Blue Bottle: Coffee as Crack


The sole output from Blue Bottle’s downstairs is pour-overs — no espressos! [Correction: There are espressos.]

When San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee hit town two years ago in the Williamsburg outback, it changed the paradigm of the coffee bar. As a friend said to me, peering into the place’s expansive premises, “Hey, where’s the seating?”

The original Williamsburg location of Blue Bottle

The new Manhattan digs of Blue Bottle. With Googlers down the street, and the Apple Store around the corner, and temps in the 50s — is New York becoming California?

And indeed, there was none. Coffee drinkers approached the counter, garnered their joe, and then had to stand as they drank it or — preferable to the management, one assumes — got the hell out of there. Indeed, in the ensuing months, coffee drinkers could be seen up and down the street, sitting on whatever they could find, including curbs and planters. I wondered at the time: Are coffee and comfort antithetical to Blue Bottle? Some seating was later added, probably in response to the grumbles of the laid-back locals. But really, the place always seemed more like a pharmacy than a coffee bar.

In the interim, I had the chance to cruise San Francisco’s wonderful coffee bars, including Ritual, Blue Bottle, and, my hands-down favorite, Four Barrel. All the places I visited or simply looked at (including Blue Bottle’s newish Mint Plaza establishment) had seating.

It was with both excitement and trepidation that I went to BB’s much-ballyhooed second location, on West 15th just south of Chelsea Market. I’ve got to concede one point — it’s now the most pretentious coffee bar in town, handily knocking Stumptown into a cocked hat. The baristas stand like priests, doing their pour-overs like it was holy water. The reverence in the air is palpable. There’s no place to sit, and when the lines of supplicants snake around the room, no place to stand and drink your coffee, either.

Waiting for the last drip to drop (this is a great picture; please click on image to enlarge)

Where pour-overs happen

The coffee? It’s flavorful, but a bit thin. And clearly intended to be drunk black, because any application of dairy products (actually, only one is available, and I think it’s cream) would cool the coffee below the acceptable temp for drinking. Ah, pour-overs! It might be one thing if they dumped the water in all at once, and allowed it to drip quickly, but process becomes spectacle as the hot water is poured over the grounds in artistic dribbles; the baristas work the grounds as if they were panning Sutter Creek for gold.

And the tea is awful. But then tea drinkers know not to get their tea in a coffee bar, because it’s nearly always watery, flavorless, and tasting faintly of coffee.

But for the cognoscenti, hidden behind and above Blue Bottle’s coffee counter is another establishment entirely, with no signage. In fact, most patrons find out about it by walking upstairs in search of a place to sit and drink their coffee or — God help us! — cop some Wi-Fi. What they find upstairs is a so-called siphon bar, where an arcane Japanese apparatus is used to produce superior coffee via a two-glass-globe system that uses steam pressure to force water through the grounds. It’s like a freshman chemistry experiment.

Blue Bottle
450 West 15th Street

Tomorrow: I go upstairs for siphon coffee

Read the second installment here.

I’d advise you to skip the tea.