Finding coffee in Midtown Manhattan, home to nearly two-thirds of New York City hotel rooms and a good number of caffeine-starved office workers to boot, is as easy as walking down the street. After all, there are about 50 Starbucks locations from 33rd to 52nd streets alone, according to the company, with aggressive expansion planned from the savvy chain Gregory’s Coffee. But seeking out well-made coffee — with delicately roasted beans and swan-neck kettles pouring precisely into a row of Kalita Waves (the Ferrari of Japanese pour-over filters) — has more often been reserved for a trip downtown, or to Brooklyn. Not anymore.
Over the last couple of years an impressive lineup of ambitious coffee bars and cafes, with well-trained baristas and adventurous, avocado-toast-forward menus, has bloomed in all parts of Midtown. “We like to think of ourselves as an oasis,” said Richard Shaer, chief executive of Taylor Street Baristas, a popular London-based, Australia-inspired outfit that opened its New York City flagship a year ago on lightly traveled East 40th Street.
Mr. Shaer, along with a handful of independent operators in Midtown, is convinced that operating in a prime, and expensive, corner location is not required in the coffee game. With the right brew (ideally with expertly roasted beans arriving from a micro-lot somewhere in Bolivia or Ethiopia), customers will come.
And come they have, to hidden-away gems like Ninth Street Espresso off the lobby of the Lombardy Hotel; Toby’s Estate, at a stall in the UrbanSpace in Vanderbilt Market; and the San Francisco import Blue Bottle, with a location buried in the dim concourse of Rockefeller Center.
On a nondescript stretch of Lexington Avenue near 40th Street sits Little Collins, a tiny Australian-style cafe with a United Nations menu of sandwiches (gyro, country ham, schnitzel) and de rigueur Down Under coffee drinks including the flat white (steamed milk poured over espresso) and the piccolo (think of a baby latte). Before Leon Unglik opened the cafe in 2013, he was a corporate lawyer in Midtown and was quite depressed by his coffee options.
“I found the lack of a good coffee to be frustrating and unbearable,” he said recently, sitting at one of the narrow tables in the packed cafe as a line of hungry office workers snaked out the door. After establishing a “very serious” espresso setup at his TriBeCa apartment and regularly knocking back a few shots to load up for the day, he took matters into his own hands. “We didn’t know how this neighborhood would respond,” he said as baristas hurriedly steamed milk and pulled espressos.
But no coffee outfit has fixed Midtown’s overlooked areas quite like Culture Espresso. In 2009, a first location opened near the corner of 38th Street and Avenue of the Americas, an area whose claim to fame is being the city’s unofficial bead district.
A few blocks away, a second shop, tucked midblock on West 36th Street in the garment district, opened in 2014 with a $25,000 Synesso espresso machine and, soon, a passionate fan base. “The drip is good, the espresso is fine, the cookies win over everybody,” said Matt Buchanan, an editor at Eater, the restaurant and culture website, pointing out the cafe’s gooey chocolate chip cookies with an unholy chocolate-chip-to-dough ratio.
But don’t be fooled: Culture, whose name reflects the cafe’s rotating art and photography exhibitions as well as the owners’ intent to build a coffee culture in Midtown, is serious about what’s in the cup. The operators work exclusively with the cult roasters Heart, of Portland, Ore., and serve a slim list of classics like drip, espresso and cold brew that has regulars lining up.
Culture’s general manager, Johnny Norton, said the three Midtown locations — the latest opened in Hell’s Kitchen in February — were determined by walking the streets to see where coffeeless zones existed and to gauge foot traffic and density. “I always thought it was silly for writing off the middle of one of the best cities in the world,” he said. Those instincts proved to be correct. “When you are going up against Starbucks and Pret a Manger, you are kind of received universally as a hero,” Mr. Norton said.
And as for the next neighborhood in need of a coffee-bar boom? “The coffee situation near 1 World Trade is pretty grim,” said Mr. Buchanan, who predicted that Blue Bottle would do extraordinarily well if it opened a flagship store downtown. “For coffee, downtown could be the new Midtown.”