Soho/ East Village/ TriBeCa/Wall Street/


May 1994

A typical Italian drinks four or five cups of espresso a day, which explains the profusion of coffee bars.

So why aren't Italians jumpier? Incredibly, the caffeine content in four single shots of espresso (only truck drivers or people with hangovers order double shots), black or mixed with milk, is no higher than in three eight-ounce mugs of American coffee.

It's no wonder that the new coffeehouses seem to be able to do only one thing or the other right: brewed coffee or espresso. They're trying to join two cultures--northern and southern European--that have never been particularly close. An Italian espresso stop is in and out. Americans want to sip something for a long time, to fill their mouths. Italians still smoke and read and muse (and never exercise); this is our change to feel civilized.

Italian design and drink names won't tell you if the coffee will be any good. Still, you can tell a lot by looking. A glass pot on a burner is the first danger sign. Coffee can't withstand heat for more than ten or fifteen minutes.If you're in a high-volume shop, like Dunkin' Donuts, where the policy (not always observed) is to throw out coffee after eighteen minutes, a burner might not mean ruination. Air pots, or thermoses with spigots, are a big improvement, but they won't keep coffee intact for more than 45 minutes, and many shops keep coffee in them for hours. Better by far are the steel-jacketed urns in almost all the new coffee bars, which circulate hot water around a reservoir of brewed coffee.

The Maserati of espresso machines is La Marzocco, hand-tooled in a small factory near Florence; La San Marco and Rancilio are also very good. But even a one-button-does-all espresso machine won't necessarily produce the hallmark of a properly pulled espresso: a rich coating of light tan crema, which in Italian means a cream more like a sea spray than like whipped cream. It's supposed to bethick and foamy and not skimpy or nonexistent, the way it usually is. The most important factor in producing a good crema is getting the grind right and using exactly the right amount of fresh coffee. Guidelines and formulas and expensive beans and racy machines work only up to a point. Then instinct and experience have to kick in.

Almost everywhere in New York, shots of espresso are over-pulled. For a while I went from bar to bar carrying a shot glass marked in ounces, hoping to find the magic limit of one and a half ounces, two ounces max, to a shot. Then I gave up. Nearly every bar's espresso had at least three or four ounces of liquid, most with a miserly scum of crema, served in horrible little cardboard specimen cups. When I remarked on the too-big espresso at Caffe Reggio, the prototypical old Italian caffe (good, hot china cups too), Lina, the prototypical Naples-born waitress, told me, "Everybody complains if we give them a normal amount." I heard this over and over.

Short is better in an espresso. The way to get a longer drink is to add hot water to a properly short espresso (many places call this a "caffe Americano") or to mix an espresso into a cup of brewed coffee. I thought that I had invented this trick, as a way to intensify the flavor of filtered coffee, but then I found it as the "New York to L.A. Red Eye" on the menu at Eureka Joe.

After a few days of trekking from bar to bar, they all began to look like what I call a "cafe in a box": the same marble counters with the same cute mile-high tea tray laden with the same dried-out scones and imitation Eli Zabar E.A.T. sandwiches wrapped in cellophane, the same overpulled and crema-less espressos, the same watery brewed coffee, the same aggressively art-directed logos. But with the new profusion there are, thankfully, plenty of exceptions.

Here's a guide to the best places for charging yourself up, then frequently renewing the charge, starting with chains that span the city and continuing withbars by neighborhood. All bars are listed in order of preference. The accompanying alphabetical coffee-bar atlas awards merit cups to noteworthy places.


Chains

Starbucks sets the trends. The new flagship Broadway store has crack-efficient service and plenty of tables and counter space. Starbucks really understands espresso, and has mastered arabica blends approached in body and sweetness only by a very few Italians. Many think, though, that in brewed coffee the fine beans are roasted so dark that their prized differences fade.

Au Bon Pain may look like just a dressed-up chain sandwich shop, but two years ago it put more than $ 1 million into improving its equipment to meet the standards of the stellar Boston-based Coffee Connection, which buys, blends, and roasts the beans, most of them from Costa Rica--the country that, along with the Antigua region of Guatemala, is heir to the Jamaica Blue Mountain legend of perfectly balanced coffees. The brewed coffee (go elsewhere for espresso) in branches where servers follow the rules is wonderfully "clean," to use a coffee-taster's term, and is roasted to a degree that brings out its sweetness while not diminishing its sharp sparkle.

