It’s just like you’ve dreamed it—or is it a dream? Slipping across the passenger pickup lanes to the grand white building beckoning across from Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 5, you seem to have left the current century behind. You’re under the swooping canopies of Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Airlines Flight Center, rebirthed just this spring as the TWA Hotel. Its elegant lines encircle and confuse you: the building is all seabird-in-flight on the outside, aquarium castle on the inside. Red is everywhere. Particularly suave-looking pilots—and stylish stewardesses (dressed like they are definitely still called stewardesses)—are milling about. So many people are taking photographs of the space at all times, all walkers’ footsteps seem to rhythmically stop every few seconds to let people finish their shots. To make sure this resurrected landscape isn’t a reverie, you could really use a great cup of coffee.
Luckily, whoever dreamt this place up thought of everything.
Intelligentsia Coffee‘s newest location in New York City is a bit further-flung than its High Line Hotel cafe (or the short-lived Herald Square location that came before it). In fact, it’s all the way out in Jamaica, Queens, conveniently accessible by car, subway, Long Island Railroad, or, well, jet plane.
The cafe sits just inside the “street” entrance of this former flight terminal, designed by Saarinen when JFK was still called Idlewild. It first opened in 1962—a year after Saarinen’s untimely death—and ceased operations as a terminal when TWA folded in 2001. The portion of the complex that still stands today is known as the Head House, and is perhaps the most unusual building on the National Register of Historic Places in which you can get a top-of-the-line single origin Burundian coffee and a matcha croissant.
Though it seems Intelligentsia could’ve been selected for this spot for branding compatibility alone—their red and white color scheme and winged coffee cup seem eerily predestined to have landed here—they simply had an existing relationship with the developer. MCR Development, whose High Line Hotel renovation brought the Chicago-and-Los-Angeles-based roaster to NYC for the first time, tapped the company once more to anchor the lobby café at TWA. Intelligentsia joins a suite of other hand-picked brands like Warby Parker, Detroit-based Shinola, two restaurants operated by NYC chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and a bookstore and “Reading Room” collaboration between Phaidon Books and Herman Miller.
Beyond its retailers fitting in to MCR’s vision of approachable luxury brands, the developer had one additional requirement, says Intelligentsia VP of Retail Lori Haughey. “Other than wanting the coffee bar to flow and work, it had to look like it had been there since 1958,” she said.
This would present some challenges.
“You really have to be so careful in these historical locations that you do not do anything to hurt them, by way of electric and plumbing,” Haughey says. “We wanted to do as little coring as possible.” For example, installing a reverse osmosis water filtration system required running a line more than 150 feet from point A to point B in the hotel’s basement. Electricity-wise, the TWA hotel maintains its own power supply, says Haughey, which made the power demands of an espresso bar a little interesting. “When I said we needed 400 amps, the looks on [the electricians’] faces were like, ‘That’s a lot of juice!’”
At the end of the day, the result is a fashionable success: a sleek, white, minimal-lined coffee bar hugs the wall near the north side of the hotel lobby, near a vintage BMW Isetta microcar that looks a little like it’s crashed there. The bar is lined with two red, vintage-looking (but brand new) La Marzocco KB90 espresso machines, a three-group Poursteady, and an array of taps for nitro coffee, cold brew, and iced and sparkling Kilogram teas. Pastries are brought in from Lower East Side bakery Supermoon Bakehouse, and all can be enjoyed in a nearby seating area, or in the hotel’s famed Sunken Lounge just a few steps further, up to the mezzanine and down again. The attractive pilots and flight attendants dotting the retro landscape may just be paid models—but do you even care anymore?
No fewer than three auxilliary coffee carts (and a converted Citroën truck parked outside!) are on hand for potential morning coffee rushes, and can be relocated easily according to need. This is particularly helpful as the rooms themselves do not include coffee makers, something Haughey says is consistent with the High Line Hotel’s philosophy as well.
“They don’t do room service and they don’t have coffee in the rooms,” she says. “I think they really want to create an environment of come on down, make community, create the energy, activate the lobby space. Get a cup of coffee and go sit in the Sunken Lounge. People do come down in their robes.”
And for Intelligentsia, being the only coffee amenity in this iconic landscape is more than a bit of a coup, for which the roaster seems easily up to the challenge. So whether you’re on a staycation, a layover, a destination visit or some magical overlap of all three—make sure to take some time for coffee between your time planespotting at the rooftop pool, having cocktails in the Lockheed Constellation parked out back, or playing with the in-room Etch-a-Sketch.
Do you dream of enjoying a single origin Direct Trade coffee in your bathrobe at the Sunken Lounge? Go ahead. Take those wings and fly.
Intelligentsia Coffee in the TWA Hotel is located at 6 Central Terminal Area, Jamaica (JFK Terminal 5). Visit their official website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network and the co-author of Where to Drink Coffee. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.