Last Call at the Coffee Shop

Everyone comes to New York to gape slack-jawed at beauty — unless, of course, you’re beautiful, in which case you’ve come here to be adored, or you’re already here, in which case, having been surrounded by both beauty and ugliness in profusion, you are insensate to it.

As a young man — not even eighteen years old — I arrived in New York in the summer of ’99, unbeautiful, suburban, and sponge-like. I was ready to be impressed. I lived in an NYU dormitory on Union Square with a flip phone, a laptop full of Napster-nabbed tunes, and a kid named Jason who snored so loudly that I at first took his wall-shaking snorts to be the subway below. We lived a few doors down from the Coffee Shop, a shimmering 24-hour disco ball of a restaurant and bar, full of stunningly beautiful, arctically cool, actually glamorous gods and demigods for whom Manhattan was Olympus and the herbed french fries they served there ambrosia. But heaven doesn’t last forever. As was announced this month, the Coffee Shop will close its doors in October.

Twenty years ago, the Coffee Shop beckoned like a shiny object does a crow. Opened in 1990 by a trio of Wilhelmina models — Charles Milite, Eric Petterson, and Carolyn Benitez — the Coffee Shop trafficked in physical, some might say superficial, beauty. The pleasingly retro dining room and bar operates under a Byzantine system of seating, no less codified than such tony redoubts as the Four Seasons, Michael’s, and Elaine’s. But unlike in those restaurants, where power was determined by wealth, position, or publishing numbers, at the Coffee Shop, beauty was the only salient metric. For an unsure nube like me, the appeal was evident. One didn’t just receive a Sesame Chicken Salad. The order of the world and your place in it was revealed. The maître d’ was God, and how we trembled waiting for judgment. 

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Alas, being all of seventeen and looking like I was twelve, I was routinely barred entrance, or else allowed passage only to the To Go podium, where I’d order a milkshake and a side of ambrosial fries, then return to my bedroom, to read of Odysseus and Nausicaa all the while fantasizing about what hedonistic fun the real-life nymphs were having but a few feet away. It turns out all my jizzy fantasies were true, as were other fantasies too nuanced and mature for my vulgar mind to concoct at the time.

When I heard of the closing, I reached out to Courtney Yates, who worked at the Coffee Shop for six years between 2004 and 2010. Yates is, as one might expect from a Coffee Shop alumna, a bona fide BP. She is not the most famous Coffee Shop employee — having only appeared on Survivor, twice — but, due to a 2007 Grub Street article, the most Googleable. Other notable alumni include Laverne Cox and — this made me flip my wig — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was just Sandy from the Bronx. Now, Yates lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem, USA. She works as an astrologer, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, but for six years of the Coffee Shop’s prime, she was both arbiter of beauty and its prime embodiment. She agreed to meet me for dinner recently at 8:30 p.m., a time I had assumed would be peak people-watching.

A little after we were supposed to meet: “I’m on my way but, as you know the MTA is trash,” she texted. So I entered through the Coffee Shop’s glass doors alone. At once, the feelings of existential uncertainty flooded back again, after so many years. If you’ve ever walked into a cafeteria as a new student, tray in hand and lump in throat, you know the feeling. I hadn’t come to the Coffee Shop in a decade; neither — apparently — had many others, thus the restaurant’s impending closure. And yet, so ingrained was the sensation of judgment, of stepping up to receive one’s sentence from on high, that I quailed at the host stand. The gentleman — handsome, forty, flirty, fab — led me back to a two-top behind the bar, where I sat wondering what it all meant.

When she finally arrived, Yates said, a little apologetically, “Ah, #34. You’re a normal.” When I was younger, I would have been crushed. Middle-aged now, I realize, yes, I am a normal. Normal is OK. Normal is normal. Yates, on the other hand, was and is beautiful, and I wondered, as I browsed the sort of wonderfully normcore menu, how she felt seeing the world from #34.

Courtney Yates (second from right) and fellow Coffee Shop alumni gather for a staffer’s baby shower in 2013.

