When a polar vortex threatens, my beverage of choice is a cup of glove-warming hot chocolate. Thankfully, this city has a slew of places that specialize in liquified chocolate. Now, for the criteria. You don’t want it to be too watery; it should coat the inside of the cup. The chocolate should leave “tree rings” as you drink. Also, this is a bit vague, but the drink should taste layered–more than the sum of its parts. I drank a lot of hot chocolate for this write-up, so toward the end of my research, the most notable criteria was whether–after so much taste-testing–I wanted to keep drinking. Since all of the below are so different, and it’s hard to pick a favorite, I’ve assigned superlatives. I should also note that though hot chocolate usually means chocolate bits melted by steamed milk while hot cocoa is cocoa powder mixed with milk and often sugar, some places use the terms interchangeably, with hot chocolate being the catch-all.
Most Comforting: The Chocolate Room, Park Slope. For $4.75, you get a huge cup of hot chocolate. The added fresh whipped cream was $0.75 extra, but so worth it. The hot chocolate was milky, but not overly so, and intensely satisfying. The texture was more traditional and less thick than many of the more European, “drinking chocolate” places in NYC. I enjoyed it to-stay, with a complimentary amuse bouche of tiny dark chocolate-almond financier.
Best Deal: Jacques Torres Chocolate, multiple locations. The classic or wicked (spiced) hot chocolate at one of the best chocolate shops in the city is still $3.25 for the small. If you want to try one of their other flavors, it’ll set you back $3.50. I went for the peanut butter. Yep, I said peanut- frickin’-butter. In hot chocolate. Awesome. The beverage itself is thick and molasses-y, in the best possible way. The whipped cream, spooned in from a bowl, is complimentary if you request it. Overall, a delicious and unique cup.
The Classic for a Reason: The City Bakery, Flatiron. This place has been the hot chocolate go-to for years. They even have a yearly hot chocolate festival. (City Bakery is also home to the awe-inspiring pretzel croissant, NYC’s first hybrid pastry.) Yes, it’s busy and touristy, but the freshly made hot chocolate is sweet, rich and delicious. Like the Jacques Torres cup, it’s a thick drinking chocolate. The oversize house-made marshmallow, though not completely necessary considering how satisfying the chocolate is on its own, is pliable without being spongey or tasting chemically. Not the cheapest option at over $7, with the marshmallow, but I would argue definitely worth it.
Simplest: L.A. Burdick, Flatiron. There aren’t many bells and whistles here, just a satisfying, drinkable cup of really quality hot chocolate. At $4.75 for the small mug pictured below, it’s also a cup you can actually finish on your own. Definitely one of my favorites. Plus, the cozy shop, with its handful of tables and delicious cakes by the slice is a great place to take a break on a chilly afternoon.
Best Ambiance: MarieBelle, Soho. I was the only non-tourist at this elegant waitress-service hot chocolate salon in the the back of the brand’s retail shop. The espresso-sized adorable teacup below will set you back $5 ($7 if you want a normal-sized teacup), which gives this hot chocolate the distinction of being among the priciest on this list. The chocolate itself was sublime. Rich, very layered and compulsively drinkable. There are countless options and combinations for your chocolate: milk, dark, white, European, American, hot cold, flavored. There’s even a list of over a dozen specially-sourced chocolate drinks, including “Jefferson’s Hot Chocolate” from my home state of Virginia. My cup was milk chocolate and hazelnut. Instead of being added via syrup, which would’ve been the easiest option, the hazelnuts are actually ground and incorporated into the chocolate. And yes, it’s expensive, but it was the perfect size for me; I actually finished the whole thing.
Fanciest: La Maison du Chocolat, multiple locations. When visiting an establishment during my research, I always asked for the drink to-stay, if it was an option, just to see what the presentation was like. French chocolatier La Maison went all out, which a small plate of cocoa-dusted whipped cream, a glass of water and a complimentary piece of chocolate. The cup itself was also the most expensive, at $8.50. After trying so many milk hot chocolates, I went for the dark (the other option was vanilla-infused dark) and it was intense, the thickest of all of the hot chocolates on this list. It almost had the consistency of the melted chocolate one would dip churros into.
Best Presentation: Vosges Haut-Chocolate, Soho and the Upper East Side. This Chicago-based chocolatier sells unique and exotic chocolates in beautiful packaging and was one of the first to spearhead the whole bacon-and-chocolate trend. When I asked for my hot chocolate to-stay, I wasn’t sure what to expect, since at the Soho location, the sit-down area is just one long high table. It’s not really waiter service either, just a “sit and we’ll bring it out to you” thing. Which is why I was shocked when the below arrived, all included in the $5 price. The hot chocolate was served on hipster-y driftwood, with powdered sugar-vanilla-bean whipped cream and samples of their brand new peanut butter-salt-milk chocolate bar. It was smooth and drinkable, with a nice vanilla flavor. Other options include a multi-spice dark chocolate or a white chocolate.
Most Homemade Tasting: Dessert Club, ChikaLicious, East Village. This dessert shop is known for its creative, hybrid pastries. (People love its unique puddings, flavored ices and ice cream sandwiches.) The hot chocolate–hot cocoa? (it’s listed at $5.05, but I was charged $4.75, maybe because of the off hour) is a solid contender. It comes pre-made from a heated vat and tastes almost identical to the kind of hot chocolate one would make at home, i.e. sweet, but not overly so, with just the right consistency. It’s not the fanciest or most complex cup, but it tastes great nonetheless.
Biggest Surprise: Smile To Go, Soho. I wasn’t expecting much when I stepped into this gourmet prepared foods shop for a pick-me-up. It wasn’t even a part of my research. The melty chocolate was delicious and the milk was steamy but not overly frothy (which is categorically the worst thing ever). Plus, I finally got to experience a bit of latte art without having to order an actual coffee.
Great for the ‘Hood: Nunu Chocolates, Downtown Brooklyn (top) and Leonidas/Manon Cafe (bottom), Financial District. Both of these establishments make very tasty if not extremely memorable cups of hot chocolate. Nunu Chocolates has been making single-origin artisanal chocolate in Brooklyn for years, and their cup ($4 for a small) features their quality chocolate, melted with milk into a satisfying, not overly thick blend. Leonidas makes fine Belgian chocolates and the no-frills cafe in the back of their Financial District shop delivers a sweet milk-chocolate-y cup (the milk is their standard; a dark or caramel is also available) with your choice of white, dark or milk chocolate candy sample. A small will run you $4.75.
Also Really Good: Francois Payard Bakery (FPB), multiple locations. Okay, so that’s not a real superlative, but I’m running out of unique attributes here! Though the hot chocolate at this venerated French pastry chef’s bakery outposts is pre-made, it is incredibly thick and indulgent, owing to the heavy cream in the recipe. Split with a friend if you want a shot a finishing the entire cup ($5).
The Rest: The Chocolate Bar, West Village (left) and Peels, East Village (right). Though the Chocolate Bar hot chocolate ($4.50 for a small) isn’t at the top of my list, the shop does score points for having a lot of flavor options, including peanut butter (which I had to go for again, obviously), peppermint, caramel, hazelnut and many others. The actual hot chocolate was a tad watery for my taste, but good for someone who doesn’t want an overwhelming cup. The Peels hot chocolate ($3.50) had way too much milk, which could’ve just been a symptom of inconsistency. As you can see, it couldn’t be more different from the thick and fudgy hot chocolate the food website Serious Eats received when they visited a few years back. The house-made marshmallow is complimentary.