For about a hundred years between the ninteenth and twentieth centuries, a stretch of 10th and 11th Avenues in Manhattan was a daily horror show, where great mechanized beasts of industry inflicted regular destruction on the residents of Chelsea. This was courtesy of the Hudson River Railroad, whose trains ran at street level through the tenement neighborhood and would regularly squash people — like out of some Dickensian nightmare, many of them were schoolchildren, run down mostly during the winter — as they went about their business. The area was so notorious it even got a cute nickname in the papers at the time: Death Avenue.
Like many places in Manhattan, what was once horrifying or depressing is now chic. Exhibit A: Death Ave, a “Hellenic-inspired” restaurant and café that opened in December, which takes its name from the area’s horrible history. Where tenement dwellers were once crushed to death, now you can get some pretty great cup of joe. As the old saying goes, ashes to ashes, dust to decaf.
On a blustery Friday I walk into the sleek, stylish restaurant and meet Stamatis “Steve” Dimakis, the bar manager, who has, in the past, lent his talents to various upscale Greek establishments in midtown, including Milos, Avra, and Limani. Today, in the to-go café adjacent to the restaurant, he has agreed to prepare two of Death Ave’s signature caffeinated beverages for me.
To that end, Steve fires up a hovoli — an antique coffee machine that looks not unlike a zen garden desk toy— and adds fine coffee grinds, sugar, and a bit of bottled water to one of the metal briki that rests on its bed of dark sand. As he stirs, the liquid heats up slowly and evenly, and just as it starts to rise to the top of the pot he removes it, pouring it into a small white espresso cup. This is Greek coffee ($3.75), a muddy, slightly foamy, and delicious bitter brew that Death Ave’s owner, Michael Tzezailidis, tells me has its origins in ye olde Yemen. Old-school Greek coffee, he says, was made over hot coals, and today, it’s most commonly made over a burner. But the hovoli is probably the coolest way to make it. You won’t find too many of the devices in Greece, and you’ll find even fewer here in the United States.
Steve, who is Michael’s cousin, was raised in Athens, and he remembers making his first Greek coffee at the age of 11 for his grandmother. “I grew up with my parents and grandparents asking me to make it and yelling at me because I didn’t make it the way they wanted,” he says. Clearly, he’s figured it out in the intervening years.
For a long time, Greek-style java was considered the preferred coffee beverage of Greek grandparents, Steve says. But more recently, it’s gained popularity among younger generations. Still, he tells me, the drink of choice for young Greeks is unquestionably the frappe, which he prepares next for me, mixing together a scoop and a half of instant coffee, bottled water, milk and ice.
“It’s made with instant coffee, but it’s not meant to be a quick drink,” he says. “This could last you an hour in Greece, just sipping slowly. My American cousins came to Greece and would drink them in two minutes like a milkshake and they’d go nuts. You’re not supposed to do that!”
I can understand the confusion. A frappe sort of looks like a coffee milkshake, and it sort of tastes like one too, though it’s a not as sweet or as thick. It’s also really good, and it takes all my self-restraint not to make like an American cousin and down it in a few gulps. Perhaps to encourage me to take my time, Steve serves the drink to me in a plastic cup, which I take out half-finished as I leave the restaurant, more than slightly wired.
Back out in the world, I cross 10th Avenue and, to my delight, am not run over by a train or any other vehicle. Sipping on my cold, tasty frappe, I walk in the sunshine through this thoroughly modern, thoroughly safe neighborhood, and feel truly grateful to be living in the twenty-first century.