Cafe Society

Coffee's On

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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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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