Café on the Fashion Grind
The cobblestoned streets of SoHo, the fashion hub of Downtown Manhattan, bustled last week with locals and visitors weaving in and out of clothing boutiques. The steady rain kept people rushing indoors, but not everyone chose to shake their umbrellas off on the steps of high-end designer shops like Alexander Wang. Some preferred to escape to Café Café, a quiet coffee house on Greene Street, a strong contrast to the fast-paced sidewalks. "It's relaxing here," said owner Albert Bitton, 46, of his café's juxtaposition to the neighborhood. "I'm a big fan of community and I try to give the people what they need. They need a place like this." Since 1997, Café Café has welcomed patrons with a hanging green sign that stands out among the glass storefronts of the art galleries lining the street. Inside the two-story eatery, an overused chalkboard above the counter displays the menu, listing classics like cappuccino ($3.25) and tea ($1.75) among savory extras like almond and chocolate brioche ($3.25) and homemade empanadas ($6.40-$7.40). "It's nice to find a place like this in SoHo, where you can chill out and quietly get work done," said Kevin Mulroy, 35, a local writer who frequents Café Café in the mornings. "It doesn't feel like a scene." Mulroy believes the SoHo "scene" is characterized by fashion, tourism and money. Having owned a clothing store in the neighborhood in the early '90s, Bitton agrees. "SoHo is a mall now," said Bitton of the chain stores on Broadway, talking over the café's swirling ceiling fans. In his 23 years working in SoHo, Bitton has witnessed a sharp rise in retail rents, a decline in boutiques by young designers and the invasion of pricey brands like Prada and Armani. Dressed in worn-in flip flops, his arms stacked with turquoise and white beaded bracelets, Bitton insists his laidback energy keeps Café Café reminiscent of an the old SoHo?the one washed away by fashion frenzy. People of all ages lean over the counter's red-and-white-checkered cloth, ordering blueberry pancakes ($9) and customized salads ($7.50). In his Israeli accent, Bitton insists that the lemonade with mint ($1.75) is always a big hit. The customer-friendly prices keep locals and neighborhood employees coming back, but they aren't the only ones to sip their morning jolt from Café Café's chunky ceramic mugs. "They get celebrities all the time," said Jessica Kahn, 37, a local art consultant who has bumped into actress Claire Danes at the shop. "Celebrities can kind of be themselves here." With fliers for upcoming fashion events tacked on the corkboard outside the restroom door and design magazines piled in the standing magazine rack, Café Café tries to mix the old SoHo with the new. The same customers continue to wait outside for the 7 a.m. opening each morning as they have done for 13 years, but now so do the young fashionistas with a craving for coffee. "If you stay for lunch, you will see the fashion," said Bitton. "Everybody here is chicy-chicy." Café Café, 470 Broome St. (entrance on Greene St. betw. Spring & Broome Sts.), 212-226-9295.
A unassuming nook in SoHo on Greene Street serves as a haven for shoppers and residents alike. Photos By Paulette Safdieh.