It's the kind of place you went with your punk friend who drove a Jetta that she bought herself. You probably ordered a peanut butter cup latte and a plate of rainbow cookies—finally, no one was stopping you—and let the caffeine and sugar fuel the conversation and the drama as you sat on plush, mismatched couches. The light was low and the decor created a sense of endless Halloween, with colorful glass mosaics on wrought-iron tables.
This cafe is Witches Brew in West Hempstead, Long Island. Housed in what was once a general store, sisters Natalie and Alabama Miceli opened it in 1996. It has been a teen staple ever since, first serving the kind of alt kids who shopped at Hot Topic (or its local counterpart, Utopia) and joined their high school's Amnesty International club. Boasting a massive menu of flavored lattes and vegan desserts at just the right time, its popularity grew through word of mouth. You had to know someone cool to know that this was a cool place to go. They still don't have a website.
Even as the goth teens have mostly grown up and moved to Brooklyn, Witches Brew has remained the standard-bearer of independent cafes on the island. The menu has expanded to include a selection of savory items, making it a later-night destination not just for dessert cravings. As times have changed, though, so has the clientele. It's popular on Instagram for its goth trappings—cementing it in a 1996, Gen-X definition of disaffected hipness—and the tall swirls of whipped cream they serve atop lattes in Mason jars.
"I look back at the Witches Brew as this great teen hangout for the misplaced," Annamaria Santoro, a Queens native who also had a friend with a Jetta, told me about her days hanging there in the late 90s. "My friends and I would go Friday and Saturday nights. I think we always went because it was a really special place for a goth/alternative 90s teen. You couldn't even find something like that in the city. It was suburban cool."
Liz Koenig, now a 30-year-old social media manager, says it was "a place where, as a teenager, I could go without an ID and just enjoy my friends' company and not give a fuck about anything. I always felt like the crowd was full of like-minded folks. Never did I feel judged, either."
What Witches Brew provides is a space for life's in-between phase, when you want to escape watchful parental eyes but can't yet go to a bar. It's also a place to experiment with an alternative diet like vegetarianism or veganism without someone rolling their eyes at you. It's for when you're seeking out the suburban precursors to where you think you'll spend your fully realized urban bohemian future.
"I think it was one of the few places on Long Island that was like 'the city,' or what I imagined nightlife in the city would be as an adult," writer Roshan Abraham said of his trips to Witches Brew. When he and a friend went back recently, though, their nostalgia was blocked: "It was getting kind of late and there aren't a lot of places to hang out, so we both simultaneously had this thought of, 'Hey, what if we went to Witches Brew?' even though maybe 12 or 13 years ago is the last time I remember going there with her. As soon as we got there, we saw a long line of nervous, insecure-looking 15- or 16-year-olds waiting outside. I asked them if they were waiting just to get inside and one kid was like, 'Yeah, this sucks.' We went to Dunkin' Donuts instead, which has less atmospheric lighting."
Halloween is looming when I go on my own trip back to Witches Brew. My punk friend with the Jetta had a baby and moved across the country, so I'm driving myself in a Scion hatchback and hoping to find an atmospheric magic that allows the menu to transcend what could very well be kitschy mediocrity, a Rainforest Café for 90s nostalgics.
We arrive at 8 PM on a Saturday to a line already slightly curling around to a residential street. There are families and teens alike, and everyone inside and on line is taking selfies. A woman driving down the street yells, "Oh yeah, Witches Brew! Woooo!" at all of us waiting to get inside as we would for a ride at Disney World. Behind us, a man who makes anti-Semitic and homophobic comments decides to walk across the street to Burger King; his girlfriend is insistent about how she wants to be seated, saying, "I did not drive 45 minutes to sit at a table; I want a couch. I came for the ambiance."
This is, maybe, not the same place teens came for a sense of belonging in the late 90s and early 00s, through no fault of Witches Brew itself. It has remained unchanged, and it's never advertised to get this kind of hype. The kids are still kids, too: I ask a group of teens why they're here, and they say, in chorus, "We needed somewhere to go." They're mostly 16 but one, Rebecca, is 17. She's the driver. "What kind of car do you have?" I ask, hoping for the answer I want. "A 2010 Volkswagen Jetta," she replies, slightly confused by my line of inquiry.
