The charming grittiness and occasional siren blares filling the air in Manhattan’s East Village might feel worlds away from the rural quiet of downtown Amherst. But a pair of 2017 grads have succeeded in bringing a taste of their favorite quiet college hangout to the clamor of New York City.
Cameron Bean ’17 opened the natural wine bar Cafe Skye in October 2021 with the help of his now-fiancée Caitlin Merrell ’17 (whose middle name is Skye). The pair met their freshman year and spent hours throughout college at Amherst Coffee, studying during the day and sipping wine after dark.
They moved to the city after college, where he had a job in banking and she worked at a nearby art gallery. But they missed having a “third space” to gather with friends that offered a bit more elbow room (and maybe a better cocktail list) than their first New York City apartments.
“We loved the idea of an all-day café where you can get coffee, then transition into wine and cocktails in the evening,” says Bean, sitting in an empty Cafe Skye on an off-duty Monday night. “We wanted a place that attracted a range of people and served as a common meeting ground for the community.”
Bean found what he was looking for on Clinton Street, which he describes as surprisingly neighborhoody for Manhattan. Cafe Skye is flanked by similarly compact but inviting establishments, many of which are known for offering great food in a homey atmosphere.
In a city of diners racing to check the box on as many restaurants as possible, Bean’s vision was to earn staying power by opening a bar that meant something to the neighborhood. The permanent cast of regulars frequenting Cafe Skye any night of the week is a testament to the establishment’s success. One of the biggest (and most rewarding) surprises for Bean and Merrell in opening a restaurant was how important the bar quickly became to customers, many of whom the couple now consider friends.
Bean and Merrell have cultivated an unexpected community in a city where knowing your neighbor’s first name is rare. Tourists curious about natural wine also wander over after a Tenement Museum tour. And thanks to a recent viral TikTok video, if you want a spot at the café’s Tuesday trivia night, which the couple emcees, you’ll have to book at least 10 days in advance. “I’m also shocked by how many little girls are named Skye,” Bean laughed. “They come to pose in front of the sign on the door, which Caitlin drew.”
Though diners may stop in to sample the short but sweet menu of shareable bar bites and heartier entrées (the Tuna Poke Nachos are a perennial staple), they stay for the one-of-a-kind selection of natural wines and craft cocktails, which Bean has carefully curated. Cafe Skye is a place where you might sip a citrusy blend of mezcal and English breakfast or taste a rare glass of small-batch organic wine that’s made its way from France on a solar-powered sailboat (which, according to Bean, disturbs the bottles less than your traditional cargo ship).
After opening the bar, Bean spent the first year working in the restaurant five days a week from open to close. Recently, he’s taken a new job in private equity and, with it, a step back from day-to-day operations—though you’re still likely to catch him, and sometimes his mom, on a visit from Atlanta, behind the bar or waiting tables.
He and Merrell recently had their engagement party at the café, and a bouquet of dried flowers from an Amherst friend hangs by the front door. They’re now busy planning a wedding, but they still keep an eye out for new spaces that could expand the Cafe Skye community elsewhere in the city.
Briskin is the food editor at Food Network Magazine. She is a food writer and recipe developer with bylines in Real Simple, Women’s Health, Insider and Runner’s World.
Photographs by Louisiana Mei Gelpi