There are some cafes that capture your heart instantly. They're the ones that feel intimate. The ones where you can sit and stay awhile, or grab your morning coffee before a day around the city. El Rey Café is one of those spaces, decorated to perfection making me reconsider any home decor decision I've ever made.
I sat down with El Rey partner, Sam Wessner to chat food, coffee and decor: my three favorite things.
Name Location Occupation
Sam Wessner; 100 Stanton Street; Partner, El Rey Café
Tell us about El Rey. How did it come to be?
Me and my business partner Nicholas Morgenstern were looking for spaces kind of to do a café or a bar, and this space came up. We brainstormed what kind of concept would work down here in this small space. But we really wanted to create the type of European café where you could stand and get a quick espresso or have a soda or seltzer and something that you can eat. We did the housemade pastries at first, and as we realized more and more people coming in mid day wanting more substantial options, we kind of switched our focus and built up this kitchen and started a luncheonette.
What inspired the décor?
That was a long process. We kind of designed it on the fly. We didn’t have formal plans going in—we had ideas of what we wanted to do. But we decided to change the ceiling, added beams…it kind of resembles the Brady Bunch roof. We decided to paint everything white, and as we started adding more elements it got this sort of Palm Springs feel. We kind of just kept on going with it. Ya everything was designed on the fly. Me and Nick and Tim Miller, who built a bunch of bars in the city, built it out, and that was quite the process.
You’ve got a great blend of coffee and beer. Why did you decide to bring the two together?
The idea was that in a European café, those are two products that are usually married together. Where the transition between morning and afternoon is kind of seamless. So we thought as 4 p.m. comes what type of thing can we serve? We liked the idea of serving a small beer. So we serve all our beers in two sizes: a smaller size and a larger size, just to kind of create that casual environment.
If you’re a beer person, you know a lot of [the beers on tap] are harder to find. All of them are more on the interesting side. So they rotate through depending on the season. We have an Evil Twin that is a really great beer that’s harder to get.
There’s nothing standard about your food menu. Tell us about your menu and head chef Gerardo
Gerardo had been baking the pastries, and so when we started doing the lunch menu he started developing recipes. He’s originally from Mexico and lived in California, so I think his style really comes through. If he can do gluten free or vegetarian or vegan he will. Everything is very fresh—very clean. It’s all seasonal and for the most part local if we can get it. It’s a really creative menu.
We’re trying to incorporate other people in the community. The other night we did a baking class on how to bake the gluten free buckwheat chocolate cake and we’re bringing in guest bakers to kind of come in and take over the kitchen.
Where do you gain inspiration?
The thing that excites me is the creation of the physical space. Just as much as the coffee and the food are important, I think also just as much is how people interact in the space. Why do they want to come in here? So that’s most motivating for me. How do you create a space that people want to be in and interact in besides their home and their work?
What is your coffee order?
Always black drip. I rarely do anything with milk.
Sam Wessner was photographed on April 1, 2014 wearing his brand, Noble Denim