I’m not a car guy. I don’t collect watches or chase the newest technology. I’m not a smoker and a rare drinker. I only have one significant vice–if it even qualifies–and that’s coffee. I have a deep, visceral, obsessive love for coffee.
“Back home we toss a horseshoe in the pot. Stands up straight, coffee’s ready”
-Frank Hopkins, Hidalgo
New York City, particularly Manhattan, wasn’t always the coffee mecca it is today. Once upon a time, it was a madcap scavenger hunt just to find something objectively resembling a cup of coffee during your morning commute. Brown water or tar pit sludge—those were your only choices. Fast forward and now you’ll find a bevy of ubiquitous national chains and multiple outposts of small, artisanal coffee shops and cafes scattered throughout the city. Because of this development, seeking out your morning jolt has become a rather effortless pursuit.
Interestingly enough, with a plethora of choices most people end up sticking to the same drink at the same place. But that would be a mistake. With just a shred of effort, you can find a few coffee shops that elevate the game–offering just the tiniest bit more oomph, that little something extra differentiating themselves from the rest.
The following is a list of my favorite coffee shops in Manhattan, categorized by the particular reasons I enjoy them. In my opinion, all of these coffee shops serve consistently good coffee–that’s the benchmark–but there’s something extra that makes it special. Nothing endures into perpetuity, though, so my intention is to make this a dynamic list, posting updates as new favorites are discovered.
Coffee, Front & Center
I like latte art just fine. I’ll even go a bit further and acknowledge it takes skill and practice. And the baristas at Frisson are certainly gifted when it comes to delivering an Insta-friendly cup. But that’s not the reason I choose to patronize this particular coffee shop. Frisson Espresso makes excellent coffee–simple as that–and that’s why I find myself regularly walking up to their counter. Praise should be reserved for the consistency with which they pull perfect shot after perfect shot after perfect shot. Frisson is a cozy little joint, narrowly avoiding the description “snug” (there are a few seats, after all), and has a marvelous window that allows one to sip their excellent coffee and take in a view of the street.
The vibe of the East Broadway location of Everyman Espresso is easily my favorite. Sure, there are design elements common to the others–the colored tiles behind the counter, the exposed brick walls–but absolutely none of those things matter. What matters here is the coffee. And on that point, Everyman Espresso has a distinct advantage. See, they partner with the purveyor of the beans I grind daily at home: Counter Culture Coffee. And I happen to know that any coffee shop partnering with Counter Culture doesn’t just buy exceptional beans, they also buy access to expert training. So the baristas behind the counter know their stuff. The tagline of Everyman Espresso is “Damn Fine Coffee”. It’s simple, to-the-point, and 100% accurate.
Culture Espresso has never let me down. A bad drink has never been handed to me over the bar at either of their locations. But it’s not the reliability of their coffee that keeps me coming back. On top of an excellently curated selection of pastries and baked goods from such heavy hitters as Brooklyn-based Blue Sky Bakery and nearby Underwest Donuts, Culture Espresso bakes a variety of cookies and sweet breads in-house. The star of the show, and the reason I simply cannot stay away from this place, is the chocolate chip cookie. I would argue it’s one of the best in New York City.
Abraço Espresso & Bakery
Every couple of weeks, before I paid my nearby barber a visit, I would drop in to Abraço Espresso & Bakery. It was back when the coffee shop still resided in a dinky little closet storefront, and there was always a line snaking out the front door, regardless of the weather. Thankfully, it now resides across the street in a much larger space.
Not much else has changed, though. Abraço Espresso & Bakery still roasts their own beans and brews their coffee in single batches. But the excellent coffee has considerable competition: the baked goods made in-house. What’s on offer rotates at the whims of the bakers (though there are a few constants, like olive oil cake), which is part of the fun. You’ll never know quite what you are going to find (like the euphoria-inducing rhubarb scone I had on a recent visit).
Cutest Damn Thing You’ve Ever Seen
Toby’s Estate Coffee
The 5th Avenue location of Toby’s Estate Coffee is all about the space. The interior feels like something out of a West Elm catalog. From the tin ceilings to its penny-tile floors, the aesthetic is a doggedly minimalist mixture of whites, blacks, and grays.
