It feels like New York has reached its peak in coffee. We have more cafés than ever before, and Dunkin’ Donuts, not Starbucks, has by far the most, with nearly 550 outlets. (That’s across all boroughs; in Manhattan, Starbucks is well ahead of any competitor in shop count.)
Commercial chains aside, New York easily competes with Seattle and San Francisco in sheer number of specialty coffee shops serving all of its neighborhoods, many of those the result of the expansion of homegrown businesses over the last decade. The Flatiron, being the center of the city, and an area that was previously underserved, now boasts options on all corners, along with one of the best coffee programs in the fine-dining restaurant scene.
The Flatiron district, as defined by the nonprofit organization the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, is bounded by 28th Street to the north, 20th to the south, just beyond Sixth Avenue to the west, and a combination of Park Avenue South and Lexington to the east.
Here’s our guide to drinking through the Flatiron’s coffee shops:
Brooklyn Roasting Company Flatiron Outpost (50 West 23rd Street)
The most recent entrant into the Flatiron district is the Brooklyn Roasting Company, whose cavernous coffee shop on 23rd Street, its third overall and first in Manhattan, manages to capture much of the appeal of its Brooklyn roots. The generous space, checkerboard floor, art deco accents (the massive bar counter dates from 1929), and vintage finds (roulette table and funhouse mirror) give the shop a distinctive feel from other cafés in the neighborhood. Just like BRC’s coffee shops in DUMBO and the Navy Yard, they offer doughnuts from Dough (which has a shop a couple blocks away on 19th Street). With two espresso machines, nitrogen-infused cold brew, a friendly staff, and seating for all, there may be no better place in the neighborhood to duck in from the overstimulation of 23rd Street, or lack of stimulation from the office.
Caffè Lavazza and Caffè Vergnano (200 Fifth Avenue)
Eataly, the successful Italian import, boasts two options for swigging java. First, Caffè Vergnano Coffee Shop 1882 is an espresso-only counter offering a simple, three-item menu, where customers can take their single or double shots like an Italian (i.e., in a real cup with saucer, with less milk than a bowl of cereal, and standing). Caffè Lavazza, near the Fifth Avenue entrance, offers a full menu of drinks and food, with seating among the gawking tourists.
Joe Pro Shop (131 West 21st Street)
The senior citizen of this list, Joe has only been around since 2003, and this particular location has been open since 2012. It’s also the company’s headquarters and not intended to be the same experience as the other ten cafés around Manhattan, which invite customers to relax and sip. It’s located midway between Sixth and Seventh avenues, on the far edge of the neighborhood; given the limited seating, knock back a quick espresso, or take a (recyclable) cup to go.
Gregorys Coffee (327 Park Avenue South)
If you’ve seen this company’s logo — and if you haven’t, you probably don’t work in midtown — you should know that the founder, Gregory, is not Where’s Waldo all grown up, but does share the likeness as its wavy-haired, bespectacled entrepreneur. The expansion of his NYC-originated shop (eighteen and counting) has been impressive, as he’s done it with a corporate-feeling format that’s more akin to the green mermaid from Seattle than a twee little shop, especially by choosing locations near New Yorkers’ offices rather than their homes. In those ways, it’s a different approach from Joe and the others, but it’s been successful: Gregorys has opened fourteen of those eighteen shops since 2011.
Birch (21 East 27th Street)
Started by two admitted neophytes, Birch is the original, locally developed, specialty coffee shop of the Flatiron district. It has continued to grow at a steady pace, opening a roastery in Long Island City and expanding from a single neighborhood coffee shop to several around Manhattan, including the Upper East. The Flatiron location, however, remains one of its most charming, though those working in nearby offices can choose to have their cold brew delivered in growlers by bicycle. They’d be missing out on a great place to work, read, or even do something really old-fashioned like chat over a cappuccino.
Toby’s Estate Flatiron (160 Fifth Avenue)
As we previously noted, Toby’s (a Sydney-based Australian brand) expansion into the West Village seemed to meet with immediate success as a place to enjoy coffee with a seat (a rare pleasure in the tight-squeeze venues found nearby). Toby’s Flatiron location, however, which has been open for two years, is a small shop-in-a-shop concept, nestled in the cove of a Club Monaco while also serving as the gateway to a contiguous Strand bookstore and Polux flower shop. All four share a common aesthetic: white, bright, and beautiful. It’s not a café for a laptop, nor even for a conversation, but to pick up and go, or pick up and shop. You’re on Fifth Avenue, after all.
Fika (407 Park Avenue South, 303 Park Avenue South)
With two locations in the neighborhood, Fika has quietly expanded throughout Manhattan. All of the seventeen locations and counting maintain a common design theme — Sweden by way of New York — which isn’t far off from reality. Swedish-born city dweller Lars Akerlund opened Fika less than two years after arriving in the U.S. and has carefully designed the interiors to preserve a Scandinavian feel, though one adapted to the NYC, partially through using local construction and craftsmanship.
The spaces are sleek, employees wear uniforms, and the focus seems nearly as intent on chocolates and baked goods (they make both in house) as on coffee, although Fika’s coffee comes from quality-minded roaster Nobletree in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, Fika has ambitions to expand beyond New York, and possibly beyond the United States.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 1, 2015