Cafe Culture: Not Just About the Coffee

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.

Cafe in Georgetown, Washington DC

Cafe in Georgetown, Washington DC

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14 thoughts on “Cafe Culture: Not Just About the Coffee

  1. I know what you mean. Getting a cup of coffee, and sitting down and savoring the taste seems to be a thing of the past. Everybody is in a hurry to get some place. Even cell phones cut down the communication time among customers. Maybe that is what is wrong–we are customers and not people. Dollars signs are seen instead of those who want to drink in the scenery, and people watch. It is a shame because everybody is looking at their cell phones rushing to another place. Life is no longer lingering and savoring. I might as well call it a “rat race” among society. Is it even “society” as we once penned it? I do not think so

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  2. I’m reminded of Rome and the Borghese Gallery. Inside is a cafe, where you’d think people would just grab a quick cup of coffee and move onto the exquisite art. Not so, of course. People would linger, savour their coffee, and discuss the art they had either just seen or were about to enjoy. I also had one of the better caffe lattes I’ve ever had. Would love to see that culture more in the US.

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  3. I’ve known people who thought it was strange to sit in a cafe and talk. It’s sad, isn’t it? Sitting in this type of restaurant for a conversation is unheard of yet going to a bar, diner, or up-scale restaurant to talk is normal. What happened? Is it good there are now more seats for cafe-dwellers to choose from?

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    • Right, a cafe is not a library. I’ll admit, sometimes I like to go and be quiet, and collect my thoughts, read, write, etc. Other times I just want to sit outside on a nice day with a friend and talk about life and enjoy the sunshine. In fact, I’ll be doing just that later this afternoon. Thanks very much for reading!

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  4. One of our favorite Cafe’s is Verve in Capitola/Santa Cruz, CA. Of course Santa Cruz has a vibe that is pretty well known but this is a great meeting place. Students come and drink coffee while writing their thesis, families come and hang out before going down to the beach, old men and old women meet. I just love to watch and listen!!

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  5. Loved this post. In Madrid I found a lovely place to have a coffee of the Plaza del Sol where there was also the option to have hot chocolaye with churros on a cold morning – almost habit forming

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  6. I understand exactly how you feel about the dying culture of cafe`s. I work at a Starbucks, and everything is done in those paper cups and plastic no-spill lids, as you said. As a matter of fact, when someone asks us for a “for-here” mug, it often throws us off; or is treated by many of the baristas as a great inconvenience. However, I have recently found some hope as discussion of a much more culturally boisterous cafe` has found it’s way into my small town Starbucks. There is hope for the culture of cafe`s yet, my friend.

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