The quality at Oren's Daily Roast has always been much higher than its profile. Finally, the city caught up to Oren Bloostein, and he has opened a number of calm, very good coffee bars. True, Bloostein hasn't drawn the line at flavored coffees, as his peers across the country have done. But it's easy to avoid them and still have a choice of, say, Indonesian, Guatemalan, and Ethiopian beans. The espresso is fine, too.

It may seem peculiar to include Dunkin' Donuts, but the chain deserves consideration for its policies on fresh grinding and brewing--by no means uniformly observed. The dreaded burners are jacked up high, so that the usual insult of milk in a "regular" doesn't turn the coffee lukewarm. Supposedly, undrunk coffee is properly poured down the drain after eighteen minutes. The blend, made up mostly of Colombian and Brazilian arabica beans, is bland, sweet,and undemanding.

It's no wonder Sabine's is working out a deal to go into Saks stores nationwide. The uptown branch is full of Upper East Siders who look like they could tell you block by block where the best sales are. The design is casual but soigne. The brewed coffee is good, too, including the only tolerable flavored coffee I sampled (vanilla decaf). Espresso is thin and doesn't register in the milk drinks. But the steamed milk is satiny and lovely: Order a short espresso and half the usual amount of milk, and you'll get a good cappuccino.

Several homegrown chains are hard to tell apart, featuring as they do similar design and insistently New Yorky sepia-toned photographs, as if we might forget for a moment that this isn't Seattle. Dalton, New World, Cooper's, Pasqua (a San Francisco import), and Seattle Coffee Roasters are all opening throughout Manhattan, and they all look more alike than different. Each has its advantages, chief among them design, but all could tune up their coffee.

I wish Dalton were better, because its style is just right for an unmistakably New York coffee bar. The beans for sale look handsome in big glass jars--unfortunately, one of the very worst ways to keep beans, exposing them to light. Worse, a good many of those beans are flavored, and they taste far too strongly of the extracts that tinge them. Espresso is often watery, and the brewed house blend is so weak you can hardly taste it. The young people serving you are, happily, friendly and enthusiastic.

The brewed coffee at New World Coffee is made with the right ratio of grounds to water. This is rarer than it sounds. The countries of origin are more impressive than the brew, though. At least the beans for brewed coffee don't taste burned, as they do for the espresso. But watch out for the scalded milk.

Both the cavernous, too-black (chic becomes dank) Flatiron location and the smaller, spic-and-span uptown location of Seattle Coffee Roasters feature neat glass bar rails filled with roasted coffee beans. Too bad the beans that go into their coffee aren't roasted to the same light mahogany: Seattle roasts way too dark, delivering burn but no body. The decaf espresso, surprisingly, is far better than anything else, satisfyingly coating the tongue and stopping just short of char. And some of the sandwiches are actually from E.A.T., not just imitations.

The brewed coffee at Pasqua is better than the espresso, but neither is worth going out of your way for. Luckily, both are above average, and you won't have to--the idea is to give workers coffee where they work. Also, the service is friendly and fast, which counts for a lot when nobody's supposed to notice that you took the down elevator.

The best thing at Cooper's is Peet's coffee, from Berkeley--a very dark roast with a deep, potent flavor. Sadly, Cooper's doesn't sell Peet's beans (they're easy to mail-order), and, sadder still, its own coffee has no discernible character and is watery besides. Cooper's is pleasantly designed and wins the condiments award for its choice of several artificial sweeteners; its variety of brown and white sugars, stylishly laid out (with sugar tongs!) as if at a tea party; and its neat aluminum rack of canisters for cocoa, vanilla, and spices.

The hot chocolate, made from melted Callebaut chocolate and milk, is so good at Dean & DeLuca that I can't pass by one of its locations without stopping in for a small cup. The frosted carrot muffins have launched a trend, the sandwiches are excellent, and all the locations have that clean, D&D Metro Shelving style we love. I'm taking a while to get to the coffee, because it goes from acceptable (brewed) to surprisingly bad, with especially incompetent espresso service at the Rockefeller Center store. I've tasted coffee in the past with Giorgio DeLuca and know that his evaluative powers are great. The two partners are less directly involved with the cafes than with the SoHo store, but the cafes should make better use of DeLuca's expertise.

