Saying so long to New York’s temple of herbed french fries and superficial beauty
Everyone comes to New York to gape slack-jawed at beauty — unless, of course, you’re beautiful, in which case you’ve come here to be adored, or you’re already here, in which case, having been surrounded by both beauty and ugliness in profusion, you are insensate to it.
As a young man — not even eighteen years old — I arrived in New York in the summer of ’99, unbeautiful, suburban, and sponge-like. I was ready to be impressed. I lived in an NYU dormitory on Union Square with a flip phone, a laptop full of Napster-nabbed tunes, and a kid named Jason who snored so loudly that I at first took his wall-shaking snorts to be the subway below. We lived a few doors down from the Coffee Shop, a shimmering 24-hour disco ball of a restaurant and bar, full of stunningly beautiful, arctically cool, actually glamorous gods and demigods for whom Manhattan was Olympus and the herbed french fries they served there ambrosia. But heaven doesn’t last forever. As was announced this month, the Coffee Shop will close its doors in October.
Twenty years ago, the Coffee Shop beckoned like a shiny object does a crow. Opened in 1990 by a trio of Wilhelmina models — Charles Milite, Eric Petterson, and Carolyn Benitez — the Coffee Shop trafficked in physical, some might say superficial, beauty. The pleasingly retro dining room and bar operates under a Byzantine system of seating, no less codified than such tony redoubts as the Four Seasons, Michael’s, and Elaine’s. But unlike in those restaurants, where power was determined by wealth, position, or publishing numbers, at the Coffee Shop, beauty was the only salient metric. For an unsure nube like me, the appeal was evident. One didn’t just receive a Sesame Chicken Salad. The order of the world and your place in it was revealed. The maître d’ was God, and how we trembled waiting for judgment.
Alas, being all of seventeen and looking like I was twelve, I was routinely barred entrance, or else allowed passage only to the To Go podium, where I’d order a milkshake and a side of ambrosial fries, then return to my bedroom, to read of Odysseus and Nausicaa all the while fantasizing about what hedonistic fun the real-life nymphs were having but a few feet away. It turns out all my jizzy fantasies were true, as were other fantasies too nuanced and mature for my vulgar mind to concoct at the time.
When I heard of the closing, I reached out to Courtney Yates, who worked at the Coffee Shop for six years between 2004 and 2010. Yates is, as one might expect from a Coffee Shop alumna, a bona fide BP. She is not the most famous Coffee Shop employee — having only appeared on Survivor, twice — but, due to a 2007 Grub Street article, the most Googleable. Other notable alumni include Laverne Cox and — this made me flip my wig — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was just Sandy from the Bronx. Now, Yates lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem, USA. She works as an astrologer, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, but for six years of the Coffee Shop’s prime, she was both arbiter of beauty and its prime embodiment. She agreed to meet me for dinner recently at 8:30 p.m., a time I had assumed would be peak people-watching.
A little after we were supposed to meet: “I’m on my way but, as you know the MTA is trash,” she texted. So I entered through the Coffee Shop’s glass doors alone. At once, the feelings of existential uncertainty flooded back again, after so many years. If you’ve ever walked into a cafeteria as a new student, tray in hand and lump in throat, you know the feeling. I hadn’t come to the Coffee Shop in a decade; neither — apparently — had many others, thus the restaurant’s impending closure. And yet, so ingrained was the sensation of judgment, of stepping up to receive one’s sentence from on high, that I quailed at the host stand. The gentleman — handsome, forty, flirty, fab — led me back to a two-top behind the bar, where I sat wondering what it all meant.
When she finally arrived, Yates said, a little apologetically, “Ah, #34. You’re a normal.” When I was younger, I would have been crushed. Middle-aged now, I realize, yes, I am a normal. Normal is OK. Normal is normal. Yates, on the other hand, was and is beautiful, and I wondered, as I browsed the sort of wonderfully normcore menu, how she felt seeing the world from #34.
