The Anti-Starbucks Solution

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Coffeehouses were once places of camaraderie and social gathering. Lately, however, they’ve become anti-social environments of solitary people steadfastly glued to their laptops. But whether it’s a date with your laptop or a cherished friend, there’s still no better place to hang out, relax and get a (legal) high-octane buzz.

Though Starbucks can certainly take the credit for making it so convenient for us to obtain our daily caffeine fix—you can’t throw an empty Venti Latte cup in this city without hitting one—they’re also responsible for turning the experience into something that’s generic, mass-produced, cramped and devoid of charm. We gripe about them, and yet we all continue to patronize them. But there’s no need to settle for bland, generic surroundings and average coffee when more and more unique, independently-owned neighborhood coffeehouse are popping up.

After a week of sampling every coffee place in Manhattan (well, almost), I’ve become a Tums-popping, too-wired-to-sleep insomniac with an acid hole burning into my stomach the size of a double espresso cup. Here are just a few of the spots responsible—all definitely worth seeking out.

A Few (Old-World) Characters
Though there’s one of those coffee places on Broadway and 111th, you’ll find The Hungarian Pastry Shop (1030 Amsterdam Ave.) just a block away. Nearly 50 years old, this little jewel is the place for Columbia students and neighborhood folk who eschew the mass-production of the chain stores on Broadway. Along with all the caffeinated beverages you desire ($.95-$3.75), they also offer an array of European-influenced pastries ($3.25-$3.50), all homemade on the premises. Order up front, then take a seat at one of the many indoor or sidewalk tables. Creative pricing is still cheaper than anything at Starbucks: a cup of “to go” coffee is only 95 cents, but have it “to stay” and the same cup costs $2, free refills make it worthwhile; you get them yourself from the pot sitting on the counter. Ah,

To Be In Italy
Gilileo Espresso Bar (176 West 94th St.) is an Americanized reinvention of the Italian espresso bar—a little bit of Rome in NYC. This modest oasis of caffeinated beverages is basically a glorified kiosk, and offers some of the best (and strongest) espresso you’ll find ($2 for a single), as well as some mighty fine regular coffee ($1.60-$2.40). They brew La Colombe beans, the same stuff served in some of the finest restaurants in the city. Basically a grab-and-go joint, there’s also some limited sidewalk seating. Close your eyes, and you can image that the sound of the traffic is actually the rushing water of the Trevi Fountain.

A Tropical Delight In The Village
The entrance to Grounded (28 Jane St.) is very subtle; you could walk right by without even knowing it. This kitschy cement structure is adorned with overhead fans, tropical plants and cut flowers, lending it that basement den in Puerto Rico feel. Besides the usual coffees and teas ($1.60-$3), they also offer a selection of inventive coffee drinks like the Milky Way ($4.25, espresso, steamed milk, chocolate, caramel and almond syrup), Café Aloha ($4.25, espresso, steamed coconut and regular milk) and Mint Kiss Latte ($4.25, espresso, chocolate, mint).

Music, Lit, Condoms & Coffee
Rapture Café (200 Avenue A) is somewhat of a hybrid: a coffeehouse with a bit of a loungey, clubby feel, and a bookstore to boot. Playing music like Radiohead and Morrissey over its powerful sound system, it has a relaxed party vibe, especially during the evening (when they also serve wine and beer). After you’ve enjoyed your coffee ($1.50), be sure to check out their small yet eclectic selection of books in the back. Rapture also actively promotes safe sex: a bowl of “help yourself” condoms adorns a table in the book section and another one rests by the couch up front. Come here for a cup of coffee and a condom. Not only will you be sure to have safe sex, but you’ll be wide awake while doing it.

Caffeine & Sugar: A Sweet Pair
71 Irving Place (71 Irving Pl.) is an unobtrusive hot spot on a tranquil street, just a few blocks from the madness and hurried pace of Union Square. This sanctuary of coffee ($1.40-$4.50) and baked goods ($.65-$6.00)—a sugar and caffeine addict’s paradise—has a large selection of blends and flavored coffees (roasted at their farm in upstate NY) and carries a decadent selection of desserts (all worth the extra 30 minutes on the treadmill). Homey New England chic is the vibe here—you’ll think you’re in a country store in Vermont.

Peace, Love & Understanding
There’s plenty of seating at Think Coffee (248 Mercer St.), but good luck getting a spot. In the heart of NYU-land, this cavernous place is always hoppin’, filled with wall-to-wall Macs. They sell only organic, Fair Trade coffee that is shade grown (no trees were cleared in order to grow it), and donate 25 percent of their profits to local charities. And their milk is produced locally where the cows are pasture-fed and hormone-free. This socially, politically and environmentally conscious caffeine house hosts a variety of events (like Indie Film Night), has live music every Thursday at 9 p.m. and also provides Scrabble sets for your gaming pleasure. As far as the selection of sweets goes, I recommend the Afogato ($4.75), a shot of espresso over vanilla gelato—there’s nothing better.

Calling All Investment Bankers
Klatch (9 Maiden Lane), in the heart of the Financial District, is small, quaint and brimming with character. It’s like something you’d find on a back road in upstate New York, complete with furniture that looks like it was all picked up at a yard sale. The coffee ($1.50-$1.75) here is de-licious: very strong, but not bitter. A rotating art exhibit hangs on the walls, which changes every few weeks. And, if you find yourself a bit peckish, they also serve a few lunch items: organic hot dogs ($2.50, beef or soy) and a quiche ($4.75) and soup ($4.75) of the day, as well as an assortment of baked goods.

The Coffee Connoisseur
Located on a quiet side street in the heart of Chelsea, Café Grumpy (224 W. 20th St.) is for those who consider themselves true coffee connoisseurs. None of these prissy, namby-pamby flavored coffees. The selection changes monthly, offering blends from a variety of regions based on what’s in season, availability and employee and patron requests. One of the things that make this place so special is that each cup ($1.75-$3.50, up to $9 for special blends) is individually pressed in something called “The Clover”—freshly ground and brewed right before your eyes in just a few seconds. Though extremely welcoming and friendly, they take their coffee very seriously here, turning coffee-brewing into a science (they can adjust the water temp, filtration and grind to bring out the perfect desired flavor).

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