Coffee's On

Monique Costello (far right) isn't monkeying around at Monkey Bean.
Mark Manger

This place reminds me of someplace else," my friend says, leaning his chair back against the wall and tracing a finger along one of the cracks in the broken plaster.

That wall -- multi-colored painted plaster over crumbling brick, the brick exposed where the plaster has fallen away -- looks like the walls of coffeehouses in half-recovered industrial spaces in sketchy parts of towns across the country, left there by well-meaning urban pioneers with lots of ideas and no money for hiring pricey interior designers. In such places, the broken plaster becomes a structural feature, the chunky, uneven seams where wall meets cement floor -- always an unfinished cement floor, so cold and unforgiving to dropped plates and glassware -- a touchstone back to simpler times when not every square inch of every space was deliberately milled and fashioned to meet some bogus Metropolitan Home gestalt.

People pick up on the walls because everyone remembers one or two or five places with walls just like the ones at Monkey Bean -- restaurants on the ragged edges, coffeehouses opened in old shoe factories or plumbing-supply stores, across alleys from methadone clinics, whatever. They know these walls, feel compelled to reach out and touch them. And they recognize the art that's on them -- the blobby, blurry abstracts, vaginal like the works of Georgia O'Keeffe but without the flowery subtlety -- as if all the paintings at all such coffeehouses everywhere were executed by the same artist: one solitary ex-women's-studies major armed with five colors and a palette knife, turning out thousands of pieces a year.

Monkey Bean reminds my friend of a spot in the West Village -- opened during one of those weird seasons when the Village wasn't cool, then closing before the wheel came 'round again. It reminds me of one in Buffalo, which has never been cool, where the grand-opening party and miserable final night were less than six months apart. Both places had the walls, the floors, the art. Mine also had a Botticelli mural where customers used ballpoint pens to scribble in pubic hair on the nudes, but that was just a bonus.

"The light," my friend continues, running his fingers through the air like he's stroking it. The light in places like these is special, different from the light in any other kind of restaurant. It's thrift-store light, VOA light -- a warm soup of mixed-wattage bulbs glowing through colored shades, flattering only to a highly specific breed of pasty-faced insomniac art student or the odd Kabuki actor who happens to wander in.

The walls, the floor, the art, the light, the smell (which used to be mothballs and clove cigarettes but isn't now, since Monkey Bean sends smokers outside), the odd-sized tables, the gut-sprung couches, the decor, haphazard but always with a theme (here, monkeys; elsewhere, Victorian surgical implements, headless mannequins, ducks, punk rock or unicorns) and mismatched table settings -- they're all part and parcel of the coffeehouse experience.

They've been part and parcel of the Monkey Bean experience since the doors opened eighteen months ago. And seeing as how your average non-franchise neighborhood coffeehouse generally survives about fifteen minutes, that's a very nearly miraculous span, one almost explained by the fact that this place reminds everyone of some other place they knew once and loved beyond all reason.

Almost, because that's not the only reason to like Monkey Bean -- just a real big one. Monkey Bean is pretty likable on its own merits, with good food and a great vibe (most of the time) and long hours and a crowd that (most of the time) doesn't make me want to run screaming through the night burning down lofts and blowing up every Audi I see, going all class-warrior on a Sunday afternoon because some 24-year-old corporate lawyer dressed power-casual and tapping away on her laptop is filling four seats at a four-top with her skinny ass, purse, coat and attaché, ignoring a friend and me as we linger uncomfortably behind her, trying to eat pancakes standing up.

Most of the time, the neighborhood-community thing that owners Monique Costello and Amy Rosewater have going here works fine. People share tables. They talk with strangers. They do what customers in a coffeehouse are supposed to do -- which is rub up against all the other people at the coffeehouse and act like human fucking beings for sixty minutes out of their perfectly manicured days, and not refuse to look up and realize what senseless assholes they're being.

Friday nights and Monday nights, Saturdays at two in the morning, lunch on Wednesday -- I've enjoyed myself at Monkey Bean time and time again, even though, under normal circumstances, I would not be caught dead in a coffeehouse. As a matter of fact, I hadn't been to one for so long that I'd almost forgotten what it is about coffeehouses that annoys me so much, until I stand glowering darkly at Ally McBeal over her unjustified annexation of more than her fair share of Sunday-afternoon real estate, or as I watch Ballpark lofties deliberately spread out their copies of the New York Times across entire tables to discourage strangers from sitting too close and obvious once-a-weekers roll their eyes at a couple of obvious regulars who've been so gauche as to bring their kid for breakfast.  