Though we were separated only by a small table, the delta between Courtney and I was vast. For me, the Coffee Shop was a terrifying adjudication of self-worth. For Yates, and the thousands of other model/waiters who worked there, it was the start of a glorious life in New York. “When I came here,” she said, “I didn’t know anyone.” She was a twenty-two-year-old model from Boston hired by Benitez, who was in charge of all staffing, and soon initiated into the Club of Beautiful People, a counterintuitively inclusive demographic. “Since we were all beautiful,” explains Yates, “no one was jealous or judgmental. We were like a Benetton ad.” She recounts with glee the hijinks and camaraderie of Coffee Shop survivors, who braved groping, grabbing, gooing, and gawing from the “Perve Curve,” a section of the undulating bar from which lascivious barflies cheesed on spindly waiters picking up their cocktails. She recalls the joy of the $2 staff menu and buying meals for assholes for the sole purpose of being able to tell them to go fuck themselves. “And I never got in trouble for it,” she says, still amazed after all these years.

Yates remembers the best section was the normals in the back, because it was always full, whereas the tables reserved for the beautiful and the famous — tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 — frequently sat empty. She recalls Nelly and Ashanti cuddling at table 101 in the back-back room, and David LaChapelle stopping by for brunch, like, all the time. She remembers how much she hated Susan Sarandon, a friend of the owner’s, for insisting that milkshakes stay on the menu — an item that, as any waiter anywhere will tell you, is a pain in the ass to make. “I can forgive her for coming out against Hillary,” says Yates, “but not the milkshakes.” She not only remembers her friends from the Coffee Shop, but still is friends with her friends from the Coffee Shop.

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For Yates, everything flowed from here. It was here — exactly here at table #34 — where, after telling off a drunk d-bag, she was approached by a producer from CBS to appear on Survivor, which she did, twice, once in China and once as a villain on the Heroes vs. Villains season. It was here and, more precisely, around the corner where she’d repair after her shift to drink at the Park Bar until morning. It was here where she formed the sorts of friendships that do not decay with time. Friendships with guys like Ted, another waiter, older now, who still cat-sits for her. Ted isn’t hot. He’s awesome. He’s a school teacher who lives in the Bronx, teaches English to ESL students, and, hustling, has worked nights at the Coffee Shop since time immemorial. It’s Ted, Guardian Angel of Coffee Shop waiters, who is one of those quietly necessary people who cohere bonds of friendship and bonhomie, who keep things together when everything else falls apart.

The food comes. The best that can be said about it is that it is, indeed, food. The cheeseburger is, in fact, a cheeseburger. If I had ordered a grilled cheese, I’m sure it would be that. I imagine the calamari fritto would be either fried squid rings or fried bleached pig anuses. I would eat it either way and care little. Food was always the beard at the Coffee Shop. The real feast was for the eyes. Was.

As she looked around the half-full dining room, Yates seemed nonplussed. “What I tell my friends is that death is a part of life. The space and energy of the Coffee Shop will dissipate, to pop up in other aspects of your life.” Though she hasn’t worked there for years, Yates knew almost all the bussers and food runners and kitchen staff. “They’re here for years,” she says, “but the servers aren’t. Beauty turns over fast.”  

Today there’s something noble, tragic, and just about the Coffee Shop. Its avowed insistence on physical beauty seems awkwardly out of step in today’s culture. But like a silent movie star who refuses talkies, the Coffee Shop is too proud or has too much integrity to adapt. Tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 are still reserved for the beautiful and famous patrons who will most likely never come again. Normals, like me, are still tucked, lonely, out of sight. The order of the world is preserved, even as that world disappears.

On the way out, Yates and I ran into Charles Milite, one of the owners. He’s in his fifties now, and, as with any older model, the sharpness of his features had been blotted by time. He was just passing by. He doesn’t go in much at all now. But he seemed to take the end of the Coffee Shop with a measure of equanimity and humor. “It’s going to make a great Chase Bank,” he said, flashing a sad smile that twinkled fetchingly in the hot night of a much changed city, one no longer with room for the Coffee Shop and all its beauties.


The 10 Best Restaurants for Break-Ups in NYC

This time of year always brings out New York’s mushy side when it comes to dining out: Which restaurants have the most romantic view? Which restaurants have the best decor? Which place has a wait staff I can trust who can keep my engagement ring on ice until I give the signal?

But what about restaurants for those who want to ditch their significant other before the day of love? For every adorable corner bistro packed to the brim on Valentine’s Day in this city, there’s an equally suitable setting for an unhappy ending. For those who can’t bear to take their relationship to the next level and are ready to throw in the towel, here are 10 New York restaurants where breaking up isn’t that hard to do.

