Lana Del Rey is crooning in the background and Sightglass espresso shots are blowing out from a shiny silver La Marzocco. Tragically hip West Village dwellers hunch atop backless industrial metal stools perched over laptops along a window that peers out to Charles Street while couples occupy a collection of five tables in a designated laptop-free zone. If you've dined at Dimes, a fashionable SoCal-inspired cafe in Chintatown, then stepping into The Elk might prompt a feeling of déjà vu. And that's because hip carpentry team Ennis McIntosh is responsible for both Dimes' and The Elk's angular blonde wood banquettes and simple cafe tables. The same design duo also crafted furniture for hip clothing brand Acne's New York office, and did some work for popular jean company J Brand, and the fact that Elk owner Claire Chan chose to work with a group that dabbles in both cuisine and clothing is no accident.
About a year and a half ago, Chan left her job in New York as a women's wear buyer for Bergdorf Goodman. She moved to San Francisco for a few months to work at her brother's cafe in San Francisco, Beacon Coffee & Pantry, with the intent to learn the business and eventually open her own place in New York. There in San Francisco, she met the Sightglass Coffee team, which has been her roaster of choice in the West Village since The Elk started brewing this past October.
Food and fashion are colliding now more so than ever. Rag & Bone in the Meatpacking District is equipped with an outlet of Jack's Stir Brew Coffee, and Saturdays Surf is also doing the coffee thing in Soho, while restaurants like Dimes, Nourish Kitchen Table, and Victory Garden, are breaking out from just food to sell locally made goods and tack on apothecary sections. The Elk is just the latest edition to the batch of trendy cafes pursuing the lifestyle angle.
The Elk's full name is "The Elk: A Specialty Coffee Shop & General Store." But the "general store" area is really just a wall of well-curated artisanal products, like Prospector Co. beard oil and Bees Knees Spicy Honey. That's ok, though, because the main draw here are the excellent Sightglass espresso-based drinks and a thoughtfully healthy menu devised by surfer chef Sam Talbot. From the beginning, Chan had wanted to serve a small menu of simple, high quality healthy eats. Though she had planned on coffee being The Elk's focus, once Talbot came onboard, food became an equal draw. Luckily, their vision for the menu aligned. Talbot is diabetic, and therefore he embraces healthier eats on his own. At The Elk, he has seamlessly infused his own conscious approach to food in a way that feels comfortable and approachable and not too glaringly granola.
Prior to The Elk, another coffee shop, Mojo Coffee, occupied 128 Charles Street for seven years. The cafe had a faithful neighborhood clientele, and while the coffee wasn't exactly third wave, denizens came in for some staple dishes like an egg wrap and a salmon-topped bagel. When Chan took over, she wanted to riff off those popular dishes but present them with a heather spin. So, The Elk serves its own whole wheat egg wrap, made with Sauder's eggs, hummus, roasted red peppers, and onions. The bagel-salmon situation, meanwhile, makes an appearance with house-made caper aioli and greens.
The Elk has one menu that's served daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., which offers both breakfast and lunch. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. one can pop in for drinks or grab-and-go foods like Balthazar pastries or peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies by Ovenly. There are usually also a few fresh bottled juices at the ready, maybe pear and a green blend, thought with such a small space, Chan explains that she can't really do too much. Eats are pretty straight forward, but with a thoughtful spin. There's yogurt and fruit with house-made cashew-quinoa granola, and chia pudding with coconut bee pollen crumble, plus a couple egg options for the breakfast crowd. Lunch dishes range from a chicken sandwich to a market veggie bowl over brown rice to a kale caesar. Technically the zucchini toast and avocado toast with pumpkin seeds are listed as breakfast, but both make for an appropriate and satiating afternoon snack on multigrain bread from Balthazar.
Pretty much everything is prepped in The Elk's subterranean kitchen, save for the bread and baked goods. Though The Elk offers seasonal specials that change ever other day, Chan wanted to keep the menu tight, offering up just enough easy and delicious options. For the winter she's focusing on soups, though there's usually a salad special as well as one made from ingredients bought at the Union Square Greenmarket, which Chan visits twice a week to restock on local goods. Though much of The Elk's menu is vegetable-based, there are a few animals options. Wild-caught salmon dresses a bagel, hormone-free chicken lands in that chicken sandwich, and another sandwich calls for North Country Black Forest ham.
Chan says she misses home. And so she's opened a cozy West Coast-vibing cafe, dressed from heat to toe in pine, channeling the woodsy, earthy nature of the Pacific Northwest. Does it feel like home? Chan thinks so.