Timothy's began in Toronto, and both it and the coffee are clean, pleasant, and bland. All this is more than most residents in the neighborhoods where the chain has opened have had in the past, though, so it's not surprising that these very beige stores seem to be very crowded. But the house specialties are flavored coffees sitting on burners for who knows how long, and it can take a long time to get an espresso drink.


Upper East Side

A very, very few Manhattan coffee bars make you feel like you're stepping into Italy. In fact, I found only three. Saint Ambroeus is the New York outpost of a big, fancy Milan caterer and pasticceria, and it proves that cold formality really does travel. It's worth braving the uniformed hauteur for the first-rate treatment of Caffe Danesi, a mid-range brand of Italian espresso, and the fresh-from-the-oven "brioche," shaped like a croissant but made with a dough closer to brioche--the universal Italian breakfast pastry.

How much nicer, though, to go down three steps to Espresso Madison and walk into the Northern Italian neighborhood caffe of your dreams. When I visited, the bar had barely opened and was minimally furnished. But Renee Gerson, the co-owner, who was raised in Italy, was ready to welcome and befriend all customers. The very simple sandwiches, made to Gerson's exacting standards, are as plain and good as you get in Italy, and the majestic, authoritative cappuccino--the perfect blend of warm milk and satiny foam--is a lesson for every would-be barista.

Now that Starbucks brewed coffee is available elsewhere, Bodum has lost its edge of novelty. Still, it's worth going to this kitchen-supply boutique to understand why many coffee diehards won't brew any way other than the plunger-pot method, which offers a much richer flavor and thicker texture than filtered coffee, and requires a darker roast than filter pots do--although not as dark as the Starbucks roast.

Baratti & Milano is a branch of a glorious Art Nouveau caffe in Turin. The New York store feels completely prepackaged, unfortunately, down to the primly uniformed waitresses. Baratti & Milano has turned a richly historic landmark into an Italian Schrafft's, but the chocolates (boxed candy is the company's real business) are nice to look at.


Upper West Side

The family that has taken over the pastry standby Miss Grimble is serious about coffee, and is serving terrific espresso--after Starbucks, the best in this neighborhood--and very good chocolate-coffee drinks. The brewed coffee is fine, too, if a bit weak, and the pastries as buttery as ever.

It's not that joe bar is so much better than the usual cafe in a box, but since it opened last year something has lifted it above its competitors, and it's the place to hang out on upper Broadway. The welcoming neighborhood feel probably explains it, as does the sense that you can sit there watching traffic out the big corner windows for as long as you like and, hey, maybe even meet somebody. The brewed coffee, especially a nicely acidic house blend, is more successful than the espresso, though a milky caramel-flavored espresso drink isn't bad at all.

Edgar's Cafe looks like no place else. The theme is Edgar Allan Poe, who once lived on the same street, but it's more a mixture of high-tech and reimagined Charles Addams Gothic than haunted, and it's in immaculate shape rather than decrepit. The espresso is decent, the cappuccino too milky, but the heated thick china cups make up for a lot. Partly because of the sixplex nearby,the tables are always full.


Midtown

There's nothing young or hip about Chez Laurence Patisserie. This old-fashioned cafe and pastry shop isn't even Italian--the culinary influence is French--but you can get extraordinarily good espresso here. The owner, a big man always in white uniform, impassively refuses to tell anything about the source of the beans, and he's right to button his lip. The espresso machine herehas a lever that permits manual control of how much water passes through the coffee and at what pressure--the only kind you'll find in Naples, where the espresso is especially dark, dense, and sweet, and is served in boiling-hot cups.

Philip's is kind of full of itself, because so many people have praised its espresso. But it deserves the praise. The La Marzocco machines are lovingly maintained, and the grind of the beans--around which the staff is instructed tomaintain a thick veil of secrecy (word is that the source is a Northwest roaster)--is frequently adjusted so that it will always produce a thick, dense, bracingly bitter but then sweet espresso. And the shots are just the right size.