Museum Dining means breaking up quietly
Museum Dining means breaking up quietly

10. The Modern, 9 West 53rd Street

Keep the vibe low-key while you’re being the bearer of bad news, and rely on a Danny Meyer-trained waitstaff to smooth over the mood. This tranquil spot provides a classy exit opportunity and servers who will do anything to ensure a convivial experience. So sit down to one last two- or three-course dinner and make your break with dessert. Afterward, you can walk through museum solo and take in all of the tortured painters who’ve found inspiration through tragedy/freedom.

Need a song for your worries?
Need a song for your worries?

9. Ellen’s Stardust Diner, 1650 Broadway

Times Square is full of places to dump old baggage, but how many places will sing to you in times of trouble? With a staff that’s more concerned about Broadway monologues and a tourist clientele just itching for real life New York drama, Stardust was made for breaking apart memories. There’s also the chance the singing will be so bad, your former lover will walk out on their own accord, which can really help take the pressure off.

The sound of silence is your friend when breaking up
The sound of silence is your friend when breaking up

8. Eat, 124 Meserole Avenue, Brooklyn

Sometimes the best way to say something is to say nothing at all. Grab two seats at the city’s best silent dining experience, where you’ll be forced to let your eyes tell the story of why you’re refusing to make a duplicate apartment key. You’ll be amazed at the power hand gestures and chewing with your mouth open can have in telling someone this is never going to work.

24 hours a day/seven break ups a week
24 hours a day/seven break ups a week

7. Coffee Shop, 29 Union Square

Perhaps you need to realize your split at an off-hour (maybe on the heels of an hours-long after-dinner fight?): Head to this around-the-clock diner, a beacon of hope when all other neon lights have dimmed. Aloof service means you’re not likely to get any dirty looks and ear drum damaging music that will have longer lasting effects than your former partner in crime means no one will be able to hear you cry. What’s more, you’re close to a number of trains, which means you can make a quick getaway when the conversation comes to an end.

Rigging games never felt so good
Rigging games never felt so good

6. Salvation Taco, 145 East 39th Street

Any restaurant that combines games and finger foods immediately registers on the radar when scouting potential dumping grounds: Tacos and table tennis are distracting so you can conquer your emotions (ironically, this is what makes Salvation a good first date spot, too). Let whoever’s about to get their picture removed from your wall take their aggression out on the playing field before diving into some guacamole. Bonus: Plenty of margaritas and tequila are an order away if conversation turns further south of the border.

No one can hate someone who buys them top notch sushi
No one can hate someone who buys them top notch sushi

5. Jewel Bako, 239 East Fifth Street

If you already have the boys or girls lined up for a bar crawl to celebrate your ascent into singledom, do the deed over an immaculate sushi dinner at this East Village shoe box. No one can hate someone who takes them out to a pristine evening of finely presented seafood — so be prepared to cover the bill. But you’ll be in and out quickly (Jewel Bako’s omakase is bafflingly quick), and this restaurant is within close proximity to bars with cheap shots where your friends await to assist in the post-breakup recovery process.

A restaurant and nightclub is the perfect break up/rebound combo
A restaurant and nightclub is the perfect break up/rebound combo

4. Lavo, 39 East 58th Street

Despite the massive douchebaggery associated with this clubstaurant’s European clientele, there’s something to be said for breaking up in a place where people are known to dance in the aisles: Dropping a break-up mid-meatball is probably on the tamer side of what happens here. Loud noises and a room full of Italians that party well into the evening ensure any last minute screaming matches will go unnoticed. As a bonus, the downstairs club is the perfect place to head to if you’re in need of an immediate rebound — or you’re looking to celebrate your newly won freedom.

Take that break up order to go
Take that break up order to go

3. Roll N’ Roaster, 2901 Emmons Avenue, Brooklyn

Sometimes, we can’t wait to close a chapter on an old book as quickly as possible so we can get ready to start a new one. In those times, fast food is necessary, and there’s no better place to grab a quick bite for an even quicker break-up than the old Roll N’ Roaster. Caught in a ’70s time warp, this place has seen it all. Grab a roast beef sandwich or a black and white shake, then proceed to list all the things wrong with the term “us.” The super cheap menu is also a great way to start saving up for someone else who’ll love you better, and its way-out-there location ensures you won’t bump into anyone you know should cheese fries start flying your way.

