Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

One of Amtrak's locomotives on the Northeast Corridor, waiting on the platform at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.Welcome to the second instalment of this edition of Brian’s Travel Spot, covering my latest Grand Adventure. In the first instalment, we saw how that no sooner had I returned from my previous trip to Florida/Phoenix than I was off again, flying out to Boston. My dilemma, if you can call it that, was that I had to be in Phoenix (again!) three weeks later. Rather than fly home (again), then fly back to the US (again), I decided to stay in the US, slowly making my way from northeast to southwest, taking in some sights as I went.

Given my dislike of flying in the USA, and my past record of taking ludicrously long train journeys, it should come as no surprise that I decided to do the whole trip by train. Or, at least, as much of it as I could, a route that took me from Providence, Rhode Island, down the eastern seaboard to Washington DC, with stops in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. From there, I took two overnight trains, one to New Orleans and the other from New Orleans to Tucson, Arizona, where I hired a car to drive to Phoenix, my final destination.

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Parlor Coffee – Tasting Room

A single-origin Guatemalan coffee extracting through a bottomless portafilter on the Kees van den Westen espresso machine at Parlor Coffee in Brooklyn.I first discovered Parlor Coffee in 2016 via a combination of serendipity, a tip-off and keeping my eyes open. Back then, as well as being a roaster, Parlor Coffee ran a small coffee bar in the back room of the Persons of Interest barbershop in Brooklyn, which I spotted as I walked past one day. It was a lovely place, pulling some awesome espresso on a single-group Kees van der Westen, so I was rather upset to learn that it had closed last year.

However, I recalled the barista, Vanessa, telling me that the roastery, also in Brooklyn, was open at the weekends, so when I found myself in New York on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I made a beeline for Vanderbilt Avenue. You’ll find the roastery here (which will have its own Meet the Roaster feature in due course) along with the subject of today’s Saturday Short, the Tasting Room.

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Underline Coffee

The Underline Coffee sign hanging outside the front of the street under the High Line on W20th Street in New York.I recommend walking New York’s High Line to every visitor: that there’s so much excellent coffee along the way, starting with Blue Bottle Coffee at the southern end and continuing with the likes of Intelligentsia in the High Line Hotel, is an added bonus. Into that mix comes today’s Coffee Spot, Underline Coffee, which has been gracing its spot almost directly under the High Line on W20th Street (and across the road from the High Line Hotel) since 2014.

I first visited it in 2016, but failed to write it up for a variety of reasons, not least because shortly after my visit, Underline started roasting its own coffee under the Apes & Peacocks brand, thus rendering me out of date before I’d even put finger to keyboard. So when I finally got back to New York after a two-year absence, I made a return to Underline a top priority.

It’s an awesome spot, serving a house-blend on espresso and bulk-brew, with a range of single-origins available as either espresso or pour-over. This is backed up with tea, cakes and a small selection of things on toast, all served in a space that’s a cross between corridor and basement.

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Café Grumpy, Nolita

The Cafe Grumpy logo from the bottom of the menu on the wall of the Nolita branch.Café Grumpy has become my favourite New York City coffee shop/roastery chain, particularly since I discovered the Lower East Side branch a few minutes’ walk from my usual hotel. So I was delighted when I met up with Simon and Gemma, fellow coffee aficionados who I know from Instagram, and they told me about a new branch of Café Grumpy, conveniently located just around the corner from their hotel in Little Italy.

Located on Mott Street, Café Grumpy opened in the early summer, 2016, several months after my last visit to New York, so I didn’t feel too bad about not having known about it. It’s in an area already rich with coffee, just a couple of blocks down from another favourite, Gimme! Coffee, and around the corner from old friends, Caffé Roma.

In keeping with the Café Grumpy philosophy, all the branches, no matter how large or small, carry the same full coffee offering, with the house-blend, Heartbreaker, joined by a single-origin and decaf on espresso, while on pour-over, there are multiple single-origins, plus decaf, supplemented by bulk-brew for those in a hurry. There’s also a range of tea, plus a selection of cakes and pastries if you’re hungry.

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Café Grumpy, Fashion District

A flat white from Cafe Grumpy, in an orange, six-ounce tulip cup.Regular readers will know that I have a soft-spot for Brooklyn-based, Aussie-influenced roaster/coffee-shop chain, Café Grumpy. I first came across its Chelsea branch in 2015, before discovering that its Lower East Side branch is just around the corner from my hotel on my return in 2016. On that trip, I also discovered one of Café Grumpy’s more recent branches, right in the heart of New York City in the Fashion District.

This has all the hallmarks of Café Grumpy, including its trademark no laptop policy. While you can argue with the merits or otherwise of this, Café Grumpy’s very upfront about this. The coffee offering’s the same across all branches: house-blend, single-origin and decaf on espresso, five single-origins (including a decaf) on pour-over and two more on bulk-brew. It’s also worth remembering that while now it seems that everyone on the East Coast’s offering pour-over, Café Grumpy was doing it long before it was trendy.

In terms of layout, the Fashion District branch takes the no laptop philosophy to its logical conclusion. The seating consists of two large, communal tables, plus a bench at the back. While you can sit quietly by yourself, it really is designed to promote communication!

