Sweeping the City
Starting my day with a good cup of joe is an essential part of my daily routine. One of the first things I do every morning is put on the kettle, pull out my french press, and grind my own beans (stored in the freezer for maximum freshness). I steam my fresh Ronnybrook milk into a perfectly frothy consistency, stirring in a bit of honey for natural sweetness. This is my morning ritual and I love it. Sometimes, I wonder if I love the ritual, almost more than I like drinking the coffee itself.
Every since I’ve discovered this particular coffee-making ritual, I just can’t drink that terrible pre-ground, drip stuff anymore. Wow, can you taste the difference! After one develops their palate for a really good french press or stove-top espresso, going back to automatic drip or percolator coffee is a real last resort.
So, as a lover of really good coffee, I’m delighted to the see the recent trend of coffee connoisseurism sweeping the city. The movement almost seems to rival fine wine tasting as of late. Thus, I decided to embark on some local ‘coffee missions’, on a quest to discover the best coffee offerings in my neighborhood of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, creating a map with my own photographs to boot.
As I sampled many a latte, cappuccino, cortado, and au lait, I found myself pondering, “What really makes a great coffee tasting experience?” The quality and taste of the coffee itself is obviously most important, but ultimately, I feel that the coffee drinking environment plays a vital role in the enjoyment of the overall experience. So, as an architectural photographer and design lover with a sweet tooth, I took the place, space, and vibe created into account when deciding what constituted “best coffee spots”. The beauty of a space, the social interaction and solo sipping meditation that takes place within it, is a crucial aspect of the whole adventure.
1. Abraco Espresso, 86 East 7th Street @ 1st Avenue
This place is a tiny little shoebox of a joint and there is almost always a crowd of people packed like sardines inside and a line out the door, but don’t let that turn you away. The coffee is magnificent, each cup made upon request with love, and their homemade breads and biscotti are the perfect sweet companions, not to be passed up. The owner and his cohorts are always very friendly and chatty. Regulars and newbies alike are greeted with a smile. I will confess this place is a bit of a “scene”, but for some reason, I kind of get a kick out of it. Said shoebox is packed with Village hipsters talking just a little too loudly about their latest industry gig, personal achievement, or friend circle gossip, and for a willing eavesdropper, it’s a delicious, humorous addition to the experience. Just sip your cortado and embrace the chat with a grain of salt. But forget the shake of cinnamon on top ‘cause they don’t have it here. You drink it up the way they serve it, in a variety of mis-matched glass cups and mugs, or one of those quintessential Greek-y “it’s our pleasure to serve you” paper to-go cups, and you’ll enjoy every sip of it, guaranteed.
2. Bluebird Coffee Shop, 72 E 1st Street @ 1st Avenue
This place has only been open since December 2009, but it’s already garnering quite a loyal following, including yours truly. I had a cortado (made with Counter Culture beans) and a brown sugar cookie. The owner herself is one of elements that makes this place so great. She has an obvious passion for what she does and greets everyone with a warm smile and friendly chit- chat. The day I was in, she was talking all about which recipes she was dying to try out next, beaming with a geniune enthusiasm for experimentation. She makes different cookies, cakes and sandwiches daily. They all sound exquisite and are made with fresh, local, and somewhat exotic ingredients. The room is simple, painted in a calm bluebird blue, and nicely designed with beautiful woods and metal accents. Lots of light pours in through the front windows, a long wood bench is built into the brick wall, and cool copper tables dot the room. There are a few tables out front facing First Park at the corner of 1st St and 1st Ave. It’s a relaxed place, inhabited with people in no apparent rush. With all the daily variety happening here, I definitely plan to frequent again and again.
3. MudSpot, 307 E 9th Street @ 2nd Avenue
This coffee isn’t for everyone, but I personally dig the thick, sludgy coffee they serve up here that tastes almost like hot chocolate. You can get espresso here, but I think the original Mud is spot on and a good bang for your buck at $2.25. The Mud Mocha is also good, but the OG coffee has enough rich chocolatey taste for me. They also have several different Mud blends for sale by the pound, with fun New York centric names, if you’d rather make it at home. Good coffee aside, I just love the vibe of this place. It’s everything you’d dream an East Village coffee spot would be – sexy, funky people and a non-stop mix of killer music. I love to sit in the window or the bench in front, reading the latest Dan Savage column in the Village Voice, and watching the all the street action on E 9th (one of the best blocks to window shop in the EV). There’s a great enclosed patio out back where they do table service. A good brunch on the weekends including mimosas and a cup o’ mud will run you $12 cash. The food is terrific, baked goods are made fresh on premises, and they have a decent wine selection as well. Before the Mudspot, there was the Mudtruck, the catering-type painted an eye-catching burnt orange color, parked daily in two convenient locations – next to the 1 subway on Christopher Street in the West Village and the Uptown 6 subway on Lafayette at Astor Place in the East Village.
