Just Your Village Joe
“Puns are the lowest form of humor,” I was once told. So it is fortunate, then, that the coffee at Grounded, a West Village café, more than compensates for the joke of the name.
Located at 28 Jane Street since its founding in 2004, Grounded is a jungle turned coffee shop packed with sprawling potted plants and vines, lounge-about benches and two-person tables, and an every-genre second-hand library, all under a large skylight and lazily twirling fans. Despite its Village location, the clientele extends beyond an all-hipster crowd, as middle-agers pile onto the benches and students or paperwork-doers bury into their laptops (free Wi-Fi!) and note stacks on the counter lining the wall opposite the bookshelf. Twenty-somethings on lunch dates or afternoon coffee boosts take up most of the remaining tables.
The coffee bar itself juts out in front of a rainbow menu that boasts some 40-odd “tea offerings,” nearly 20 coffee varieties, and a list of breakfast wraps, sandwiches, salads, muffins, and cakes. Many of the options are vegan-friendly (the fedora-bearing barista even asks, “Would you like your latte with regular milk or soy?”) and cheap for a prime-reality café. The $5 scrambled tofu wrap (there’s an egg version for non-vegans) and $1.60 house blend compete well with their Fake Terry’s counterparts in price, and certainly outlast them in taste. The teas are mostly priced at $2.50/cup and $4.50/pot, and the blends are well varied and creatively named (Hawaii 5-0 and Ancient Dragon stand out from the list).
Not only is the regular coffee spectacular, but Grounded offers a wide variety of specialties as well, most within change of $4.00. The Pumpkin latte, Café Aloha (espresso with steamed coconut milk), and Yerba Mate Latte are all there, but what catches my eye is the Nutella latte—$4.25 of espresso, chocolate, and hazelnut very well spent. The drink is sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, and goes well with any one of the sandwiches or muffins.
In the pastry department, the caramel apple cake and cherry pie are both good, but a little too crusty and hard if not heated up. Once you break through the exterior, however, the pie is fresh and soft, and with the hot coffee creates a “Twin Peaks” feel of local diner dessert. The cake is good and cinnamon-rich, but for so small a portion not worth the $4.50. The menu is strange like that—some things (the coffee, the wraps) are reasonably, or even cheaply, priced. Others, like the cake and some pastries, are rather pricy for what they are. But if you navigate the list well, you should come out all right.
Once equipped with my latte and dessert, I head to a table by the bookshelf that is hidden from the entrance by an overzealous fern and read a chapter of an Agatha Christie mystery off the shelf. (Other options range from a pre-war poetry edition printed in gothic German and tattered copy of “Candide” to a large anthology of comic strips and cartoons. I drink and read in the natural light, while vaguely listening to Grounded’s playlist of ‘60s slow rock. The place is overwhelmingly laidback, a nice refuge from the fast-paced, impersonal feel of the nearest Starbucks.
Sweets and Caffeine at The Bean
Squaring off with a multinational corporate chain like Starbucks is risky business, but it’s a move the nearly-10-year-old East Village coffee shop, The Bean, has chosen to make. About a year ago, the homey neighborhood cafe was evicted from its spot on Third Street and First Avenue and replaced with a Starbucks. Despite the takeover, the owners, Ike Escava and Sammy Cohen, held their ground and decided to move just down the street at 54 Second Avenue, where it successfully competes with yet another Starbucks and draws much larger crowds.
The Bean’s popularity is not surprising in the least. Every Starbucks in the country is essentially identical, while The Bean truly feels like a part of the neighborhood. It draws upon East Village’s history as an indie enclave, as well as the rise of more polished cafes and eateries in the neighborhood. Its exterior is decorated with mosaics, and the floor-to-ceiling windows are perfect for adding sunshine to a morning caffeine fix. The music playlists range from the latest indie albums to ‘60s Motown girl groups. The walls display art by local independent artists, and the cushioned chairs and couches in the back are embellished with a sign that says “Reserved for Humans” in an otherwise dog-friendly store. Plenty of space is available for customers to sit with their laptops, or the computers available in the shop, and make use of the free Wi-Fi.
The Bean’s huge range and variety of foods rivals that of just about any other coffee shop in the neighborhood. The selection runs from bagels and sandwiches with crispy vegetables and fresh meats to equally fresh sweets and pastries—deliciously sticky and sweet fruit tarts, rich chocolate-drizzled mud pies, and twists on the classic Rice Krispies. The many vegan options also are just as enticing as the foods containing dairy products, and they do not seem low-quality or thrown in for the sake of having a vegan option.
The Bean’s employees are friendly and happy to answer any questions about the rather overwhelming selection of food.
The options for coffee, of course, are vast and high-quality. The coffee beans are perfectly roasted, without the burnt or excessively bitter taste of over-roasted beans that can be found in many chain coffee joints. Their beverage selection includes iced coffees, chai lattes with espresso, caramel lattes, and their famous Frozen Mona Lisa. This Bean favorite is made with espresso, ice, and milk. It is similar in appearance to the frappucino and available in caramel and mocha flavors, but with much more of the rich coffee flavors and with less of the sickly sweetening found in the Starbucks equivalent.
Many of the disadvantages of getting coffee from local mom-and-pop shops arise from cramped spaces, high prices, and smaller, sometimes unsatisfying selections. The Bean’s ambiance, pricing, and menu don’t just rival– they completely beat those of chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, without the monotonous, factory-made feel, proving that “Mom and Pop” can compete with the sharks.