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Third Rail Coffee, Greenwich Village

The front of Third Rail Coffee on Sullivan Street, New York City.Third Rail Coffee has been part of the New York speciality coffee scene for some time now. A chain of precisely two, this branch, in Greenwich Village, is the original, having opened seven years ago. It’s a small spot, not much bigger than Café Grumpy’s Lower East Side branch where I had started the day, with space inside for maybe 12.

The coffee’s from North Carolina’s Counter Culture, the Los Rosales single-origin Colombian on espresso, joined by a guest roaster. This guest spot focuses on East Coast roasters, exemplified by the choice during my visit, Boston’s George Howell. There’s a single-origin (sometimes blend) on bulk-brew, with a choice of four single-origins through the Chemex. These change every couple of months and are chalked up on boards next to the menu. As is often the case in the US, the focus is firmly on the coffee, with cookies if you’re hungry.

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Gimme! Coffee, Roebling Street

The Gimme! Coffee logo, taken from the awning above the shop on Roebling Street in Brooklyn.I discovered Gimme! Coffee on my first Coffee Spot visit to New York in 2013, when I visited the Mott Street branch in Manhattan. However, it took me another three years before I explored Gimme! Coffee’s Brooklyn heritage, when I visited Roebling Street in Williamsburg. Ironically, this is the newest of three New York City branches, having only opened in 2011, while the first (and other) Brooklyn branch has been around since 2003, the company itself starting in upstate New York in 2000.

Roebling Street has a simple, rectangular layout, with the door at the right, the counter at the back and a smattering of tables in the space between the two. Resisting the urge to cram too much in, it’s a quiet, friendly spot with a sense of space. There’s also some outdoor seating on the (relatively) quiet street.

Gimme! Coffee roasts all its own beans with a house-blend (Leftist), single-origin guest (Colombian) and decaf (another single-origin Colombian) on espresso. These are joined by two more single-origins on bulk-brew and third as a pour-over using the Kalita Wave. There’s also a range of teas from Metolius in Oregon and a selection of cakes and pastries if you are hungry.

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Café Integral, American Two Shot

A single-serve Kalita Wave filter at Cafe Integral, New York City, seen from above.Café Integral is not somewhere that you easily stumble upon. I found it thanks to several recommendations, not least from my friends Heather & Tim, who I stay with in New Jersey (the recommendation was specifically from Tim, who is a semi-regular there). It’s actually across the street from one of my New York favourites, Gasoline Alley, so I must have walked past it many times before my visit. In defence of my usually infallible coffee radar, it’s tucked away inside a clothing store, American Two Shot, with only an A-board outside to let you know it’s there.

Other than its location, Café Integral’s main claim to fame is that it only serves Nicaraguan coffee, its owners, the Vega family, having close ties with several farms in the country. There are now two coffee shops in New York, and another in Chicago, which makes it a national chain. Sort of. All the coffee is sourced in Nicaragua and roasted in a facility over on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. There’s a blend on espresso plus two single-origins, a pour-over using the Kalita Wave, with the other available on bulk-brew. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s a selection of cakes and cookies.

May 2017: I’ve just learnt that Café Integral has shut its coffee bar in American Two Shot. Thanks to Nick for the heads-up. If you are in the area, then Café Integral now has its own coffee shop around the corner at 149 Elizabeth Street.

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Café Grumpy, Lower East Side

Cafe Grumpy's grumpy face logo, hanging on the wall of the Lower East Side branch.Café Grumpy, a small, local coffee shop chain, roasts all its own beans in Brooklyn. With its no compromise attitude, it’s fast becoming one of my NYC favourites. The Lower East Side branch, on Essex Street, is the smallest and is perhaps my favourite (of those I’ve visited so far).

My go-to place for morning coffee used to be the original Pushcart Coffee on East Broadway. Just a few blocks east of my usual hotel in Chinatown, it was perfect. Then it closed and, for the last two years, I’ve been coffee-less first thing in the morning: not the ideal situation!

Embarrassingly, I only discovered Café Grumpy on my most recent trip, not realising that the Lower East Side branch had been open since 2012, some while before Pushcart closed. Just around the corner from my hotel, it’s every bit as convenient as Pushcart, so I needn’t have gone coffee-less all those mornings. What an oversight!

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Stumptown, Ace Hotel (NYC)

An espresso, seen directly from above, the brown of the crema matching that of the saucer and contrasting with the white interior of the cup. The word "Stumptown" is written in script on the top rim of the cup.Stumptown, just off the lobby of Ace Hotel in New York City, is one of NYC’s most popular coffee venues, the queues frequently extending into (and around) the lobby. I first visited in 2013, meeting up with Greg of CoffeeGuru App, but it was another three years before I returned on a “quiet” day to do a write-up.

As a coffee shop, there’s not a lot to it, although, like most Stumptown places, it’s sumptuously-appointed. In this case, a single bar runs along the window at the front, the counter running parallel to it at the back, with just enough space between them for customers to queue/wait to collect their coffee. Alternatively, you can sit in the atmospheric lobby of the Ace Hotel itself (if you can find a seat, that is). Stumptown’s Hairbender blend is on espresso, and a single-origin on bulk-brew, with both cold-brew and nitro on draft.

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