If it were a place interested in turning over tables to take care of the line that only stretches longer as the night goes on, they would've abandoned their couches and tiny tables for a more traditional restaurant setup long ago. But like the idiot's girlfriend said: People don't drive 45 minutes for the food. They want to be seated on couches or up against red velvet-covered walls in a space that resembles a kooky aunt's house, where they can drink lattes called Vagabond while a playlist of 80s darkwave soundtracks the night.
The massive drink and dessert menu is as I remember it, styled like a zine or DIY show poster of black-and-white photocopied cutouts. From the Aloha Mocha to Black Widow to Revolution, the drinks all have cute names and are filled with sweet syrups. They've been perfected over almost 20 years, though, and the flavors are balanced. The Aloha Mocha has pineapple, coconut, and chocolate; instead of a sensory overload, the pineapple cuts the richness of the other two. I've been told that some patrons sneak in booze to add to their espresso, and this one would be great with a shot of rum. Vegan desserts are made in-house, and a brownie à la mode covered in peanut butter, Dandies marshmallows, and fudge is an ode to teen palates. The texture of the brownie fudgy and moist; the peanut butter doesn't overwhelm.
The food menu is secondary. Witches Brew only opened its kitchen three years ago and has been offering extremely standard vegetarian fare: a "turkey" and Swiss club, falafel, potato-leek soup, and goat cheese crostinis. But it doesn't have to be mind-blowing; vegetarian food is spread out and hard to come by on Long Island, and despite its proximity to New York City, it's one of the worst places to eat as a vegan. Witches Brew, by serving any food at all, is doing a service—but the ambiance is what's kept it so alive.
Many American teens had their own Witches Brew somewhere; most are not still open, much less garnering seemingly endless lines. Artist Crystal Hernandez, from Lorain, Ohio, went to Classique Café to drink hot chocolate and sober up. It was a vegetarian restaurant in a near-abandoned strip mall where she'd always play "Enjoy the Silence" by Depeche Mode on the jukebox and brood. In New Jersey, writer Eric Nelson found Montclair's now-closed Café Eclectic to be a fancier alternative to the highway's ubiquitous diners. "It made you feel like more of an adult, like you were sophisticated and, aside from a car, gave you a sense of independence," Nelson says. In Appleton, Wisconsin, poet Abigail Welhouse found sanctuary at Harmony Café; it was at their open mic nights that she first read her work.
These spaces are also not exclusive to suburbia. Writer and teacher Adalena Kavanagh grew up in Manhattan's Washington Heights but was drawn downtown by the promise of artier environs. In 1997, she found herself spending a lot of time at Alt. Café in Alphabet City: "The cash register had a Starfucks sticker and the coffee probably sucked by today's high-end standards, but Alt. Cafe was a place where you could sit for hours doing nothing but talking and reading zines people left scattered about."
For Alex Bernson, going to coffee shops while growing up in Seattle during the early aughts set his whole life into motion. "I was waiting for my coffee by the machine, and as the barista served me my cappuccino, she also handed me a cup of a French-pressed Yemen Mocca Sanani they were sampling. She looked me in the eyes, gave me a devilish grin, and said, 'Try this, it tastes like strawberries.' And fuck me, it tasted like strawberries. The affirmation of my tasting abilities, combined with the incredible flavor, created an incredible rush that hooked me completely." He now does media consultation for coffee companies. "Those baristas also showed me how to be gay and proud, how to smoke pot like a Northwester, what an IPA is …"
Before Blue Bottle and Stumptown brought coffee snobbery to a very specific demographic, many of us were using cafes in our teen years to define ourselves. To have a latte preference was as critical as crowd-surfing or wearing Docs. Places like Witches Brew taught us this at a very tender time. If you grow up with access to an indie cafe, you'll always feel a bit dirty drinking a cup from Starbucks or Dunkin'.
As Witches Brew approaches its 20th birthday, it can probably feel safe in the knowledge that there will always be teens who need somewhere to go and older people looking for a nostalgic kick, a decent latte, or spooky ambiance. It can afford to stay the same, to not have a website, to keep creating DIY signage and only accepting cash. It's such a special respite to everyone stuck on Long Island, which is why it's still open and thriving while so many others have closed. The goths might be gone, but their spirit lives on.