It’s 11:00 am on a windy, drizzly early March day in Manhattan’s West Village, but I’m warm and dry in the cozy confines of Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee on W. 10th St.
Though the Mommas and Papas are singing, “Monday, Monday,” it’s actually Wednesday, Wednesday, and my last morning in New York after an exhilarating six-day visit. When I asked friends who are longtime lower Manhattan residents – the kind of people who looked at me incredulously when I said I was lodging on the Upper East Side — where would be the perfect café to end my stay, the answer was unanimous. So here I am, and after 20 minutes, I’m already beginning to understand why.
The words “home away from home” come easily to mind at Jack’s. The cheery baristas greet customers like old friends, and the customers themselves frequently stop to talk with one another before ordering their americanos or as they walk out with cappuccinos in hand.
Jack’s is a shoebox-shaped place, maybe 14 feet from the door to the far end of the counter and 10 feet wide. This size is part of its charm, as is the casual, distinctly lived-in look. From the doorway, a six-foot-long wooden counter with four well-worn stools stretches invitingly along the right wall, and a sitting area barely large enough to squeeze in a dozen neighborly patrons at four two-foot-square tables opens in front and on the left. When I walked in, a bandanna’d barista smiled and called out a greeting from behind a case stocked with a tempting display of muffins, croissants and scones, as well as yogurt, fruit juices and water. Intersecting this case was a counter displaying apples, biscotti and bagels in woven baskets. Here customers were ordering from a menu written in chalk on a mounted blackboard. In addition to the usual coffees, teas, cocoa, cider and milk, the beverage choices included a couple of surprises: a house specialty called Apple Jack — tea with apple juice – and beer.
I ordered my usual latte and chocolate croissant, and just then got lucky as a patron arose to leave, liberating a seat at one of the café’s two window seat tables, which, happily enough, no one else was waiting to claim. And that’s where I sit now, in this airy window-lit space, with my laptop, croissant and latte covering most of my table, reveling in Jack’s idiosyncratic cafescape.
On my far right, above the long counter, a gloriously crammed wall showcases photos of regular customers, a few posters, and other endearing oddities like a picture of a camel in front of the Egyptian pyramids and another of three apparently caffeine-connoisseur penguins with a Jack’s mug in the foreground. Under the photo gallery, a diminutive cork board, maybe 2 feet by 3 feet, features notices from locals (“Past Lives, Dreams and Soul Travel,” “Learn Spanish,” “Lunchtime Yoga,” “Dan Will Teach You Guitar”). Beside the corkboard, a ski-capped couple snuggles on the stools, and beyond them a tweed-coated chap in a navy blue beret professorially peruses the Times.
To my immediate right a thirtysomething mom is interviewing a prospective nanny (“You have your driver’s license, right?” “Oh yes, I am driving maybe six month now.”). Opposite me, a bewhiskered guy in a baseball cap nurses a mug and stares into space as if he’s settled in for the day; at the table next to him, a young man in a ski parka rustles red-marked papers and scribbles in a notebook.
On my left there’s a brick wall with two blackboards, a navy blue tie hanging collegially from the corner of one. One of the blackboards bears the scrawled message, “I’m almost NOT crazy.” Next to them, Jack’s t-shirts, baseball caps, army jackets, courier bags, mugs and coffee are arranged neatly for sale on shelves.
The notebook-scribbler vacates his table and it’s immediately taken by a mid-twenties mom in big black rain boots and her daughter, who delicately drapes her pink backpack over the back of her chair. They launch into an intent discussion of whether they should try to make the icing themselves the next time they bring a cake to school.
I sit back and close my eyes, trying to absorb the pastry-and-coffee scent, comforting conversational murmur and unhurried pace of this place. Then I turn to my laptop and write: “Every town should have a Jack’s, where you can wander in, order a cup of delicious coffee and a just-right chocolate croissant, where the barista asks how the book is going or how the kids are doing, where you can strike up a conversation about novels with a neighbor, write a message on a chalkboard, or bring a child during her school’s lunch break.”
Now Van Morrison fills the air – “oh, Domino” — and the mom is leaning forward and saying to her scone-nibbling daughter, “You have to be introduced to Tennyson at some point in your life, right?”
Regulars stream in and out, joking with the baristas and each other, and the morning slips away. I look at my watch: time for a last stop at a neighborhood bookstore and then it’s on to JFK.
Getting up with a sigh, I compliment the barista on the quality of the coffee. She tells me that the secret is Jack’s homemade “stir brew” coffeemaker, which stirs the coffee grounds as it’s brewing, ensuring that the grounds are fully saturated and evenly brewed. The result, she says, is a less acidic, stronger, bolder, smoother brew. As we talk more, I learn that she used to work at a Peets coffeeshop in the Bay Area that is literally a 10-minute walk from my house. “This is as close as you’ll get to Peet’s in New York,” she says. We share small world smiles and she encourages me to try one of “Aunt Rosie’s” chocolate chip cookies. “Is there really an Aunt Rosie?” I ask — and she points to a photo of a beaming woman behind me.
I buy two of Aunt Rosie’s finest for the long flight home. They’ll serve as a delicious reminder of the perfect café that brightened a drizzly New York day.