The coffee's hot, the gang's all here, and (Cheers theme song, please) everybody knows your name.
Luke Collins, a freelace writer, has a standard dating rule: If the relationship doesn't work out, he gets the coffee shop. When he first started coming to Joe, in Greenwich Village, he used to bring along his laptop. "But I can't work here anymore," he says. "Now I come in and it's nonstop conversation for three hours." Collins, a raffishly half-shaven sort from Sydney, Australia, is part of Joe's late-morning-to-midday crowd, a loose group of loyalists—artists, actors, graphic designers, a cop, a few opera singers, a sommelier, a children's-TV producer, a bookstore owner, and the food critic for The Village Voice—who keep coming to the shop for more than just coffee.
June Cohen remembers that when she was hunting for a Village coffee shop to go to every day, she narrowed the possibilities to two places with almost interchangeable names. Both had big windows looking out on shady side streets. Both were fanatical about their coffee. But one morning, Jonathan Rubinstein, the owner of Joe (named for coffee, not for a guy named Joseph), handed her a coffee and said, "Hey, how've you been? You're my smiliest customer."
Yes, the coffee is a big draw. Rubinstein has a $13,500 La Marzocco espresso machine and a staff of casually expert baristas (loosely, Italian for "coffee bartenders"), many of them from Seattle, who can pull a perfect shot and then draw pretty Seattle-style espresso-and-foam rosettes in the top of your latte. But the real attraction is more basic: You might drop in for the coffee, but you stick around for the people. And not just any people. Village people. "The coffee's excellent," says Anthony Turner, an opera singer from Staten Island. "But the company explains why I come all the way here every day."
Rubinstein was 34 when he got fed up with his job as a talent agent, arranging limos for child stars and former Miss Americas, and decided to do something he loved instead. So he threw himself into coffee, learning about beans, grinds, brews, and shots from Gregg Charbonneau and Barth Anderson of the Barrington Coffee Roasting Company in the Berkshires. Then, finally, on a snowy February day last year, he stood on the corner of Gay and Waverly making slash marks in a notebook, counting foot traffic going by the dry cleaner that he would soon turn into Joe.
But just because Rubinstein gave up talent agenting doesn't mean he has stopped keeping track of his people. At Joe he's still the supportive figure and understated facilitator who knows when to say "So how'd the interview go?" or "Do you two know each other?" and then fade into the background. He keeps a list of missing customers, and he has been known to call a regular he hasn't seen in a few days just to check in and see if he or she is okay. Perhaps this is why when Time Out New York was putting together its 2004 Eat Out Awards, Joe got more votes for Best Coffee than any place in any category.
Like so many great places in New York, Joe is small, easy to miss, a mostly unremarkable hideaway with a dozen or so tables and lots of steel library chairs that you can rearrange as conversations shift and people come and go. There's a wall-size photo collage of a café in Paris (Café La Palette, circa 1984), but the best part of the decor is the people. If you nurse your coffee long enough, it seems as if the whole neighborhood walks by. Recognizable folks stop in—Amy Sedaris bakes cupcakes for Joe on an irregular basis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman drops by with his baby. But they tend to blend into the gang of the locally famous: the photographer with the big blue macaw on his shoulder, the home-furnishings-store owner with her huge white bulldog, the hair saloniste who invented an organic blood-orange-and-vanilla body wash. Rubinstein circulates. "Rachel!" he'll say. "I almost didn't see you. Life is good? You in a show now?" Or to a dog waiting on the step outside: "Hi, cutie."
Coffee is addictive enough. But when your coffee shop starts providing the sort of regular and sometimes aimless conversations that help you feel at home in the world, it's hard not to stop in daily. Freelancers especially depend on Joe. "Working at home, I really missed somebody saying, 'How was your weekend? How's your life? Nice haircut!'" says June Cohen, author of The Unusually Useful Web Book. "Wherever I go, I'm always looking for a place like this. Even if nobody knows me, I still feel like I belong, because they're my people."