The New Wave of Light, Beachy New York City Cafés

"We saw that most New York coffee spots were dark and full of reclaimed woods, and we wanted to go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum," says Two Hands owner Giles Russell.

There's an appealing design trend emerging in the city right now: bright, relaxed cafés that look like they've flown into New York by way of sunnier climates such as California or Australia. In comparison to the austere, industrial spaces that have dominated coffee culture for the last several years, these bright, modern spots serve fresh food, pour high-quality coffee, (mostly) stay open through the evening, and have been built to invite conversation and collaboration. They're decked out with plants, hand-crafted pottery, hanging magazine racks, modern furniture, and plenty of white space. Take a look as these decidedly lighter, airer spots, straight ahead.

143 Division St., nr. Ludlow St., 212-240-9410
This tiny nook of a restaurant in Chinatown has become the go-to place for fashion-industry folks, in part because of its bright, chic design. Dimes feels like a Pinterest home come to life — where you can eat breakfast all day (açai bowls, egg tacos, pickled salmon), shop for hand-crafted pottery and apothecary products, and kick back with Kinfolk and Cherry Bombe. Owners Alissa Wagner and Sabrina De Sousa have made good use of every inch of their 20-seat space, adding a tiny bar, hidden storage (underneath the benches), a coffee counter with fruit and Ovenly cookies on display, and outdoor benches out front. It only looks effortless: "The buildout was pretty crazy," Wagner says. "It was in bad shape. Everything you see — we did ourselves ... We wanted people to come in and melt into the space. And in ten years, we wanted a design that would still be relevant."


Quinoa bowls, burrata salads, and Café Integral coffee.Photo: Liz Clayman

144 Decatur St., nr. Marcus Garvey Blvd., Brooklyn, 347-404-6832
Oliver Strand recently noted an influx of Australian cafés, which are something like a subculture of these light, breezy spots. Alex Hall, a Melbourne native who also owns Milk Bar, Bluebird Coffee Shop, and Rosella, has big plans for Brunswick. In June, he opened this Bed-Stuy location, and on Monday, he'll unveil a second outpost in Prospect Park. Hall worked with NADA's Jay Solomon on the interiors, with a goal of a "modern-minimalist design that doesn't feel like Ikea." Hall explains: "Anywhere you sit, I wanted something interesting for you to look at. Breaking it up into different zones is important, so that people are facing different ways." Plants work to soften Brunswick's bare walls, and Solomon and Hall even came up with a cheap alternative to art: They purchased a pegboard for $25 at a hardware store and painted geometric shapes onto it.


Hanging light fixtures, Counter Culture coffee, and eggs Benedict.Photo: Melissa Hom

El Rey Luncheonette
100 Stanton St., nr. Ludlow St., 212-260-3950
"The inspiration for the design was Southern California Brady Brunch," says owner Nick Morgenstern. "I knew from the very beginning that it would be all white, with lots of plants." Chef Gerardo Gonzalez's bright, light food at the café — chia-seed pudding, seasonal falafel, pine-nut cookies, and Kyoto iced coffee on tap — perfectly matches the beachy vibe. "We felt like the neighborhood needed something light and easy," Morgenstern says. "Things that felt dark, dingy, and heavy didn't feel good to me." It's the little details here that pop — Morgenstern actually lobbied the city for a year and half just so that he could put a tree in front of the shop.


Counter Culture coffee, plus snacks like a beet-pickled egg.Photo: Liz Clayman

Bluestone Lane
55 Greenwich Ave., nr. Perry St., 646-368-1988
Aussies Aaron Cook and Ashleigh Puyol recently opened their third Bluestone outpost — and this location is a full-service restaurant. The bright, relaxed space, designed by Julia Sullivan, is gigantic — especially considering the prime West Village location — and includes three distinct sections: a relaxed café up front; an airy indoor, suspended garden for restaurant-style dining; and a charming outdoor courtyard with fairy lights. "The genuine surprise on customers' faces when they find the courtyard for the first time is fantastic," Cook says. A fifth location of Bluestone is set to open near Astor Place in early 2015 — the fifth new Bluestone in under 18 months.


Succulents!Photo: Melissa Hom

Little Collins
667 Lexington Ave., nr. 56th St.; 212-308-1969
Leon Unglik named his midtown café after a street in Melbourne — and the mayor of the city actually hand-delivered the authentic Little Collins street sign on display. He collaborated with architect Lauren Caughley, a New Zealand native who's now based in New York, on the design, and says they tried to "capture the welcoming, neighborhood spirit of a local Melbourne café." The openness of the coffee-bar area is what makes this shop a leader in the design world: Little Collins was the first New York coffee shop to use the the ModBar, an under-counter brewing system that eliminates the physical barrier between the customer and the barista.


The food menu includes a schnitzel sandwich, toasted banana bread, and vegemite toast.Photo: Melissa Hom

Two Hands
164 Mott St., nr. Broome St., 917-475-1815
Like Dimes, this brand-new modern coffee shop has an unexpected address: It's right on the border between Little Italy and Chinatown. "We've been told that our store has served as a card house for the Italian mafia, an Italian grocery store, a Chinese bakery, and, most recently, a hair salon that was a front for a Chinese mahjongg house out the back," says Giles Russell, who owns the shop with fellow Aussie expat, Henry Roberts. "We tried to restore the space to have a lot of those original historical features, like the original brick walls and the cast-iron pillars." To make the space feel bright and open, they created a wide aisle, added a hanging magazine rack, and purchased furniture from Henry Wilson's A-joint series. "We saw that most New York coffee spots were dark and full of reclaimed woods, and we wanted to go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, with an excess of natural light, white walls, and white tiles. We really felt this would be a breath of fresh air into the New York coffee scene."


Is there a cooler way to display magazines?Photo: Melissa Hom