4. 9th Street Espresso, 700 E 9th Street; 341 E 10th Street; Chelsea Market
These people really know how to make a good espresso. A really good and tasty espresso, adorned with the most skilled latte art. They also carry several different coffee blends, their own varieties and beans from some of the finest fair trade coffee growing countries around the world, for the home coffee connoisseur to buy by the pound. The location on E 10th Street is small, but beautifully warm with lots of light and pine wood details. A few stools and a narrow counter line the east wall, but try to acquire the best spot in the house – perched in the front window. This picture window, or the bench on the sidewalk out front, is ideal for all the people/dog-watching that flows by the outskirts of Tompkins Square Park. I also dig their daily chalkboard art. I’ve generally had positive experiences with the baristas here, but have heard from others that they do sometimes have a bit of an elitist attitude. That hasn’t been my experience though, and they seem to be doing a lot of things right, currently operating in 3 locations, including Chelsea Market.
5. Grey Dog’s Coffee, 33 Carmine Street; 90 University Place
For some reason, I’ve just repeatedly gravitated to their hazelnut café au lait. These cats really know how to steam milk properly into froathy, creamy goodness. Straight up espresso is also at its best here, no question. Grey Dog’s is not just a coffee house, but definitely a great destination for any meal of the day, that won’t break the bank. They have terrific breakfast options, sandwiches that are too big to ever eat in one sitting, cheese and antipasto plates, and out of this world cobblers and cookies. I prefer the Carmine Street location’s vibe and have enjoyed many leisurely meals with friends in their cozy, dark little den. Also like taking my coffee and walking up Bleecker Street, into Father Demo Square or Washington Square Park to sip my joe fountain-side. The University Place location is also cute and conveniently located, but occupied mostly by NYU students, and often gets very loud and crowded. They do have great selection of wine and as the day progresses, the place turns into more of a dimly lit, late night hang out spot.
I’d be remiss not to mention a few other spots in this list, so honorable mentions go to:
The Roasting Planthas an extensive variety of free trade and organic choices, and their method of delivering said choices is the coolest part! You select your bean choice from the daily list displayed on a big LCD monitor, and then your beans are literally sucked from their transparent wall container, through a maze of steel tubes running along the ceiling, into the bean grinder behind the counter. Each cup is individually brewed for freshness and taste. The LES location is rather tiny and only has a few small chairs to sit. There’s bench outside on Orchard Street which is a nice spot to rest, as you work your way through all the fabulous shopping and eateries of the Lower East Side.
Everyman Espresso serves up delicious Counter Culture coffee within a rather colorless, personality-lacking interior. Despite the rather chilly reception and “too cool for school” attitude from the barista behind the counter, my au lait was good. Small and pricey, but good. A relative amount of enthusiasm, a splash of color, and some artwork would go along way towards making this place truly great!
I feel the need to include Think Coffee mostly because I really respect and support their commitment to the environment and sustainable business practices. They use entirely compostable cups and plates, and recycle almost everything within their locations. Their coffee is definitely tasty and they use their own blend of beans, also selling a variety of fair trade and organic coffee by the pound. The Mercer Street location is always packed with NYU students on laptops, thus not my favorite place to linger. The locations on 4th Avenue and Bleecker Street are nice looking, but for some reason, I don’t tend to want to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee inside for very long. Strikes me as more of pit stop or get it to-go place.
Porto Rico Importing Co. is where I get the coffee beans that I brew via french press at home. The smell is unbelievably intoxicating as you walk in the door. I love seeing the rows of open burlap bags of beans. They have a ton of choices, both in regular and organic varieties. I’ve had so much fun sampling different beans from all over the world and I still haven’t exhausted all the options! Porto Rico is more of a coffee purveyor, than a coffee house. They do serve coffee and espresso by the cup and I highly recommend it as a worthy to-go pit stop, but it’s not much of a sit and sip joint.
If you’re interested in exploring the world of gourmet coffee on your own, I enthusiastically support all of the places on this list. If you wish to kick it up a notch, I read about several coffee tasting workshops around the city that school you the fine art of coffee sipping and appreciation. For more information click here.