So, no, Monkey Bean isn't always that perfect representation of the coffeehouse you remember from college, or that joint in the city where you hung out pretending to be a poet, looking to score a little art-school action. But it's close, and Costello and Rosewater made it that way on purpose. They chose the space -- a 120-year-old building that was the former home of the Cut Throat Cafe, a Butcher's Block diner before that, a white-tablecloth restaurant before that and who-knows-what in the beginning -- because both of them live in the Silver State lofts across Broadway, and because they thought the Ballpark neighborhood needed its own eclectic, late-night, non-smoking coffeehouse-slash-bakery-cum-bistro that didn't rhyme with Blahrbucks.

And they managed to hit some magic sweet spot of reminiscence and cool that's been paying off since day one. Those cliche mismatched coffee mugs, the broken-in chairs, old couch and slapdash collection of tables are the haul from a deliberate scavenging of thrift stores, yard sales and friends' attics to find exactly the right pieces to make the room look as though there'd been no plan at all. They scraped three layers of tile off the floor by hand until they reached the original, irregular cement, pulled paneling off the walls until they found plaster -- and when some of the plaster fell off, left it that way because it just looked right.

"Everyone says, 'It reminds me of this place in Seattle' or 'It reminds me of this place in the West Village,'" Costello says. "And that feels really good, because we always wanted this place to feel comfortable for people."

She and Rosewater knew they were on to something when one of their very first customers came in to get a cup of coffee to go. They poured, he took it over to the little sidebar in the back of the room where the milk and sugar are kept, and the next thing they know, the guy's sitting on their couch with his shoes off and his feet up on the table. To me, that sounds gross. To Costello and Rosewater, it was proof that they'd done right.

What's more, they'd done right on their first try. Neither of the women had any restaurant experience: Costello was a multimedia producer, Rosewater a software engineer. They met when a flood in the loft where Costello and her husband live leaked down into the loft below, where Rosewater and her husband live. The two women became business partners shortly after, picked their spot, spent months cleaning and prepping the space, opened Monkey Bean, saw the guy with his feet up on the furniture and knew they'd hit the mark.

All they had to do then was keep the place going, which -- considering the fact that neither of them had any idea what they were doing -- meant twenty-hour days, seven days a week. No lie. "We were always here," Costello tells me, laughing. They recently found a manager they trust, though, and they're now looking at cutting back to eighty hours a week each, most of that spent in the kitchen.

Monkey Bean's menu is eclectic. I'd call it loony, amateurish and bordering on suicidally ill-considered -- except that it seems to be working. So, eclectic, then -- meaning breakfast banana splits, and pancakes fluffed out with ricotta cheese, and a strawberry-and-blue cheese omelette that sounds like the nastiest thing in the world until you taste it and realize that only culinary fruit-based racism has kept strawberries and blue cheese apart for so long. As for cocktail wieners as an appetizer -- an idea nearly everyone in the business has thought of but never followed through on -- Monkey Bean offers Li'l Smokies and homemade barbecue sauce for five bucks.

The open kitchen does flatbread pizzettas like a simple tomato and brie, a slightly more complicated wild mushroom, garlic and bacon with provolone cheese and smoky tomato sauce, and then a radicchio, Fontina, goat cheese and balsamic that could easily match pizzas put out by restaurants owned by people who actually do claim to know what they're doing. And the peanut-butter-and-banana-stuffed French toast is the sort of dish that would kill Elvis on the spot if he hadn't already gone to his reward. Monkey Bean serves theirs with chocolate butter, a combination so good I'm surprised it isn't illegal.  

At the counter, they make PB&J sandwiches, paninis (which I have never loved) and a breakfast burrito with eggs, fried potatoes, cheese, bacon, scratch-made salsa and green chile that's also put through the sandwich press -- the first good application of a sandwich press I've seen.

The stock in the bakery case changes every day, and sometimes it's great, sometimes not. The chocolate brownies always seem to be as hard as bricks and could be used to patch the holes in the walls. But the "monkey balls" -- peanut butter balls topped with chocolate and cored with Rice Krispies -- are delicious. I've also had excellent, moist, sour-sweet pumpkin bread and haystack cookies just like Grandma used to make. (Not my grandma, necessarily, but I'm sure they're just like someone's grandma's.)

Finally, there's the coffee at this coffeehouse. According to the menu, Monkey Bean offers roughly 2,000 derivations of the standard cup -- and that's not counting the hot tea, cold tea, bubble tea, fruit juices, elixirs, weird things served out of pump bottles behind the counter and the ice-cream drinks. Costello and Rosewater get their beans from a small-batch roaster in Seattle called Tony's Coffee, and they're killers. Two large joes, straight up, and I couldn't blink for three hours.

And when you get right down to it, if the coffee at a coffeehouse is the last good reason you have for going there, you know you've probably found a good one.

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