Why do I prefer the espresso at the Daily Caffe to that at Starbucks? The beans are from the same roasting plant--the Daily Caffe was the first New York coffee shop to use Starbucks beans with the company's permission. Maybe because the Daily Caffe has been open longer and has settled in long enough to get everything right. This is another Northeast-Northwest hybrid, begun by native Seattleites come east. They speak Seattle here--you can alter a latte however you want it without fazing the friendly young staff, which can be slow. The only mystery is why there aren't more Daily Caffes.

Simon Sips, in kiosks at Bryant Park and the Wiley building, does extremely well by the beans from its West Coast roaster. Cardboard cups again, but all the coffee drinks are excellent.

The espresso beans at Au Cafe also come from the West Coast--from Torrefazione Italia, the hands-down favorite roaster of many in Seattle. (Limbo,in the East Village, also buys from Torrefazione.) The beans make a winy, sharp espresso with lovely body and good crema. The cappuccino has too much milk, though, and the brewed coffee is run-of-the-mill Kobrick.

The staff knows a lot about beans and pastries at Bean Bar, but this brand-new place somehow manages to look a lot like it's been there since the seventies. The brewed varietal coffees are fine, and if you ask for a short espresso you'll like it.

Oh-La-La! specializes in very hot coffee (the better to dilute with milk) kept in protective steel-jacketed containers. The house blend is lovely--mild with a bit of sparkle--but the espresso is too long and unmemorable.

There's no more spectacular coffee bar in the city than Jonathan Morr Espresso Bar, where the ceilings soar and the sconces are big brushed-aluminum cups and saucers. The service can be slow, but the place does a fine job with espresso drinks. It's worth waiting to sit at a counter, listen to good Europop,and keep an eye on Sixth Avenue traffic--and those splendid light fixtures.


Gramercy Park/Flatiron District

Eureka Joe has it all: plush armchairs and love seats in the back that look like overstock from the Royalton lobby; places to read in the front where you can arrive alone but maybe leave with company; free tarot and palm readings and occasional theatricals; sandwiches that rival Eli Zabar's and are made on premises; the best bagels in town (from Ess-a-Bagel); and excellent coffee across the board--even silly but good flavored drinks with artful dribbles of syrup over the surface, and an imaginative variety of steamed-milk and fruit drinks. I've heard complaints about snide service but haven't experienced it myself.

Maury Rubin, the focused, seductive owner of City Bakery, promises that the coffee will improve and be on a par with his superb croissants, Danish, and tarts. For now you can get a very good cappuccino downtown and brewed decaf (andregular, of course) uptown, in a bristling high-tech store in the Sony Plaza. The sandwiches and mini-pizzas are great, too.

Neck and neck, or maybe paunch and paunch, are the pastries and coffee at Marquet Patisserie, most foodies' choice as the place for classic French pastry.The house blend is Schapira's Danish. Why don't more places buy from Schapira's,an excellent roaster that does a thriving business elsewhere in the Northeast? It's far better than many of the suppliers other bars rely on.

Everything about Newsbar is right for a media-hungry New Yorker: magazines and newspapers lining the walls, TV monitors behind the counters, big plate-glass windows for people-watching, a cool crowd that looks as if it is either photographed or featured in at least one of the magazines available for browsing. Too bad the design is awkward, the food dull, the coffee uninteresting.


Chelsea

I love Kaffeehaus, the only modern Viennese cafe in New York (the original ones on West 72nd Street have mostly died with the emigres who once populated them). Monika Caha, a Viennese, and her bright-eyed American partner, Margot Chernus, wisely decided to offer Viennese coffee drinks made with Illy, the top-of-the-line Italian espresso, including Einspanner, served in a glass with fresh Schlag, and Melange, the Viennese cappuccino. Their Cafe Schokolade, not plain hot chocolate as it would be in Vienna but hot chocolate mixed with espresso, is the best mocha drink now being served anywhere. Kaffeehaus is a full-service bar and restaurant, too, with the kind of substantial food you get in Viennese cafes (including hand-pulled strudel) and an authentic Mitteleuropa feel that, luckily for depressives, isn't too authentic.

