Coffee in NYC: No one got the message?

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Coffee arabica.

It is weird, the coffee in New York. We have plenty of desultory coffee shops here in Seattle, hiply desultory, and the coffee will follow that form. But the coffee in New York is terrible. It is like a cult — or a sentence — to be terrible. It is as if it were considered unseemly or unfaithful to pay adequate attention to coffee for it to be good. It is as if they were still making payments to Chock full o’Nuts.

I was not on a mission - and maybe it was just a bad day for coffee. I started early at one of the faux French bakeries and was fine that the coffee had neither taste nor form. I tried to repair with a short cappuccino at one of the oldest Soho bakeries -- for here, please; but it came in a massive paper cup and lid. And the coffee itself was worse. That surprised me. Everyone was very nice and looked bright and there was no rush, but the cappuccino was a mess.

I was headed uptown so I detoured over to the Ace Hotel, thinking that the Stumptown Coffee Shop there would surely know the tune.  And they probably do but, gods of mercy, there was a 50-person line, just to get coffee, and 49 of them were on their phones. Detour over to the nearby Eataly, surely closer to Italy than Stumptown, and there was a phone-cramped line as well but in an Italian fashion, not too much order and more milling and arm-raising and baby strollers. I only needed an espresso so I walked deeper into the joint, to the kiosk where they only serve shots, and stuck my elbow on the counter, certain I had made it to safety. The young barista was great and he had three tiny moves I had never seen before and they were great. But the espresso, it was not great. It was black and over pulled and he went on break.

I was headed to meet two friends who had arrived just that morning from Paris. The new Whitney has caused such a stir in Chelsea that the traffic is clogged in new directions — they were an hour late, so we met back in Soho at a traditional café. The manager, a fine fellow with a David Niven mustache, leaned in as I asked if he would make, please, a perfect cappuccino for Gaby, who needed it. He came back three minutes later with the day's winner — a careful cup of coffee. It did not have any sign of crema, the soft brown that marks each perfect cup, but it had care.

The next morning I went up to West Broadway for one last meeting before I headed out to the airport. The café had an expensive Faema machine and they were as nice as could be — and the last round of coffee for my trip was the least talented of the bunch.

I don't get it. Maybe there are simply too many people and, even more specifically, too many people who do not need the coffee to be better. Maybe a good cup of coffee is simply too slow for the task of New York City. They get them to go and off they do go. Maybe it is hip to not need it to be better.

I held up that last espresso, that was too bitter to finish, and started to say something - my wonderful guest laughed and said, “Box Kite, East Village, that is what you want.” Hold me a seat, Box Kite, this other stuff is like 1972.


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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of