A shot of energy
A lure to wakefulness
A breakfast essential
A pit-stop on the way
A waft of civility
A place to go
A break in the morning
A reason to sit
An excuse to linger
A lubricant for conversation
An opportunity for gossip
An expression of taste
A moment of beauty
A pause to remember
A cup of preference
A gathering of courage
A companion for words
An expression of concern
An excuse for solitude
A meeting of minds
A routine of comfort
A small act of kindness
A ritual of welcome
A liquid procrastination
A request for friendship
A barista’s vocation
A warm object to hold
An afternoon’s pause
An invitation to listen
Category Archives: Cafes & Coffee
“Tea! thou soft, thou sober, sage and venerable liquid … thou female tongue-running, smile-toothing, heart opening, wink-tippling cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moments of my life, let me fall prostrate … “
Colley Cibber, The Lady’s Last Stake, or The Wife’s Resentment: A Comedy, 1797.
“No sir,” the 18th century poet Samuel Johnson once said, “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”
I am not a man of pubs, and I am not sure Mr Johnson would recognise the ‘taverns’ of today. Still, there is something in what he says that I feel about the café. A good café can produce a certain kind of happiness. I do not mean the overly stylised or pretentious ones that make the lists of ‘Melbourne’s best’. I mean the local café, the one where you go to be familiar, to drink coffee, to sit and think, to write or read, or talk with friends. I feel a happiness in such places that stands apart. Indeed, there are few places I would rather be.
A good café is a communal space, yet offering respite and solitude of a particular kind. It is public yet secure, familiar yet a place of strangers. The coffee is served by people who care. There is simple fare — breakfast and brunches and little cakes. You can sit for as long as you like with a jug of water to ease the time. It is not loud or overly busy, but a place of life. There might be music, but none you notice until you listen for it. There are gentle conversations going on in different corners while in others there is silence. You can watch and listen, or not. You can lose yourself for a bit while life treads by outside the window. You’ll re-join it soon, but for now you sit and sip, and breathe.
Some might say the idea of a café as a maker of happiness is an over-reach. True, happiness is a slippery, subjective thing. What one considers a state of happiness may be boredom to another. Happiness is commonly understood as a feeling, fleeting or seasonal, or for others an aspiration. Whatever it is, it is certainly not a right. Rather, it’s a gift that may, or may not, sit beneath things or tasks or conversations. For me, happiness is a certain peace, a connection, a sense of time and space, contentment and ease. It’s a place I need.
While such ease is challenged amidst chaotic lives, it is very much a choice we make within them. A café is a venue of such choice, a holder of a particular happiness into which we can slip from time to time.
So, I’ll skip your taverns, Mr Johnston, but I’ll take my seat at the café table anytime.
Written at The Social Foundry, Kyneton, a social enterprise café that ticks all the boxes. The image above is of Ricardo Balaca’s El café (1844-1880)
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.
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.’
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 14-15, 31, 52, 53.
‘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.
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)