Great views are a means to an end
Great views are a means to an end

2. The River Café, 1 Water Street, Brooklyn

Okay, so this iconic waterside restaurant really is one of the most romantic places ever thanks to its stunning views of Manhattan. But if you want to go out in a blaze of glory — maybe with an “I desperately want to love you but I don’t” speech that ends with a last night of getting frisky followed by an amicable goodbye — this is a good spot to book a table for two. And, um, if you’re doing the dumping, you should probably let your date face the window.

1. Zengo, 622 Third Avenue

Richard Sandoval’s self described Latin-Asian “test kitchen” is the ultimate destination for chopping off a testing relationship. Loud enough so that the crowd can’t hear your table chatter, and spacious and dim enough to give you privacy, the menu is replete with small bites you can order to share for that one last moment before reciting the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech. The drink list is tequila-heavy if things go off the rails. And if you need to make a fast exit — highly recommended after a break-up — the restaurant’s proximity to Grand Central and taxis flying up Third Avenue can help avoid any awkward pauses after the bill is paid.


FiTR’s NYC Neighborhood Dining Guide

On the Upper East Side, where can you drink a digestif out of this crazy glass, which seems bent on demonstrating a scientific principle?

Four years ago Fork in the Road inaugurated the Our 10 Best guides, and we’ve never looked back. They’ve proved so popular that readers have asked for some sort of index to the series. Well, here it is: a reverse-chronological list of the neighborhood-based guides, most in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Click on each headline and be magically transported to the corresponding 10 Best list. Sometimes, you even get 11, or 13. Note that the most elderly of these guides is around three years old, so check to make sure a particular place is still open before you go. And look for future indexes to guides based on a single foodstuff or dining concept.

All photos by Robert Sietsema unless otherwise noted

Our 10 Best Upper West Side Restaurants

The goong chae nampla, a Siamese ceviche of raw shrimp, at Thai Market

Our Ten Best Tribeca Restaurants

Aamanns-Copenhagen’s stunning beef tartare, crunchy with tiny potato chips

My 13 Favorite Brooklyn Restaurants

The perfect Southern fried chicken at Mitchell’s

Our 10 Best Upper East Side Restaurants, 2013 Edition

Bread dumplings and goulash at Czech restaurant Hospoda

Our 10 Best Restaurants Near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center

Who doesn’t love a Bark’s hot dog with onion rings before or after the Nets game?

Our 10 Best Things to Eat Around Union Square

The coconut-laced shrimp baiano at the secretively Brazilian diner Coffee Shop

10 Best Eats in Carroll Gardens

How about a schnitzel or a steak at Prime Meats?

10 Best Hell’s Kitchen NYC Restaurants

The earthy chicken mole enchiladas taste of chocolate and chiles at Tulcingo del Valle.

Next: More guides! More restaurants!

Our 10 Best Cheap Eats for Tourists in the East Village

A dinner selection from secret Ukrainian kitchen Streecha

Our 10 Favorite Far Downtown Restaurants

Danny Meyer’s West End Bar and Grill

Our 10 Best West Village Restaurants, 2012 Edition

The wonderful sardines at Japanese gastropub Rockmeisha

Our 10 Best East Village Restaurants, 2012 Edition

The fiery chicken guajillo enchiladas at Downtown Bakery

Our 10 Best Upper East Side Restaurants, 2011 Edition

Comforting chicken and mashed potatoes at Jones Wood Foundry

Our 10 Best Things to Eat on 23rd Street

Mushrooms take center stage at Birreria

Our 10 Best Things to Eat on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village

Israeli mallawah press toast at Creperie

Our 11 Best Places to Eat in Sunset Park, Brooklyn

The mofongo de camarones comes poured over fried plantains at old-timer La Fe

Next: Tired yet? Many more guides and restaurants to follow!

Our 10 Best Things to Eat Between Houston and Delancey Streets

Sugar Sweet Sunshine’s banana pudding

Our 10 Best Bushwick Restaurants

The vegetarian arepa from Guacuco

Our 10 Best Things to Eat at Chelsea Market

Taco salad at vegan food stall One Lucky Duck

Our 10 Best and Cheapest Grand Central Terminal Eats

Junior’s fabled cheesecake is available at Grand Central Station

Our 10 Best Soho Eats

Birdbath’s twisted pretzel croissant

Our 10 Best and Cheapest Penn Station Eats

Grandma slice at Rosa’s Pizza

Our 10 Best Things to Eat in Manhattan’s Chinatown

Broth is served on the side with A-Wah’s Hong Kong lo mein

My 10 Favorite Queens Restaurants

Nepalese sel roti at Mustang Thakali Kitchen

Next: Phew! Almost done. One more page from the past

Our 10 Best Things to Eat on St. Marks Place in the East Village, NYC

The spicy miso ramen at Ramen Setagaya will set your mouth on fire.