David Ryerson, the sad-sack owner of Coffee Magic, decided to abandon his replacement-window business in New Jersey when he saw a CNN segment that made the coffee business look profitable. The color pictures of fifties cars are the only touch of style in a bare-bones room with Naugahyde stools that seem to come from a sixties suburban kitchen. It makes you think that the replacement-window business was a safer bet. Yet Ryerson has not only thoroughlyresearched beans and equipment, he is a discerning coffee-taster. His brewed house blend is nice--good enough to win loyal customers--and his flavored coffees far better than average.


West Village/SoHo

There's usually a line at the cramped, parisian Le Gamin, which serves the best cafe au lait in New York--in thin, wide bowls, with brittle, nothing-tasting grilled baguettes that become the best things you ever ate when slathered with strawberry jam and dunked in the bowl. Don't tell French guests that the coffee itself is Italian, from Lavazza--a good idea, considering the quality of the beans in France.

Bleecker Street Pastry isn't just a coffee bar, either, although there area line of tables and a great early-sixties espresso machine in the back. Usuallywielding the filter holders is the owner, Lucia Di Saverio, whose husband, Donato, makes better sfogliatelle than you get in Naples. After going through several brands, Lucia settled on a little-known Italian brand from the northern city of Piacenza. Her hand at the machine is authoritative, the espresso undemanding and good. The Di Saverios are first-generation immigrants, and theirpasticceria is solidly middleclass Italy Italian.

The great Italian-American caffes at the Four Corners of MacDougal and Bleecker have mostly devolved into bars and tourist restaurants, or have become unrecognizably sanitized (Caffe Dante), but the nearby Caffe Reggio remains itself. You expect Edna St. Vincent Millay to come in, looking harried and clutching a notebook. The espresso isn't as good as it should be, but the cappuccino is fine--be sure to ask for no cinnamon on top.

Every neighborhood should have a Black Medicine, which is appealingly homemade, from the thrift-shop oak bench and bentwood chairs to the summer-camp mosaic of a coffee cup set into the counter. And the staff really cares about coffee. The brewed Guatemalan is a lovely medium-dark roast, and more successful than the drab house blend. Espresso is suave and carefully made, evenif the cappuccino, as in so many places, has too much milk and too much foam.

Espresso Bar the Original is two notches better than the usual formula cafe,because the baked goods are well chosen and the coffee, both brewed and espresso, is better prepared than most. Also it wins my heart for its glass hot-chocolate urn, which keeps stirring and heating a rich brew. The crowd is more young than gay, a surprise considering the Christopher Street location, andthe grunge-dressed help surprisingly friendly.


East Village

Alphabet city, that bastion of hip has the homiest coffee bars in the city. Living-room furniture is everywhere, and so are chessboard tabletops and stacks of old board games--you're really supposed to linger. Limbo recalls a fifties kitchen, painted in cheery pastel colors, with steel-rimmed Formica tables and flowers. It's a clean, well-lighted place, with modest fare and very good coffee, worth traveling to Avenue A for--Limbo buys from the Seattle roaster Torrefazione Italia.

9 is the most stylish of the many bars lining St. Marks Place, a riot of hand-painted colored tables and chairs, vaguely sixties and vaguely Aztec (lots of magenta); the help is vaguely grunge. The place is packed with kids just out of school who have made this their hangout. There's a full coffee menu (and one for tea, too); for once the brewed coffees receive more attention, and they're served in French-press plunger pots with the care that blends like Sumatra and Kenya AA deserve. Yes, you could mail-order better beans (these are perfectly okay), but would you be served by someone wearing four studs in one ear?


TriBeCa/Wall Street

Basset coffee & tea company wins the congeniality prize for its lazy southern back-porch atmosphere and the southern touches its two south Georgian owners, Jim Touchton and Martin Cowar, who co-own Lucy, the basset hound on the logo, have put in the room (big ceramic crocks for homemade lemonade and iced tea) and the menu (fabulous homemade biscuits with Virginia ham, a terrific chicken salad with roasted pecans, in a flour tortilla). The coffee, from Gillies, a respected old New York roaster, is impeccably fresh and for once not overroasted, and they treat it with care. The plate-glass windows and corner location, just down the street from Odeon, make this an ideal daylight hangout.

    -- Corby Kummer


  • More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1994 by Corby Kummer. First published in New York Magazine, May 23, 1994.

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