02 November 2009

How To Drink Coffee in New York

The quick and dirty tip, of course, is don't and yet I survived four days in a reasonably well-caffeinated state so here are some more tips for maximising coffee enjoyment in the Big Apple.

1. Find a good independent coffee shop/espresso bar. Clues include: staff and customers looking like a cross between starving artists and would-be actors, a shiny and very expensive-looking espresso machine on the counter--a Marzocco would be nice--quirky, local-themed art on the walls and furniture that looks a little different to what you might find in your average Starbucks. Also, coffee should be more prominent on the menu than coffee-based or non-coffee drinks like Frappucinos and Frescatinos and vanilla lattes with caramel. Downtown, this is fairly easy, what with Joe (pictured), Jack's Stir Brew, Roasting Plant, 9th Street Espresso and a whole host of other funky, indie purveyors of coffee. In Midtown, however, it's a little trickier, so...

2. Try a Midtown alternative to a good indie coffee shop. Au Bon Pain, a ubiquitous US breakfast-and-luncheria, does a coffee that is about as reliable as Costa in the UK--mediocre is sometimes all you can hope for. A possible safe-ish alternative is a hotel: the Shoreham in particular has a great espresso machine, which is free and available 24 hours a day for residents--as you can imagine, I didn't get much sleep when I stayed there. Then again, the Ritz Carlton had coffee so bad that when The Bro was ordering breakfast during our stay, he said, "I'll hazard a cappuccino," which brings me to point three... A third safe bet is to find one of the Nespresso boutiques in town--there's one in Bloomie's, one on Madison, on the Upper East Side, and one in SoHo.

3. If in doubt, order a macchiato or--preferably--an espresso. You might love a cappuccino in the morning but really, ordering a cappuccino is just asking for trouble. Far safer is the macchiato and--especially--the espresso. American coffee tends to be watered down compared to what you get in the UK, anyway, and often has a muddy aftertaste. With a macchiato, you are likely to get almost as much milk as a cappuccino should have, anyway, and is the best option if you can't stomach an espresso first thing. Also, beware when ordering a double espresso in New York: often, it will have either a single shot of espresso topped up with scalding water or a two shots but with so much water that a regular espresso cup can't come close to holding it all in. At if an espresso is bad, it's not too hard to down it to get the necessary caffeine hit; a bad cappuccino can take an hour to dispose of (30 minutes of cooling time, 30 of drinking, one nasty sip at a time). Of course, if the espresso turns out to be good, ordering a long drink is likely to be a safe bet.

4. Where possible, evoke Grice's maxim of quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange; do not make your contribution more informative than is required. While doing a Brooklyn Bridge walk at the weekend, a couple of my parents' friends needed the loo so we nipped in to Barnes and Noble and decided to caffeinate at the same time. Bad idea--B & N coffee shops are all Starbucks-owned. Ordering six coffee beverages and one tea proved to be an ordeal, especially considering that B & N was almost deserted on a drizzly Saturday morning. First, we said too much when ordering two coffees, one white, one black. "What do you mean by white?" asked the large, black woman serving us. Er, with milk? said Maman's friend tentatively, hoping he hadn't just been racist. Incidentally, he ended up with a layer of whipped cream on top of his coffee.

I decided to follow rule #3 and order a macchiato and Papa followed suit. "Two double skinny macchiatos," I said. Five minutes later, I happened to catch sight of the barista with two large cups, attacking what was probably a perfectly good mediocre coffee with whipped cream and caramel sauce. "Er, I said, two macchiatos not caramel macchiatos," I told him. He was not impressed. The moral of the story is be specific (to avoid getting caramel in your macchiato) but not too specific (in Starbucks, you do your own milk so there's no need to tell them how you like your filter coffee).

5. Desperate times... If you really don't want to take your chances when it comes to American coffee, well, there's always ProPlus...

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