Here, a midnight dinner in an adventurous bistro like the Spotted Pig is not only possible but ordinary. Music lovers can relish a gospel hillbilly jam from sextet Ollabelle, whose members harmonize and pluck guitars past 3 a.m. at the Living Room. Or visitors might dissect novels with bookish cocktail waitresses at hundreds of sexy bars until 4, then effortlessly catch the never-stop subway back to their beds.
But if you're resolved to take such a sizable bite out of the Big Apple, you'll probably covet a heavy infusion of coffee in the morning. And probably in the afternoon too.
Sure, Starbucks outlets litter the avenues of the city. But if you surrender to that corporate familiarity, you'll miss one of Manhattan's sweetest and least expensive treasures: its singular downtown cafes.
Offering atmospheric refuge from the chest-to-chest pedestrian hockey game of Manhattan's sidewalks, these genial havens comprise their own universe of delicious espresso, mega-star sightings and public restrooms (more than a collateral luxury when ambling rootlessly around New York). For my tour, I was unerringly guided by my buddy Danny Lorber, a New York screenwriter who spends the bulk of his days with a PowerBook slung over his shoulder roaming from soy latte to latte.
Our first stop: the cobblestone streets of SoHo and Space Untitled. Housed in a ground floor loft, this spacious emporium dished up without fanfare the best coffee I sampled in all of New York — a whole milk double latte that tasted like a first kiss.
Even if it brewed black vinegar for coffee, this eccentric cafe would beckon like a caffeine mecca. Exposed red brick runs the length of the high-ceilinged loft. Doric columns bisect the room, which reverberated with the moody indie sounds of Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. And an opaque skylight in the rear filtered daylight onto scores of round marble tables and orange and yellow scoop chairs.
Dozens of NYU students, writers and graphic artists routinely co-opt squares of the distressed hardwood floor as their surrogate offices. A young man with an afro and Che Guevara T-shirt pored over books on cinematic story technique. Handfuls of fresh-faced, sleeveless brunets, their hair swept back in ties and scrunchies, steadily pounded the keys of their laptops for hours.
The long, spotless counter dispenses bagels, sandwiches, fresh-squeezed carrot, apple or ginger juice, and wine by the glass. Battered couches offer respite for sole-weary SoHo shoppers laden with bags from Rem Koolhaas' weird and whimsical Prada store around the corner. And most New York-ish of all, the floor-to-ceiling windows up front, accessorized with a wood bar and leather stools, look out onto the entrance of the Ford modeling agency directly across the narrow street.
Danny concedes that for a long while he landed daily at Space Untitled to write but the incessant parade of striking 6-foot-tall 18-year-olds rendered productivity impossible. Now he limits his visits to this inimitable sanctuary of caffeine, light and beauty to weekends, when the modeling agency is closed.
Several streets to the east lies another New York gem, the nonprofit cafe and bookstore called Housing Works. It occupies another huge loft with tables, shelves and two narrow balconies overflowing with used books.
Profit from the sale of books and beverages is channeled into housing, healthcare and job-placement services for the homeless and those with HIV and AIDS. Between the cathedral ceilings and weathered wood floors, readers and writers lounge around a dozen small tables and several plush armchairs. Browsers can't help but stumble upon recent hardcover releases, donated by publishers, on sale for $10.
In the back, a small cafe supplies pastries and coffee doled out by volunteers. Danny said Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Hours," steamed up his decaf cappuccino one day. Housing Works' in-store events have included performances by Lyle Lovett and Roseanne Cash, as well as readings by Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem. This warm, elegant oasis is the only place I know where you can indulge simultaneously a love of literature and that philanthropic urge with the simple purchase of a decent macchiato.
A more selfish pleasure awaits a 15-minute hike northwest to Greenwich Village and Doma, a studious little place humming with classical music and a palpable camaraderie. The cafe lovingly maintains a shelf of books written by Doma regulars, who root themselves like talking house plants around communal tables and window benches from morning until midnight.
One recent afternoon, I roosted with a reclaimed copy of the New York Times across from John Cameron Mitchell, the co-creator of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," as he worked on the script for his next movie.
All around us, pretty women in glasses nibbled on muffins and relentlessly banged out pages of their novels. The patrons chatted amiably about their projects or goings-on and politely ducked outside to make cellphone calls.