It's all smiles at Cafe Grumpy

NEW YORK — Until last year, Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was mostly known as a destination for the serious coffee drinker, the type of place where each modestly sized cup is individually brewed and goes for $4 a pop.

Now, thanks to "Girls," the polarizing HBO series in which Lena Dunham stars as Hannah Horvath, a self-involved writer and reluctant Café Grumpy barista, and Alex Karpovsky as Ray, her angsty, thirtysomething boss, the shop has achieved a measure of fame that extends well beyond New York's coffee connoisseurs.

Like Tom's Restaurant, the Upper West Side diner whose exterior stood in for Monk's Cafe on "Seinfeld," or Magnolia Bakery, where Carrie and Miranda feasted on cupcakes on "Sex and the City," Café Grumpy has turned into a pilgrimage site for those who identify with the show's confused characters.

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The coffee shop took on a more prominent role in recently concluded Season 2, particularly in an episode where Hannah skips out on a shift for a tryst with a handsome, older patron played by Patrick Wilson.

But unlike "Sex and the City" enthusiasts, who can tour that show's most celebrated locations via bus, "Girls" fans have to schlep out to the industrial hinterlands of Brooklyn to pose for Instagram self-portraits in front of the distinctive Grumpy logo (a crabby-looking coffee bean).

Meanwhile, the cafe's location down the block from Broadway Stages, the studio that houses shows such as "The Good Wife" and "Smash," has made it a favorite watering hole for New York's production community and a go-to location for the increasing number of series that film in the neighborhood, including the popular CBS crime drama "Blue Bloods."

On a recent afternoon, Lizinke Kruger, an 18-year-old tourist and "Girls" fan from Cape Town, South Africa, had braved the miserable, rainy weather and the arduous trip to Greenpoint via the much-maligned G train, all to catch a glimpse of the fictional Hannah's workplace.

"It's an epic show. There's a sense of reality in it. It's relatable in a lot of ways," Kruger said.

When owner Caroline Bell first opened Café Grumpy in 2005, she had no inkling it would become a pop-culture landmark. Her goal was simply "to create a place where people could get a good quality cup of coffee."

Business was slow at first — there isn't much foot traffic on this quiet side street, a solid 10-minute walk from the subway — but Broadway Stage provided a steady stream of caffeine-dependent customers over the years.

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Bell opened a second Café Grumpy in Chelsea in 2006, and it quickly earned a following among Manhattan coffee snobs for its constantly rotating menu of single-origin brews.

Now there are four locations in the city.

The original Greenpoint cafe has grown in tandem with the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where production has surged in recent years.

With its unusual mix of "old" and "new" Brooklyn, plus direct views of the midtown skyline, the area is like catnip for location managers.

"Just the dichotomy of stuff you can do is really exciting," says Collin Smith, location manager for "Blue Bloods" and a frequent Café Grumpy patron. (The coffee shop has been used at least three times on the series.)

In the last three months of 2012 alone, some 33 television projects were filmed in Community Board 1, an area that includes Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

That's nearly double the total from the same period in 2011.

"For 'Girls,' it began as just another rental, which are part of doing business in this neighborhood," Bell says. "But the fact it became another character onthe show was a cool thing."

Café Grumpy's real-life staffers are unfazed by their proximity to fame and noticeably more ambitious than their on-screen counterparts.

Kat Palen, a 27-year-old barista, recently relocated to New York from Chicago to pursue a career in coffee.

She settled on Café Grumpy because of its Kenya pour-over, not because of "Girls" — in fact, she's never seen a single episode of the show.

"I don't have HBO. I have, like, rabbit ears and the Internet," she says. Her dad, though, is a big fan. "He just says that Lena Dunham — is that the name? She's really smart. She reminds him of me."

Similarly, manager Jesse Kohn, 24, an aspiring fiction writer, has to rely on his parents for "Girls" updates.

"They're really cool, they watch more TV than I do," he says, wearily stacking cups at the tail end of a shift that began at 6:15 a.m.

Whatever the case may be, an employee as flighty and unreliable as Hannah would not last long at the real Café Grumpy.

"We had a guy bring in a Nabokov book and put it on top of the espresso machine and just stand there reading his book, which I thought was hysterical," Bell recalls. "Yeah, that doesn't work. You actually have to work hard."

meredith.blake@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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