Our 10 Best Red Hook Restaurants

You’re always a hero at Defonte’s

The 10 Best Things to Eat Around Times Square, NYC

The sirloin special at old-timer Tad’s Steaks

The 10 Worst Things to Eat Around Times Square, NYC

You could get a little something from the “salad bar” at Smiler’s

Our 10 Best West Village Restaurants

Some of the excellent sushi from En Japanese Brasserie

Our Ten Best Park Slope Restaurants

The Oaxacan tamale at Tacos Nuevo Mexico

Our 10 Best Lower East Side Restaurants

‘inoteca is a great place for a glass of wine and an Italian snack.


How Not to Order Espresso

As a barista in Brooklyn, I deal with all breeds of customers: the genuinely inquisitive, the indecisive, the stubborn. Then there are others — the worst — and they’re much easier to spot. They always begin with a question: “What’s the roast date of your beans?”

It’s an innocent enough question. Nobody wants to drink crusty espresso, but no self-respecting café (or hands-on roaster) would even allow those dusty beans into a grinder. So the question seems important, and it is, but for a different reason: It’s the type of question that reveals a customer as one who might self-identify at dinner parties, proudly, as a “coffee snob.” The type of customer who will then loudly ask at least one of the following questions:

“You’re using a blend? What are the different regions in there?”

“I like a brighter-tasting espresso. How would you describe yours?”

“Are you dialed in to your machine? When was it last serviced?”

“I was in France, and they pull their shots for about 65 seconds, and then dip a croissant in it. Kind of like a cookie in milk. Can you do that for me? Do you have twice-baked croissants?”

“I want my espresso iced, but can you pull the shot into a centimeter of water, just to save the espresso from souring? Also, do you have almond milk?”

For these customers, going to a café is about testing baristas’ ability to bullshit rather than about enjoying a cup of coffee. And that’s expected. We baristas, especially those of us with four-year degrees in things like philosophy, created this snobbery in an attempt to artificially elevate our profession beyond just pushing buttons and drawing Rosettas. I’m fine with entertaining the questions at a cupping, or when we’re slow, but not on a Sunday morning when there’s a dozen poor folks just trying to buy a takeaway drip coffee.

So, if you’re after an espresso, or are particularly fussy about your coffee, here’s what to do. Ask the roast date, sure. Ask how many shots come in your drink. Ask what kind of milk we have. Ask about decaf. Ask to see cup sizes. Be specific. Don’t expect me to read your mind. If I get your drink wrong, be nice about it. I’ll make you a new one. We all make mistakes.

Just don’t come in asking if our espresso’s flavor profile is baggy, or if it finishes well, or if it has notes of Concord grapes. If you want to taste a grape, go eat a fucking grape. Just order your drink, and be happy. If you’re happy, then I’m happy. Especially if you tip me a dollar or more. Then we can discuss what kind of dung was used in the fertilizer way over in Africa, and how that translates into a nutty flavor. Really, I’ll talk about anything for a dollar. Any barista will.


Espresso To Stay, Surfboard To Go?

Where do you intend to use that thing? Kips Bay?

New York real estate makes for some mighty screwy bedfellows. No sooner had coffee-bar-turned-restaurant Doma been unceremoniously ejected from its West Village digs at the corner of Perry Street and Waverly Place than the brown paper went up in the windows, and the space started incubating. The result was Saturdays Surf, another coffee bar — but a coffee bar with a difference.

With a picture of a jungle scene in the background, the new surf shop is also a coffee bar.

The difference lies in the fact that the coffee bar is also a surf shop, selling a selection of colorful long boards, plus the kind of apparel calculated to make people think you’re a surfer, even if you aren’t.

The coffee comes from the Philly roasters La Colombe Torrefaction, and the usual range of drips and espresso-based beverages are available.

Naturally, I asked the barista if the place ever sells any surfboards, since this seemed like a strange place to go in search of surfing equipment. “Yes,” he replied, “an average of one per day since we opened a couple of weeks ago.”

You can tell Saturdays is a serious coffee bar, because they also sell Mast Brothers chocolate bars.

Not long ago, it was Doma.

Saturdays Surf
17 Perry Street