New York Times readers in 1872 demanded it, just like the coffee-obsessed in 2009 on the streets of New York: "Let us have this one needed reform everywhere...hotel and restaurant keepers, please do give us good coffee." If 19th-century folk were particular about their coffee, why are we not smashing every drip coffee machine to bits in our local bodega or setting fire to bags of Maxwell House? Why are we accepting bitter, over-roasted coffee as a ritualistic drug we pretend to enjoy by adding globs of cream and sugar?
There are certain coffee shops that proclaim the Holy Gospel of coffee—where technique and skill meet fresh grinds and properly maintained equipment, where milky hearts in dark brown liquid meet a smiling cashier and a dollar in the tip jar. The newest spot to add to the roster: Stumptown Coffee's first official outpost on the East Coast, within the confines of the Ace Hotel at 29th and Broadway in Manhattan. This isn't a third Cafe Pedlar operation--even though the staff proudly serves the Frankies' baked goods--but an actual Stumptown Coffee Roasters location, boasting beans roasted six miles away in the newly opened Stumptown roasting facility in Red Hook.
My first morning in the shop, my barista asked how my morning had been. I claimed it was much better than my night--and since, at 11 a.m., this would be the first thing I would eat or drink, I hoped the lovely morning would continue. He gracefully pulled a shot, the color spot-on, and poured a contrasting heart in my macchiato, reassuring me this would reverse any wrongdoings of the previous night. A delicately poured macchiato beats 3 a.m. indulgences of peanut butter cup ice cream and Kraft Mac & Cheese any day.
This Stumptown location is using Hudson Valley Fresh milk, the best of the best in the Tri-State area, much fresher than any of the chain store offerings. A good number of artisan shops don't pay as much attention to their milk as their espresso and I believe it's a mistake. While I understand the cost issue for small businesses, if shops are attempting to be sustainable and local, while also maintaining relationships with coffee farmers, then why not extend sustainable practices by knowing the source of our milk and making sure it tastes good? If that means eliminating syrups and extras, which distract from the coffee mission, then so be it.
Much has been said about the well-dressed baristas here, as if they came from the streets of London or off the pages of a '40s magazine. In the midst of vintage candlesticks, juicers, jars, diner-esque mugs, and the Porsche of espresso machines, a cast of characters in jeans and ripped T-shirts wouldn't fit the bill. They make me want to look my best, as if I'm auditioning for a part behind the bar. I'm hoping the dapper uniform is an outward expression of the devotion to their craft, as if every drink will have the qualities of a neatly folded and ironed white shirt. However, my experience in the coffee biz has taught me not every drink can be perfect--espresso machines are known to be finicky, not every batch of beans will be perfect, and even the clothes won't make the barista in the midst of a breakup or money troubles.
Stumptown shops have a distinctive identity, down to the handwriting on the chalkboard menu. The air smells clean, the sounds are warm, played on a vintage turntable; the baristas are friendly and pull espresso in 25 second intervals. Just to the right of the counter is an entrance to the lounge of the Ace Hotel, featuring mismatched chairs, shelves of books, and a table and lights reminiscent of a library.
This is not a shop to get coffee to-go and run to your job. You get here a half hour before you need to arrive to work, order your drink in porcelain, and either stand along the counter facing West 29th Street or relax in a chair in the hotel, and zone out for a few minutes. A morning to remember, and hopefully to repeat frequently, will cost you $3.80. A macchiato costs $2.80, with the extra dollar to the barista as extended gratitude for improving the quality of your day--an experience I've deemed routine-worthy, especially for those heading to or from Midtown.
Stumptown (in the Ace Hotel)
20 West 29th Street, New York, NY 10001 (near Broadway; map) 212-679-2222