In a pinch, we can drink coffee anywhere in the world. We have drank burnt espresso, overly milky frappuccinos, and super-sugary Keralan cold coffee from street stalls, at chain stores like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, 7-11, and McDonald’s worldwide. But we’ve also tasted a coffee brewed to perfection at coffee plantations in India, been intoxicated by the fresh aroma of drip-coffee at coffee bars in Milan, Naples, Paris, San Francisco, and New York City. You heard us right, New York City has finally gotten with the program for the serious coffee drinker!
New Yorkers used to have to rely on West Coast roasting companies like San Francisco based Blue Bottle Coffee or Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon to supply the coffee beans for their favourite joints. Now there are plenty of roasters right here in town (including roasting companies that supply not only coffee bars, but restaurants and carts all over the City), like the Brooklyn Roasting Company, Porto Rico, and West Coast roasters mentioned above. There are a handful of companies that already do on-site roasting, and many of the coffee bars listed here have plans to roast their own beans within the year!
Here are our picks for the best coffee bars in New York City:
Bourbon Coffee-Union Square
43 W 14th Street
(between 5th and 6th Avenue)
New York City, NY – 10011
I’ll admit it, when I first walked into Bourbon Coffee, I thought alcohol was involved and it would be easy to order: “One coffee with bourbon. Make that a double.” It turned out, the name comes from Bourbon Arabica cultivated in Rwanda. What I love about this place is that not only is it an African coffee joint (it has three stores in Kigali), but their coffee is spectacular, roasted on-site, and they have a lot of African touches that make this a very cozy place: there’s beautiful African music playing in the background, lots of detailed handmade African artwork, a good amount of seating with African furniture, and they offer pure Cane sugar with the coffee as an alternative to sugar or Equal. It’s also nice that by supporting this coffee shop, you’re supporting Rwandan farmers, who Bourbon Coffee pays relatively higher prices for their beans. There is a massive window for people watching and there is a breakfast, lunch, and dessert menu (unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly African about these though).
Recommended: Raspberry Rugelach and Macademia nut Mocha
This is not really a spot to people watch, but it is the perfect place to drink some bad-ass Swedish coffee imported from Löfbergs Lila, a Swedish roasting company in Karlstad, and to try some Swedish delicacies. As soon as you step inside Fika, you feel like you’ve entered a different world, with a very distinct Swedish architectural design, Swedish faces, and a lot of Swedish being spoken by customers and staff alike. “Fika” is a lovely Swedish verb that translates to “take a coffee break” that is more about just the coffee, but the experience: to have Fika means to take a long break, sipping coffee, chatting with friends, and nibbling on food and dessert. It’s a daily part of Swedish life that every New Yorker can now partake in.
Recommended: Cappuccino, Gravlax: Salmon marinated with juniper berries in a whole wheat wrap, and Truffles. Alternative to Gravlax is Goteborg: Swedish Meatballs!
The ambience of this place, the friendly staff, and great coffee are reasons enough to come here. It’s a wonderful place to people watch, and there’s even a bench outside so you can “puppy watch.” I like the low counter so you can watch the coffee being made properly. There are two drawbacks of this place though: 1) it is pricey. Almost $3 for a black coffee, and they have a No laptop rule with no wifi available. On one hand, this is good because that means, you are more likely to get a seat. But it is annoying if you want to write or just surf the net for a bit. So those are the only things about this place that makes me grumpy. Everything else is all smiles.
Recommended: The “Heart-breaker” espresso and a chocolate chip cookie. Also, on Saturdays at 2:30pm, they have coffee tasting sessions.
Abraço – East Village
86 East 7th Street
(corner of 1st Ave and 7th Street)
New York, NY 10003
Even though it’s tinier than a bathroom at McDonald’s, has maybe one table (if that), and is barely a storefront, it is a neighborhood institution with very friendly service, and an extraordinarily bright interior (both from paint and window light). This gem of a coffee shop is not everyone’s cup of . . .er. . . coffee. It is smaller than small, and they take their coffee very seriously. You can’t get any milk other than whole milk, and don’t even bother asking for a double shot of espresso. You have to buy two singles. But their coffee speaks for itself. They don’t pre-brew, or do big pots of coffee diner style. They drip and brew your cup of coffee special. You can even get a bite to eat. Abraço means to embrace or hug in Portuguese. A hug and a coffee. Now, that’s what I call service.
Recommended: a Frittata, a slice of olive oil cake and a Mocha with real chocolate at the bottom. Yum.
