Category Archives: Cafes & Coffee

‘a steamy pentecost’

In Eating Heaven, I tried to say something about the café and the role its tables play in our cities and our lives. Then I find the collected poems of Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail, and discover he says it with more beauty and fewer words. I tip my hat.

Lunchtime in a London Café

Table by table the café fills
till talk and the clap of plates
bulge with well-being; a dark
waitress’s patchwork skirt
hurries behind the counter;
every face under the sun peers
at the window menu, more
voices join the steamy pentecost.

Here in the metropolis nothing
shocks. Out of its huge anonymity
worlds of strange gossip crowd
this lunch-time café. And I’m in love
with its mystery, the peculiar rapture
of life à la carte. The window mists;
after wine, the Basque in the corner
turns his smokey eyes on the waitress.

Outside the door, the buses shriek,
rush and judder; a city’s jamboree,
hope and haphazard, limitless
chances, choices wait. Sitting
here I know I’ve felt the throb
of Jerusalem or Rome or any city
yet to come, where there’s a café
and we, citizens all, break bread.


Michael O’Siadhail, Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2013, 183.


Gopnik on Cafes and Restaurants

I quoted yesterday from Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book The Table Comes First. As one who tries to write about tables and food, I bow down to writers like this. Gopnik not only writes well and ranges broadly, he sees in food so much more than food. The book is a delight to read.

I don’t have the time right now to do his work justice, but over the next day or so, as with yesterday, a few quotes from here and there.

Gopnik reflects on the common role of cafes and restaurants in modern urban life:

‘Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle, or medieval people by pilgrimages: we are courted, spurned, recruited, hired, fired, lured to a new job, or released from an old one at a table while a waiter hovers nearby. There are few marriages that did not begin at dinner at a table leased for the evening, and few divorces that did not first show signs of approaching doom in a sigh of resentment or an eye roll of exasperation in a similar setting.’

‘Places of hope, restaurants and cafes are also places of reassuring mystery, and the mystery reassures because, in reminding us of lives and appetites beyond our own, they remind us of worlds we have yet to enter.’ 

‘Home, Robert Frost wrote, is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. A restaurant is a place where, they not only have to take you in but have to act as though they were glad to see you. In cities of strangers, this pretense can be very dear.’

And on the difference between the two:

‘though joined at the hip, the temperamental difference between the two is real. The restaurant belongs to its cook. You come to eat, and though, as Brillat-Savarin saw, anyone can eat there, still you come to eat. … The cafe, though, belongs to its habitués, and pleasure can be rented for the price of a coffee.’ 

the-table-comes-first-family-97961l2Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 14-15, 31, 52, 53.

Gopnik on Coffee and Wine


‘French cooking was made not merely in the space between caffeine and alcohol but in the simultaneous presence of both, thus blending, in sequence, the two drugs by which modern people shape their lives. Good food takes place in the head space between them … Modern life is regulated by these drugs, morning to night–one speeding us up, and one slowing us down. … Alcohol is above all a myopic drug: it forces the imbiber’s attention ever more narrowly upon what’s in front of him. It closes us off and isolates us, that’s its odd charm. … Caffeine, on the other hand, is a far sighted drug. Several sips of cafe noir and the sipper feels charged up, the corners of the cafe gleam, and we look around the room, ready to take on the world again. We read while we drink coffee, romance while we drink wine. Coffee, one might say, is a flow drink, wine a focus drink. … Wine takes us from the world, and coffee restores us to it again. In between we eat.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 32-33.

Coffee lover’s prayer (with apologies to David … and God!)

The coffee lover’s prayer

Caffeine is my shepherd;
I shall not doze.
It maketh me to wake in green pastures:
It leadeth me beyond the sleeping masses.
It restoreth my buzz:
It leadeth me in the paths of consciousness
for its name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of addiction,
I will fear no Equal®
For thou art with me;
thy cream and thy sugar,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a carafe before me
in the 
presence of Thyne Starbucks;
Thou anointest my day with pep;
my mug runneth over.

Surely richness and taste shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the House of Mocha

Provenance unknown (which is probably just as well)

An ode to coffee


New year’s resolutions are fine, really. But when a friend tells me he’s resolved to give up coffee, quite frankly he’s crossed a line.

I like coffee. Coffee is good. I’m sure there’s a sacred text somewhere that says so. To imagine my daily round without it is … well, it’s just not pleasant. For me, coffee is one of the small pleasures of the day, to sit with a well-made cup, preferably in a café where I feel welcome and at ease. Company is good, but optional. It’s me and the coffee and the place that matter most—companions of spirit.

On good days I claim coffee as part of my spirituality. That might be stretching it a bit for some, but surely these words by the English poet Steve Turner provide sufficient justification:

White with two sugars (please)

Coffee gives you a legal shot of energy
when your eyelids are feeling down.
Coffee kills time when you’re washed ashore
on the street of (the city).
(Coffee can even help rainstorms disappear.)

Coffee is something to dangle your lips in
when conversation is scarce.
Coffee is a good place to take a new friend.
(Coffee is an excuse to stay half an hour longer.)
Acquaintanceships end on the doorstep
but friendships begin with a coffee.

Coffee can be appreciated
by all generations.
Coffee is a multi-lingual,
liquid esperanto.

there’s something quite religious about coffee.

The Cafe

Today, the cafe remains a place where awnings, tables and chairs awaite you; a place where you may arrive feeling blue, and then, for no apparent reason, find the mood magically lifting; maybe an idea comes to mind, a friend approaches, the coffee is served. Or perhaps the sun comes out, a breeze stirs, or a favourite song is played. But one thing is evident: at the cafe one realizes one is not so alone as previously supposed and that life itself can be grand. As Jean-Paul Satre once noted … ‘It is certain that the cafe by itself with its patrons, its tables, its booths, its mirrors, its light, its smoky atmosphere, and the sounds of voices, rattling saucers, and footsteps which fill it–the cafe is the fullness of being.’

Val Clark (ed), The Parisian Cafe: A LIterary CompanionNew York: Universe Publishing, 2002.