Cafés have become so firmly entrenched in our culture that it is hard to imagine society more than 25 years ago without them. And not just the physical fact of cafés either – it is also the accompanying lifestyle. Indeed there existed establishments where people, mostly women, would meet, but they were called coffee shops or coffee lounges then, and were of an entirely different order altogether.
Coffee houses date back to 16th century Turkey, traditionally social hubs as well as artistic and intellectual centres. I remember cafés in Vienna, visiting in the 80s, a woman alone quite dazzled by beautiful salons with suspended chandeliers and expensive women wrapped in furs who murmured to each other over coffee and whipped cream. Gradually in our new country we seem to be evolving our own peculiar, particular type of café, distinct from European ones though bearing elements of them.
Simon Garner in his book The London Café Book defines the modern café thus: ‘A
café should be a place where conversation is fuelled by caffeine and not by alcohol. It should be a place where you do not have to eat but where you can if you want to and, if you do, you should be able to get a reasonably priced, one- stop meal. It should be a place where you can go on your own and not feel awkward. It should be a place where it is perfectly acceptable to linger over a paperback or a newspaper… There is one other factor that sets cafés apart from bistros, bars and brasseries and that factor is cake. If you can order coffee and cake, a place is a café…’
But cafés, I am lately musing, are even more. It seems that most people who frequent cafés tend to confine them- selves to a particular one, or several specific ones according to time of day, or weather, or mood. It may be a case of the human need for the soothing qualities of repetition and ritual – but what it is also capable of doing is creating a sort of private club within the cafe, a clique in which regulars betray, consciously or otherwise, a sense of entitlement and ownership. I know this because occasionally I am obliged to go to a café not my regular (I nearly said ‘my own’) and upon entering it I am aware of feeling a little like an interloper. All around me are staff and customers on first-name terms engaged in comfortable banter, as I stand stiffly, meekly, even a little pathetically at the till to present my order. At ‘my’ cafés I love the fact I only need say to the waitress ‘just my usual’ and it will immediately materialise, regardless of how busy the café may be. I try not to resent the fact ‘my’ usual seat is occasionally taken or the daily newspapers are being leafed through by some blow-in; I am conscious of how ridiculously petty all this is but am unable to prevent my proprietary impulse.
Cafés are microcosms. In some the music is so loud you wonder how the experience for the customers can be restful or relaxing. On the other hand, some of my favourite CDs have been acquired as a result of a single track heard in a café – where a confluence of mood, fragrantly grinding coffee and glorious sounds has suddenly rendered less substantial the prospect of life without that music. (On the other hand I do own possibly more Café del Mars and Buddha Bars than is necessary…)
Sometimes I think it would be lovely for ‘my’ café or cafés to reward the loyalty of my patronage with an occasional free coffee until I remember that loyalty is not the issue:
I come to this café for its consistently good coffee, the warmth of its service and the fact that I can be on my own ‘and not feel awkward’. Your favourite café could almost
be an extension of your social orb, a table in a space in which to briefly suspend your busy life, all for the price of a coffee.