Sitting in an office chair all day is bad for your health. That’s why the coffee break is a necessary, potentially life-extending, recess in one’s workday — that, and the chance to procrastinate on that Powerpoint presentation a little longer. Last winter, if you wanted to break for java in Midtown East, up north in the Plaza District, or a dozen blocks south near Grand Central, there were hardly any cafes worthy of a trek — the area was a Mad Max-esque dystopic coffee wasteland.
Within the last nine months, however, enterprising, independent coffee shops have opened to fill the void and bring quality caffeine to the hundreds of thousands of suffering commuters who work there and previously had to rely on stale and burnt corner deli brew, the fresh and burnt (or blond) corporate green mermaid-monster, or, if desperate enough — and many were — the office k-cup dispenser. These new cafes are worth the slog through winter slush in your Hunter boots or L.L. Beans to escape the shackles of coffee drudgery so that your future may once again hold a better, brighter brew.
As Fifi said, “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them!” Here are five:
Ninth Street Espresso,109 East 56th Street, 646-559-4793
Certain locales in the city reflect the understated elegance of old New York, and the most recent location of Ninth Street Espresso does just that. Firmly entrenched in the East Village and well-trafficked in Chelsea Market, Ninth Street opened its fourth location in Manhattan in this seemingly unusual spot, and it’s almost undetectable to those not in the know. Occupying part of the ground floor of the Lombardy Hotel, an interior door connecting the two funnels cappuccino seekers past the sumptuous décor of the hotel bar and restaurant Harlow and into the more modest — but equally evocative of classic Gotham — coffee shop, complete with pre-war moldings, black-and-white marble checkerboard floor, and gold leaf script on the glass. Also, it’s truly a standup espresso bar; there are just a few chairs ringing the perimeter, so don’t expect to come here and work with a laptop.
Little Collins, 667 Lexington Avenue, 212-308-1969
I devoted an article to this slice of Melbournian coffee culture in midtown a few weeks ago. The bustling cafe opened late last summer, bringing some Aussie influence to the city. After half a dozen visits at all hours of the day, I’ve found it consistently packed, testament to the need for such a place; it’s also one of the few cafés to bother pairing fresh, thoughtful food with its brews. With a menu offering breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and a coffee program that features the under-the-counter Modbar installation, Little Collins is a great spot to visit before, during, and even after the office hours, should you happen to live where you work.
Bluestone Lane Coffee, 805 Third Avenue, 212-888-8848
Tucked away below street level, inside the atrium of a 30+ floor building, is another Aussie-inspired coffee shop. Down the escalator or stairs, on the other side of the grand piano, Bluestone Lane infuses as much of a transporting experience as possible (being located in a sterile, corporate building), utilizing wood-heavy Australia-based décor from floor-to-ceiling. Besides being one of the few cafes in New York to rely primarily on the coffee roaster Sightglass, they also rotate a selection of artisan roasters from around the country. Try any of a variety of Australian coffee drinks — Long Black (think Americano), Piccolo (think Cortado — espresso cut with milk), or what Australians generally consider coffee, a flat white. The staff is friendly and outgoing, so despite the lack of seats, you may find yourself finishing your drink before leaving this nook.
Ground Central, 155 East 52nd Street, 646-964-4438
This coffee shop belongs not in midtown but on the new, cleaned-up version of Bowery. Decor harkens to the CBGB rock-n-roll era, with stacks of vintage records waiting to be plucked for a spin on the sound system, NY-centric white-on-black chalkboard murals, and an abundance of glossy metal accents. It’s a tidy, modern take on a theme, and thus we find this spot in midtown, where it may as well serve as a refreshing foil to the rest of the conservative nabe. Although my few visits lead me to believe they don’t take coffee quite as seriously as the others on this list, it’s a standout, décor aside, for more than a couple reasons. Far in the back, the lounge room beckons with comfortable chairs, a sofa, and a built-in full-wall bookshelf. In the front, a communal table provides ample space to utilize the free Wi-Fi — unlike the other cafes on this list — and an assortment of sandwiches and baked treats beckon in the gleaming cases, for those who wish to eat breakfast or lunch.
Joe, Grand Central Graybar Passage
Joe Coffee hardly needs an introduction, assuming you like coffee, live in Manhattan, and/or have read this column before. But just in case, this family-owned, NYC-based retailer-cum-roaster now has nine cafes in New York and Philadelphia, including this one, which has occupied a far northeast corridor close to Lexington Avenue as a grab and go spot since 2008. Before then, Oren’s Daily Roast used to rule the roast at Grand Central. Joe peddles espresso-based drinks and drip brew, and while excelling at both, they probably offer the cleanest, brightest, most flavorful drip coffee to go in the whole damn city, if you’ve not got time for a proper pour over.
Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, Grand Central, 89 East 42nd Street, Lower Level Dining Concourse
Another new area entrant that opened in May last year, Irving Farm’s central location in lower Grand Central and extended hours make this spot ideal for commuters rather than those who work in Midtown East, but it’s helping improve the quality of coffee consumed by those on their way into or out of the city, which hopefully makes for a happier — and more productive — worker.