This cool but sunny morning as I sat outside at my current favorite cafe, watching people and traffic go by, I did what I always do whenever I find myself having coffee. I shamelessly listen to snippets of other people’s conversations, like catching bits of dialogue from a film I’m not familiar with. I take note of what people are wearing, or notice activities like deliveries and landscaping, things you can often walk right past without noticing. And more often than not, I tend to find myself reminiscing about other cafes I have known and loved over the years.
In any cafe the coffee is important, but it’s not the only reason to go to one for a bit of caffeination. Of course when you know the brew is good, it tends to make you a regular customer whenever you find yourself in the neighborhood, even if it’s a little bit out of your way. I gave some friends who were recently in Barcelona the location of my favorite cafe there to try out, several blocks from their hotel, not because it was convenient for them but because the coffee there is so great. It’s the first thing I want to have on my first morning when visiting the city, and the place I want to have my last cup of coffee before I have to leave. The setting is pretty terrific too, on the city’s most elegant street.
And that’s an important point, because sometimes the setting is even more important than the coffee itself. The now sadly-departed Le Figaro in New York’s Greenwich Village for example, was a wonderful, grubby spot to sit and write, watching the bohemian life stroll past the front windows as you poured coffee from your individual French press. You could sit and recall how people like Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan used to hang out there, writing words that would influence generations to come.
In a completely different vein is the far older but still-going Cafe de Oriente in Madrid, across the street from the Royal Palace. The stately group of buildings surrounding you, as you sit outside drinking your cortado, bring to mind the vibrant social life of the Spanish capital in the era of gas lamps, top hats, and folding fans. As you rest your tired feed from hours spent trudging through the Prado Museum, you can imagine duchesses and intellectuals mixing here to discuss the ideas and politics of the day, before going to hear the latest light operetta premiere just down the block.
There’s a balance you have to strike with these places as well. The coffee at one cafe I sometimes go to in my neighborhood here in Washington can be pretty awful: so acidic it makes your mouth pucker, and no amount of sugar can cure it. However the location is ideal both for people-watching and enjoying the morning sun, so that I’ll often just grit my teeth and bear it. Another cafe I love in London has absolutely nothing obvious to recommend it, not having exceptional coffee or being on a heavily-trafficked close to any tourist destinations. Yet it’s a blissfully quiet spot in the midst of a very busy city, with a few tiny metal tables and chairs out front, balanced precariously on old paving stones.
With today’s coffee-to-go culture of paper cups and plastic no-spill lids, some of the magic has gone out of the concept of visiting the cafe. Instead of being a place to linger for a few minutes or a few hours, many cookie-cutter cafes have turned into little more than fast food joints for caffeine fiends. While sometimes you just want that cheap, fast fix because you have a lot going on, to never take the time to linger and savor life, let alone a good cup of coffee, is a real tragedy.
Truthfully, I’d like to see more people recommending cafes to each other, in the same way we recommend bars and restaurants – or better still, I’d like to overhear them doing so, as I sit outside at a good cafe.