The space, which it shares with The Strand bookstore in back, is rather diminutive. Between the cohabitants, a limited amount of seating is available, the best of which is at the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of Toby’s Estate Coffee where people-watching on 5th Avenue awaits.
Bibble & Sip
Bibble & Sip is located in a stretch of Midtown that once upon a time was considered part of the coffee desert of Manhattan. They make great coffees and teas, their French pastries with an Asian twist are legendary, and their Earl Grey Banana Bread is divine. But you know what I like best about Bibble & Sip? It’s the cheerful Alpaca theme, the colorful handwritten menu boards, and the glass exterior storefront, which in the early morning hours, offers a perfect view of passersby.
Breakfast of Champions
Malaysian food for breakfast? Indeed. Over the course of our marriage, Lynn has taught me the finer points of her homeland’s bounty of ethnic cuisines. In this particular case, we’re talking about the Baba-Nyonya style. And Koptiam is legit Malaysian. From their thick, porous slices of Kaya Butter Toast to their Nasi Lemak (Malaysia’s national dish comprised of coconut rice, fried anchovies, sambal, cucumber, peanuts, and hard-boiled egg), you’ll find the honest-to-goodness real thing here. On top of that, Kopitiam serves a variety of fantastic coffee beverages, all of them made from beans expertly roasted in-house using Malaysian techniques. Penang White Coffee is a regional delicacy and should not be missed.
Australian cafes have become synonymous with great coffee, and for good reason: many of their establishments are a notch above the rest. Two Hands is at the tippy top of that pile. Not only do they serve the best Flat White you’ll find in New York City, they serve delicious food to boot. Two Hands offers a variety of bowls, avocado toast, a burger, salads, and sandwiches. Drop into one of their two locations (I prefer the original on Mott Street) for breakfast, a midday meal, or the perfect pick-me-up.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
Round K is special. You can feel it right when you walk through the door. Built in the style of a Dah-Bahn (a Korean coffeehouse), the long, narrow space has two sections. In the first, you’ll find a wooden bar filled with various curio, trinkets, and coffee paraphernalia. The second room is in the back, hidden behind a curtain, with modest seating. Round K roasts their beans in-house and tends to make a darker, more full-bodied brew. They offer a small, eclectic, rotating menu with dishes like “My Korean Girlfriend”–eggs with kimchi butter, pickled cucumber, avocado and toasted bread. The baristas are friendly, and the clientele often come across as regulars. The second room is perfect for a meet-cute, laptop work, or studying.
Equal parts living room and kindergarten classroom, Kabisera Kapé is an experience. It’s the neighborhood hang you never knew you needed in your life. Quirkiness abounds at this Lower East Side gem, from an oddly placed copy machine to a collection of nail polish, which visitors are encouraged to use. It’s also, without a doubt, the most cheerful café I’ve ever visited.
Vibrant, cartoonish art from New York City-based pop artist, Peter Marco, covers every available inch of the quaint space. You’ll find the usual suspects here as it relates to well-crafted coffee beverages. And they also offer toasted Panini sandwiches, fresh bagels, and a array of tasty vegan and gluten-free treats. But what makes Kabisera Kapé unique can be found with just a healthy dose of curiosity. The owner is of Filipino heritage, and she proudly incorporates her traditions in both the drink and food menus. I encourage you to take a small risk on something a little out of the ordinary. You’ll be rewarded.
“Mark my words,” I’ve said in recent years to friends and family, “One day I’ll open my own café.” It’ll be clean, comfortable, and inviting. I’ll make great coffee; the kind people look forward to waking up for. And maybe I’ll make biscuits and a couple of pastries—simple things to nibble on. A boy can dream, right? You see, when I visit these coffee shops, I not just enjoying the coffee, the food, or the aesthetics. I’m watching. I’m taking notes. And each of these coffee houses gets me a little closer to that dream. So maybe, just maybe, that dream will become reality sooner than I think.
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