Many people still refer to this place as Simon Sips, which was a local favourite, but like many a New York local favorite, it closed down. Many are excited about the new favourite place, especially because all of the baking is done in-house. The ambience isn’t as nice as some other places in town, but they know their coffee and the delicious baked goods complement the flavours of the coffees very nicely. Their beans come from Counter Culture Coffee and the place always smells aromatic. They serve delicious coffee and aren’t too hoighty-toighty about it. You can even ask them what an espresso is and they won’t bite your head off or try to destroy you by glaring at you. And they have wi-fi.
Recommended: A big mug of cappuccino and a slightly warmed up candied ginger molasses cookie with white pepper.
Third Rail, like many places around NYU, is a tiny hole in the wall, and there is a complete lack of space inside. But it is bustling with energy and has some of the friendliest baristas I’ve ever met. And most importantly, their coffee, from Inteligentisa and Stumptown a few miles away, is delicious. There are constant events going on here, ranging from poetry to music. Just to give you an indication of how unpretentious they are, they don’t even have a website, they have a blog, and have no phone, or menu listed. Most of the people who come here are locals, and people with impeccable taste in coffee. All of their flavours are magical, but my absolute favourite is the Black Cat Espresso, with a tinge of lemon zest,dark chocolate, raspberries, and hints of clove and cinnamon. Good luck trying to order that from Starbucks!
Recommended: Stumptown’s Black Cat Espresso and Intelligenisa’s Yirgacheffe – Dama Coop (Ethiopian).
Joe the Art of Coffee- Morningside Height
550 West 120th
(between Amsterdam and Broadway)
New York, NY 10027
There are a couple of locations around the City, including Union Square, West Village, and at Grand Central Station. The vibe at this coffee shop is very laid back, and while they do take their coffee as seriously as many other folks, they aren’t as pretentious and ridiculous as some other places. Yes, you can take your coffee to go, and can even put syrup in it (gasp). The place does get cramped, which is more of a compliment because it is a popular spot. It probably isn’t the best place to hang out with a bunch of friends as it has about 10 tables inside, each with 2 chairs. A good place to take a date if you can grab a table! There is water colour artwork on the walls, a very knowledgeable staff who can break down complicated terms, so you know what you’re ordering. And the best part is that they pour your coffee into a mug. The coffee does carry an extra umph, so if you don’t like super-strong coffee, ask a barrista to water it down a little for you. Only joking. That might get you killed.
Recommended: Brazillian Drip Coffee and a Macaroon
Ninth Street Espresso – East Village (Alphabet City)
700 East 9th St
(between Avenue C & Avenue D)
New York, NY 10009
This place has some spectacular coffee, but they are a bit obsessive and very pretentious about their coffee. If you don’t immediately pick up your espresso, be prepared to be berated by a sharply dressed barista, and then promptly made another espresso. It must be drunk immediately and from a warmed up ceramic cup. They’re even particular about the kind of milk they use, and will flat out refuse to make you a cappuccino from particular beans because it will ruin the flavor.
Recommended: Iced Coffee and the Triple Ristretto
Tip: If you show up after 5pm, you can get pastries for just $1.
The location of this coffee shop is difficult to pinpoint. It’s not exactly Gramercy, Murray Hill, Chelsea, or Flatiron, but most people would describe the area as one of these areas, give or take a few blocks. Some have even started calling it NoMa, a name that hasn’t really stuck, but is entertaining: North of Madison Park. The coffee shop takes its coffee very seriously, but is not super pretentious (don’t let the well dressed hipster baristas fool you). This spot is conveniently located to the School of Visual Arts, where I teach, and I won’t say it’s centrally located, but is a nice stop before heading somewhere like Midtown. Everything I’ve tried here has always tasted wonderful and you can’t beat the setting. This is the strangest place to take your coffee to-go (but it can be done) because the ambience is super plush. They don’t have seating inside the coffee shop, but you can take your drink served in a porcelain cup and relax in a chair at the hotel. Or if you really want to be uncomfortable, stand at the counter at look out at 29th Street (zzzzz).
Recommended: The Macchiato.
Not Recommended: The pastries are hit and miss, and they go a little overboard in making them look homemade.
Located inside the uber-plush Le Parker Meridien hotel, Knave is a corridor that has been converted into a luxurious spot to enjoy a cup of coffee. But it is also one of the most expensive spots at $6 for a cappuccino. But the complimentary crunchy cookie imbued with aromatic star anise and a great cup of coffee more than balances that out. It is one of the few places in the City to use the bold taste of Counter Culture beans, and offers a full bar, as well as plenty to eat (soft croissants, and scrumptious sandwiches).
Recommended: The Affogato (Vanilla Ice Cream with Espresso) served with a complimentary anise-scented cookie. And definitely the croissant.