Some cafes are made for coffee; others for meeting up with friends; others to meet new people; still others to sit and read. My favorite cafes, however, are the ones made for people-watching: where you can spend a full afternoon, evening, night, until morning - and then repeat the same routine again - sitting, drinking coffee after coffee, carefully observing everyone who is in the cafe and who walks by. The art of people-watching involves studying the subjects, guessing who they are, where they are coming from, where they are going, what they are doing, what they are thinking. The experienced people-watcher is the same as the amateur social scientist.
Here is a list of my favorite places from which I people-watch in my hometown, New York. Each one attracts a different crowd, so choose your cafe carefully.
If you make it to any of these, let me know what you think.
Yaffa is as kitsch as it is fun. Quintessentially East Village, Yaffa attracts the best of that crowd, people as creatively dressed and as fun as Yaffa itself looks from just a quick glance. Free condoms with the meal only add to the ambiance. Unfortunately, Yaffa is not designed to promote meeting people; go there with a group of friends, and expect to leave with the same. Open 24 hours, Yaffa is the perfect place to end up for a 5am bagel after going out all night at nearby Stingy Lulu's.
St Marks Place (8th), between 1st and 2nd
Pick Me Up
If happiness is about expectation management, then Cafe Pick Me Up should have a hard time living up to the high expectations set by its name. Luckily for Pick Me Up's proprietors, though, it does live up to it: the small, crowded together tables create the perfect atmosphere for meeting new people. Almost every time I'm there, I meet nearby people, and often leave with new friends. The melted candles create the perfect ambiance complimented by incessant salsa music playing there. The outdoor seating provides one of the best spots in the city to people-watching passer-bys.
A and 9th
Alt.coffee -- the original Internet cafe -- is more like a cafe right down the street from Bob's hostel in Amsterdam than in New York City. The denizens of the cafe, young with their post-grungy look, look like they have just arrived in New York straight from Amsterdam or Prague; they often have. Alt.coffee is the friendlist cafe in Manhattan; I always meet people when I'm there and, more often then not, they have something interesting to tell me. Some days women vastly outnumber men, and some days vice-versa. The great lighting, comfortable couches, strong air conditioning, and the fact that they never kick out make it the perfect place to spend an afternoon or evening reading.
A between St. Mark's Place (8th) and 9th
The newest cafe on this list, Esperanto has quickly found its niche. Open 24 hours and in the West Village -- which was in desperate need of a 24 hour cafe (and is in need of more) -- Esperanto looks like a throwback to the 19th century cafe in the Mediterranean, complete with high ceilings, high windows, and old-fashioned ceiling fans (and no air conditioning). Esperanto comes in a close second to Alt.coffee for the friendlist cafe in the city: Esperanto is small, each table crowded next to another, so anyone friendly is bound to meet his neighbors. The crowd is very West Village -- most people who frequent there look like, indeed are, NYU undergraduates -- and thus cleaner and more Upper Middle Class than the crowds of the East Village cafes. But the typical NYU student rarely frequents here (prefering instead the nearby bars); the students that look like they are aspiring actors are there night after night.
Macdougal, between West 3rd and Bleeker
DT/UT knows the vibe it is going for: its name stands for "Downtown/Uptown" and that is what it strives and it achieves, to create a downtown feel uptown. Architecturally, the cafe succeeds fantastically; with its exposed brick walls, couches, close seating, this could be any cafe on St. Mark's Place. But something is profoundly different between DT/UT and its downtown brethren: the crowd, which is absolutely, utterly, and overwhelmingly - and unsurprisingly - uptown. Everyone in there is wearing their Upper East Side uniform, complete with white collar button down shirts they wore to the office, nicely complimented by a baseball cap left over from the days living in the Frathouse. The geekier among them have laptops too, for there is wireless Internet access here. For those of us who rarely frequent the Upper East Side, DT/UT offers a glimpse into the world of grown-up fratboys in a fun environment; a different, and often baffling, world to people-watch altogether. Also unsurprising, given DT/UT's location in the center of the district where people actually dedicate time to making themselves look beautiful, the women who frequent DT/UT, although young, post-college types, are among the best-looking in the city.
2nd between 84th & 85th