Cafe Society

Coffee's On

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.