Just because you only have the time to walk five short blocks for lunch or coffee shouldn't leave Midtownites stranded, and though it's a part of Gotham slow to embrace, say, a lengthy Chemex brew, it shouldn't be so hard to find a great cup of carefully crafted, thoughtfully sourced, beautifully roasted coffee in the heart of Midtown New York City, right? Well...maybe. We'll let the economy catch up for a bit and cross our fingers for a flood of newcomers in months and years to come (we're looking at you, future Blue Bottle Rockefeller Center) and in the meantime point out a few truly great oases in a blighted landscape of chains and delis.
Enjoying a cup at the Joe location in Grand Central Station is not the hard part—the hard part is finding the minicafe in the crazed halls of Grand Central. But it's there—in the Greybar Passage, if you master commuters know where that is—serving up characteristically nuanced espresso and coffee drinks, mostly for those on-the-go.
There's nowhere to sit, and in fact, little room to stand if you're having an espresso or macchiato on the spot (which, wonderfully, you can have in ceramic cups), but that's okay, as you've almost certainly got a train to catch, right? Beans come all the way from San Francisco area roaster Ecco Caffe, and provide a constantly shifting selection of what's right for the season. This kind of no-nonsense, good service, coffee's-always-great kiosk is exactly what New Yorkers are entitled to (not that we have a sense of entitlement), and Joe is one of the few places that deliver it perfectly. Thank goodness.
Many have witnessed (or been) the weary urbanite, spilling out, glassy-eyed, from the steps of the New York Public Library, seeking another kind of enrichment or escape. Their sleepy call has been answered by The Shop, an innovative, startlingly welcoming hotel-foyer-cum-cafe, in the lobby of the Andaz Hotel. With arguably the city's best-stocked cookbookshelves of any cafe, The Shop positions itself (well) as a sort of gourmet microstore, featuring giftable takeaways such as pickles and chocolate along with cookbooks, whole bean coffee and prepared drinks from across-the-river-roasters Cafe Grumpy.
It's a mini-bar of New York food culture, if you will, but with quality to back it up. Competent espresso and coffee drinks are served with utmost politeness (a hospitality factor lacking in many Manhattan cafes where you might otherwise expect it), and you're welcome to chase your drink down with a half-sized (but full-flavored) donut from Brooklyn's Dough.
The Shop (at the Andaz Hotel)
Culture Espresso Bar
What seemed like an unlikely location for a fabulous espresso bar has become the bustle of West 38th street, a packed house of coffee lovers clamoring for room at the rough wooden central table, or stealing away in a corner for a quick meeting over one of the finer shots in midtown. What started as a (visibly identifiable) spinoff from Brooklyn's Variety Coffee (I did like that wallpaper the first time, come to think of it) has now full come into its own.
Having upgraded from the creaky machine they opened with to a state-of-the-art La Marzocco Strada, enthusiastic Culture staff now pull shots of PT's espresso from—that's right—Kansas with excellent execution, like the balanced, chestnutty shot we tried last week. Manually brewed cups over V60 and iced coffee on Kyoto dripper are available, along with Valhrona cocoa, and some fancypants sodas, sandwiches and chips—a most practical application of serving multiple urban niches that most cafes fail to do well.
Culture Espresso Bar
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
The first East Coast outpost of this legendary Pacific Northwest roaster is more than two years old now, but the new-cool sheen still hasn't worn off this brass-and-steampunk boîte emanating from the Ace Hotel's superhip lobby. Queues for the sturdy espresso and seasonal selection of Red-Hook-roasted single origin coffees (on Chemex, or from an urn if you're rushed) often reach well around the counter and into the hotel itself, where by the way you're welcome to take your cappuccino to see and be seen. (There are no seats in the actual cafe.)
Pastries revolve from selections by various purveyors, like the cafe's friends at Momofuku Milk Bar, or an absolutely insane Red Velvet macaron cooked up just next door in The Breslin. Service looks fancier than it truly is—it seems they want you to remember they're are still Portland punks at heart—but it's a reliable quality coffee experience in a truly gorgeous setting.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
...and there are honorable mentions of course, with the likes of Rize, The Knave, Birch and Fika putting in their all to make those middle-double-digit street numbers that much more drinkable. But as we watch coffee and coffee consciousness truly evolve, it will be neighborhoods like Midtown, all about the quickie lunch deal and tourist turnaround, that truly announce when we have arrived. In the meantime, you'll be well taken care of at any of the above.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is bad at keeping up her coffee-world blog at twitchy.org