Though we were separated only by a small table, the delta between Courtney and I was vast. For me, the Coffee Shop was a terrifying adjudication of self-worth. For Yates, and the thousands of other model/waiters who worked there, it was the start of a glorious life in New York. “When I came here,” she said, “I didn’t know anyone.” She was a twenty-two-year-old model from Boston hired by Benitez, who was in charge of all staffing, and soon initiated into the Club of Beautiful People, a counterintuitively inclusive demographic. “Since we were all beautiful,” explains Yates, “no one was jealous or judgmental. We were like a Benetton ad.” She recounts with glee the hijinks and camaraderie of Coffee Shop survivors, who braved groping, grabbing, gooing, and gawing from the “Perve Curve,” a section of the undulating bar from which lascivious barflies cheesed on spindly waiters picking up their cocktails. She recalls the joy of the $2 staff menu and buying meals for assholes for the sole purpose of being able to tell them to go fuck themselves. “And I never got in trouble for it,” she says, still amazed after all these years.
Yates remembers the best section was the normals in the back, because it was always full, whereas the tables reserved for the beautiful and the famous — tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 — frequently sat empty. She recalls Nelly and Ashanti cuddling at table 101 in the back-back room, and David LaChapelle stopping by for brunch, like, all the time. She remembers how much she hated Susan Sarandon, a friend of the owner’s, for insisting that milkshakes stay on the menu — an item that, as any waiter anywhere will tell you, is a pain in the ass to make. “I can forgive her for coming out against Hillary,” says Yates, “but not the milkshakes.” She not only remembers her friends from the Coffee Shop, but still is friends with her friends from the Coffee Shop.
For Yates, everything flowed from here. It was here — exactly here at table #34 — where, after telling off a drunk d-bag, she was approached by a producer from CBS to appear on Survivor, which she did, twice, once in China and once as a villain on the Heroes vs. Villains season. It was here and, more precisely, around the corner where she’d repair after her shift to drink at the Park Bar until morning. It was here where she formed the sorts of friendships that do not decay with time. Friendships with guys like Ted, another waiter, older now, who still cat-sits for her. Ted isn’t hot. He’s awesome. He’s a school teacher who lives in the Bronx, teaches English to ESL students, and, hustling, has worked nights at the Coffee Shop since time immemorial. It’s Ted, Guardian Angel of Coffee Shop waiters, who is one of those quietly necessary people who cohere bonds of friendship and bonhomie, who keep things together when everything else falls apart.
The food comes. The best that can be said about it is that it is, indeed, food. The cheeseburger is, in fact, a cheeseburger. If I had ordered a grilled cheese, I’m sure it would be that. I imagine the calamari fritto would be either fried squid rings or fried bleached pig anuses. I would eat it either way and care little. Food was always the beard at the Coffee Shop. The real feast was for the eyes. Was.
As she looked around the half-full dining room, Yates seemed nonplussed. “What I tell my friends is that death is a part of life. The space and energy of the Coffee Shop will dissipate, to pop up in other aspects of your life.” Though she hasn’t worked there for years, Yates knew almost all the bussers and food runners and kitchen staff. “They’re here for years,” she says, “but the servers aren’t. Beauty turns over fast.”
Today there’s something noble, tragic, and just about the Coffee Shop. Its avowed insistence on physical beauty seems awkwardly out of step in today’s culture. But like a silent movie star who refuses talkies, the Coffee Shop is too proud or has too much integrity to adapt. Tables 6, 7, 8, and 9 are still reserved for the beautiful and famous patrons who will most likely never come again. Normals, like me, are still tucked, lonely, out of sight. The order of the world is preserved, even as that world disappears.
On the way out, Yates and I ran into Charles Milite, one of the owners. He’s in his fifties now, and, as with any older model, the sharpness of his features had been blotted by time. He was just passing by. He doesn’t go in much at all now. But he seemed to take the end of the Coffee Shop with a measure of equanimity and humor. “It’s going to make a great Chase Bank,” he said, flashing a sad smile that twinkled fetchingly in the hot night of a much changed city, one no longer with room for the Coffee Shop and all its beauties.