A Midtown Revolution: The Best Coffee Shops in Midtown NYC
To those in the know, it’s been apparent that New York City’s coffee scene has undergone a revolution in recent years. What was once regarded as an underground counterculture — highly curated and artfully crafted coffee — has spread to nearly every nook and cranny of the city.
New York no longer plays second fiddle to the Portlands, Seattles and San Franciscos of the country. In fact, major players from each of those cities have opened locations within the confines of once-coffee-starved Midtown Manhattan. But it took a long time for New York to transform into a formidable player in the nation’s high-end coffee culture.
Image source: Kenny Louie, Flickr
Changing Attitudes Toward Coffee in NYC
Perhaps it was the ubiquity of the $1 cup of bodega coffee, or the omnipresence and convenience of Starbucks, but New Yorkers’ desire for a carefully brewed cup of joe was never strong enough to precipitate the coffee revolution until recent years.
The tides finally began to change with the rising popularity of vanguards such as Ninth Street Espresso in the East Village and Gimme! Coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. What distinguished these shops from Starbucks — aside from their lack of billion-dollar budgets and monogrammed polo shirts — was the care and precision paid to the bean, a shift from the second wave of coffee to the third.
A reductive recap of the waves of American coffee culture can be provided by associating one word with each phase: Introduction, Proliferation, Craftsmanship. Third-wave coffee has a few major tenets to guide said craftsmanship, most important of which is the thoughtful and precise sourcing of the bean. Classifying the origin with a broad term like South American or even Columbian or Ethiopian is not subtle enough. Think Coffee — which operates six locations in New York City — features online profiles on each individual farm from which the shop sources beans. This enables baristas to glean in-depth knowledge of the bean needed to properly roast the coffee and ensures local farmers are paid a fair price for their product. This revolutionary idea has been very broadly enacted by third-wave coffee purveyors across America.
Detail to and variety of preparation is another major tenet of third-wave coffee. Espresso must be pulled from a manual machine and milk must be steamed by hand. What is not so obvious is how drip coffee is prepared. Most shops offer a few of the following preparations: Clever, Chemex, Kyoto, Moka Pot, French Press, Vacuum Pot. All of these different styles can pull a decidedly different taste out of the same exact bean. It’s safe to say brewing a cup of coffee is no longer a simple task, and with such options comes the need for a professional barista and the patience to see your cup through to completion.
As we all know, patience has never been a strong suit of New York. However, Jonathan Rubinstein, owner of well-respected coffeehouse Joe Coffee, notes that even the seemingly busiest New Yorkers are willing to wait for quality nowadays.
“The Midtown crowd is coming around in a very vocal way,” Rubinstein told The New York Times. “We never thought that bankers in ties would wait in line for drinks that are a culinary product, instead of an injection of caffeine.”
Bankers should know a good product when they see one, and thankfully, the neighborhood offers coffee-shopping options galore, including some of the following standouts.
Track Down the Best Coffee in Midtown Manhattan
The Rockefeller Center outpost of Bay Area-based Blue Bottle Coffee would be a delightful rarity in any part of town, as it always has two options of espresso and iced coffees, along with two pour over stations, serving a rotating variety of single origin brews.
Culture Espresso, once the only coffee “oasis” in the more northern reaches of Manhattan, is still going strong after seven years. It’s not Culture’s coffee that reels in the praise, but its transportive atmosphere. Culture now operates two locations in Midtown, serving Portland, Oregon-based roaster Heart, and Brooklyn-based Meat Hook Sandwiches at the original location at 38th Street and Sixth Avenue.
Another hometown favorite that revolutionized coffee in Midtown Manhattan is Gregorys Coffee. It was started by self-proclaimed “local coffee hero,” and I don’t think many people would argue with him. He has found a way to directly combat Starbucks in the area and win. Gregorys now operates 12 locations, with an astonishing eight in Midtown NYC alone. We recommend trying any of the shop’s single origin roasts via the custom Aeropress bar at 31st Street and Sixth Avenue.
Thankfully for Midtown denizens, office workers and visitors, Grand Central Terminal offers two solid third-wave coffee options. Joe Coffee started in the West Village but now boasts locations in nine different Manhattan neighborhoods, roasting all of its beans in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Grand Central location is a bit bare-bones — if you’re looking for a more visually pleasing aesthetic, check out Irving Farm Coffee Roasters’ circular marble coffee bar. Irving Farm has come a long way since opening its first cafe near Union Square in 1996, and its loyal customers have pushed the brand to open five Manhattan locations.