Is it a coffee house or a mystical lair?
A night at Witches Brew Coffeehouse in West Hempstead, skeleton heads hanging from the rafters, reveals all its eccentricities.
Upon entering, you can't miss a scratched wooden piano, thrust against a wall covered with burgundy crushed velvet. On top are two glass vases filled with dead roses. Further in, some walls are black or covered in leopard print, the rooms lit only by orange light bulbs, flickering candles and draped holiday lights. Clusters of tufted couches, marble tables and antique floral high-back chairs add to the ambience.
"It's just creepy-looking, so it reminds me of Halloween," says Lanna Solinsky, 23, of Manhattan, while waiting to be seated one recent Friday night with boyfriend Adam Sosnik, 24, of Merrick. "It's cool in here . . . like watching 'The Munsters' in black and white."
Creating a sense of coziness, along with hard work and a fiercely loyal customer base, has kept Witches Brew with lines out the door many of its 15 years.
Sisters Natalie and Alabama Miceli, of West Hempstead, founded the coffeehouse in their early 20s after seeing a "For Rent" sign in the window. What has emerged is a family business, co-owned with husbands Danny Fink, 35, and Jonas James, 41, who creates all of the vegan desserts in-house, and operated with the help of the Miceli's mother, Anna, and brother, Michael.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, the coffeehouse was known as a haven for punk rock and Goth kids. "That's who was open to coming in the beginning," Natalie says. "The building itself being so old -- 100 years old -- it has a certain soul to it . . . either they like it or they don't."
These days the crowd includes various ages and artistic leanings. "That's what I wanted in the first place," Natalie says. "Just to bring people together and open people's minds and have people talk among each other."
Talking, in fact, plays a large role in the goings-on. While there are desserts, more than 100 mostly organic and fair trade teas and about 100 espresso combinations with names like Black Magic (chocolate and mint) and Nightmare (chocolate, peanut butter and caramel), there's no food. (A menu offering vegan and vegetarian salads, sandwiches and tapas is on the horizon). No live entertainment, no booze and no Wi-Fi, either.
Still, buzz over the Brew is no secret. Since the coffeehouse does not have a website and has never advertised -- "We want to keep it like a secret," Alabama says -- word-of-mouth primarily draws its customers. It seems to be effective.
A Witches Brew Facebook fan page -- created by a customer unbeknownst to the owners -- had 7,795 fans at last count. The Disney Channel used an exterior photo of the coffeehouse (changing its sign) in an episode of "Good Luck Charlie." But the real proof of Witches Brew's appeal is in the weekend lines that snake out the door and along Hempstead Turnpike with waits of more than an hour.
"It's part of the experience," says Matt Weisenthal, 22, of Bellerose after finally snagging a seat. "This place is awesome the food and the drinks are made with love."
"It's like a little treasure up in the middle of nowhere," says Rose D'Alessio, 50, of Queens, who was there recently all the way from Ozone Park, Queens, to have a girls night out with a friend. "It's like a mirage."
Brewing something special
Michael Venditto is pointing out a large flowerpot of yellow mums and kale that he brought "for the girls." A patron for 15 years, Venditto, 44, of West Hempstead, says, "We're treated like family when we come."
The Miceli's raised $500 in donations and $250 in gas cards to help fund open-heart surgery for Venditto's 16-year-old daughter last year, he says. "They didn't tell me about anything. They called us to come over. We were in tears," says Venditto. "They're very caring people."
That care extends to the ambience just as much as the decor -- like the spider webs strewn across wall sconces, and red and black ears of corn hung by the husks.
"I have yet to come to an independent coffeehouse that has this feel," says 15-year-customer Josef Fioretta, who declined to give his age, of West Hempstead. "It's a feel of calm. It's a feel of acceptance. And when people say, 'how have you been?' they really mean it."
Will Opatow, 20, of Douglaston, Queens, says the coffeehouse is "completely down to earth." He is sitting in a corner with six of his friends, amid brownies a la mode, hot waffles and a cinnamon bun. "Normally, when people see teenagers, they're quick to judge -- I have . . . tattoos, I have my tongue pierced," he says. "Here, there's no labels."
Perhaps the one label that sticks in Fall is a love of Halloween, reflected in orange and black streamers over pastry display cases and a sign that reads: "BE VERY AFRAID."
"That October time, when the winds start kicking up and the moon seems to kind of get bigger, it suits this place better than any other time of the year," Alabama says. "It is a mystical time of the year."
FOR MORE 'Halloween Carnival'
Modeled after an old-fashioned carnival: Popcorn, candy apples, cotton candy and candy will be available for customers, who are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes.
COST No cover charge. Cash only.