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West Village Coffee Bars Remake NYC’s Classic Breakfast Sandwich

Eater's senior critic samples five terrific sandwiches at cafes below 14th Street

Spaces are tight and real estate prices high in the West Village, a part of Greenwich Village that extends from Seventh Avenue South to the Hudson River, between Houston and West 14th. Many traditional breakfast spots, including small cafes and diners, have gone out of business, to be replaced by designer boutiques, big-ticket restaurants, and perpetually empty storefronts. Even finding a deli that does the city’s traditional egg-on-a-roll has become difficult. What’s a hungry person to do for breakfast?

One of the gustatory institutions that has thrived in this historic neighborhood — which was once a tobacco-farming village, and refuge from the city’s 18th-century smallpox and cholera epidemics — is the coffee bar. Over a dozen dot the neighborhood, proving that coffee markups combined with a high rate of java consumption has made these institutions economically viable. Or are they? Increasingly, the coffee bars of the West Village are becoming restaurants, too, installing kitchens in the basements of their tiny spaces and offering a limited menu of stylish breakfast and lunch fare.

In this way they have come to replace the cafes and diners that once provided reasonably priced meals to the neighborhood. But whereas those budget institutions mainly dealt in sandwiches, burgers, and soups, today’s coffee bars provide more contemporary fare, such as panini, grain bowls, salads, and toasts. In fact, a glance at the coffee bar menus — more often chalked on the wall than printed on paper — reveals a larder that would have been nearly unrecognizable a decade ago, one that runs to quinoa, acai, avocado, and kale.

But one thing a menu can’t do without is a breakfast sandwich. Instead of the classic kaiser roll with egg, bacon, and cheese flipped from innumerable griddles in convenience stores and cafes, we have a modern revamping. At The Elk (128 Charles St, 212-933-4780), a bright and busy spot on secluded Charles Street not far from the river, a cage-free egg is deposited on a potato panino roll with ham, cheddar, roasted tomato, and kale, too — doubtlessly fulfilling your daily antioxidant requirements. The yolk bursts almost immediately, proving that today’s coffee bar breakfast sandwiches are best eaten with a knife and fork.

[The Elk and Grounded Organic Coffee and Tea House]

At Toby’s Estate (44 Charles St, 646-590-1924), a Brooklyn roaster with a branch competitively located right across the street from Dominic Ansel Kitchen on 7th Avenue South, the scrambled egg toast ($9.95) features a free-form omelet on an avocado-smeared toast with a colorful sprinkling of crushed red pepper, which provides a nice morning kick in the pants. With a larger menu than most coffee bars, the 11th Street Café (327 West 11th Street, 212-924-3804) revels in its obscure location on a side street that sweeps down to the Hudson River piers. The menu has become increasingly more ambitious, including a salmon toast ($12) that places slices of smoke fish on a pair of runny fried eggs with crème fraiche squiggled on top. Don’t even try to eat it while walking.

[Clockwise from the top left: a breakfast wrap from Grounded, The Bodega from High Street on Hudson, egg sandwich from The Elk, salmon toast from 11th Street Cafe.]

It almost seems a bit retrograde, but Grounded Organic Coffee and Tea House (28 Jane St, 212-647-0943) reconfigures its daybreak sandwich as a "breakfast wrap" stuffed with eggs, cheddar, and crumbled sausage, finishing it in the warm embrace of the panini press. The place is spacious, and feels like a garage rumpus room. The best part is the price ($5.25). Of course, no discussion of the evolution of the breakfast sandwich in the West Village is complete without mention of High Street on Hudson (637 Hudson St, 917-388-3944). In the morning it functions as a coffee bar with plenty of off-the-wall breakfast sandwich choices. The best is a re-do of the classic egg on a roll: The Bodega ($13) places a neatly folded ovum on a square, flat biscuit, with sage sausage, farmhouse cheddar, and a spicy mayo dressing that oozes at the edges. And yes, you have to eat it with a knife and fork.

Top photo: Toby's Estate scrambled egg toast

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