Thursday 21 August 2014
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Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
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The Perfect Place for Coffee

I’m not sure when I became the sort of person who lounges around drinking coffee. I was never much of a fan of coffee, and remain deeply suspicious of it (hence, for example, refusing to become a daily coffee drinker — very dangerous!). I suppose it was on pilgrimage to Rome in my fourth year of university when I was introduced to the blessed simplicity of cappuccino e cornetto for breakfast; a total riposte to the traditional Scottish morning meals of my habit up ’til then.

After Rome, my daily habit became to rise around 9 o’clock, complete one’s morning toilette, head out around 10 to pick up Le Figaro and maybe The Scotsman if I was in the mood, and then a sugar doughring from Fisher & Donaldson, after which I would sit in Taste, the minuscule place on North St at the top of Murray Park which serves the best coffee in the Royal Burgh, for about an hour or so reading and staring out the window episodically while nursing a cappuccino. This was an exceptionally enjoyable routine, brought to an abrupt end by the cruel realities of the forward movement of time and finishing one’s degree.

Whether rightly or not, I’ve no idea, the concept of dwelling over coffee seems more a habit north of the Alps than south. The quick coffee seems more Italian, and more than once I stopped into Taste with Stefano or others for an unponderous espresso when an afternoon pick-me-up was deemed amenable.

But for the most part, I prefer to rest with a bit of coffee, and read something interesting. Last summer I found myself with a lot of free time in London and spent the greater portion of it in a curious little café-bar not open to the general public reading long historical articles off of JSTOR on such fascinating subjects as the origins of Argentine militarism or the unexpected nineteenth-century German Catholic revival as well as translations of the indispensable Pierre Manent printed in Modern Age.

There was barely ever anyone there in high summer except the two barstaff, myself, and a haggard journalist in late middle age sitting at the bar nursing his first pint of the day. I still go there from time to time, and recently enjoyed sitting there reading Perry Anderson’s trilogy of insightful, deep, and informative articles on India from the London Review of Books (‘Gandhi Centre Stage’, LRB 5 July 2012; ‘Why Partition?’, LRB 19 July 2012; ‘After Nehru’ LRB 2 August 2012).

There is a Pret near my flat where the staff are very nice, but I remember one Saturday morning when I actually stirred from my slumber and fancied catching up with the weekend Irish Independent. I happened to sit next to an awkward Indian computer engineer on a blind date with a Polish girl lacking in self-esteem. I found I could barely get any reading done with them nextdoor and instead relayed the essence of their conversation to a pretty girl sitting in bed in Oxford reading Glamour, who relayed back her own thoughts. The pros and cons of your average Pret come to mind and encourage me to explore what the perfect place for coffee would be like.

First, a coffee place should be mildly popular. There ought to be enough people milling around that it feels lived-in but not so many that you can rarely find a place to sit. The staff must be highly competent in their coffee making, and preferably either young, pretty, Italian, and female or else French chaps with a slightly haughty demeanour until the third or fourth time they see you. We will also accept vaguely hippie/alt-ish characters mostly from the Continent or occasionally the Antipodes. And Inez. (Inez, you can work at any coffee place approaching perfection).

Counter space! This cannot be emphasised enough: there ought to be counter space. I dislike when places have large, tall, bulky displays of the variety of pastries and such on offer and then have a tiny little open space to give your order and pay, etc. Broad counter spaces relay a certain openness and give the impression that the staff behind the bar are accessible. By all means display your delectamenta but you should aim for balance and harmony in your serving area.

There ought to be counter seating as well. Lots of coffee places put this at the window, which is acceptable, but as I like to sit in a large comfy chair and stare out the window, this is impeded by window counter seating, and thus I am mostly against it. And windows: we must have windows, preferably big giant ones with a single plane of glass looking out on a somewhat busy street, or even better a small public square.

Seating is one of the most important aspects. Hard or soft? High tables or low? In a word: both. There ought to be more café-style seats and round tables for when there’s three or four of you gathering, but also soft big comfy chairs for when that feels more appropriate. Different coffee-imbibing situations require different kinds of seating, and the perfect place for coffee should offer both.

I’ve yet to find the perfect place for coffee in London. I was quite fond of the Caffè Nero on Warwick Way in Pimlico with its huge glass panels that open up on summer days, but now that I no longer live in Pimlico it has ceased to be useful or easy to get to. As chains go, I tend to err on the side of Pret, perhaps merely out of habit. Whatever you do, just don’t go to Starbucks. Have some dignity and self-regard.

And if you do find the perfect place for coffee, do let the rest of us know.

This post was published on Sunday, August 5th, 2012 8:08 pm. It has been categorised under Journal and been tagged under .
Comments
  1. 6 August 2012
    10:29 am

    Dear Andrew,

    What are “hugh glass panels”?

    Hugh

  2. Andrew Cusack
    6 August 2012
    12:45 pm

    Duly corrected, thanks!

  3. Rebecka
    6 August 2012
    3:39 pm

    Dear Andrew,
    I would recommend the café at the head office of the Royal Institute of British Architects on Portland Road. As I am not a coffee drinker I am not sure if their coffee is good but the place is great. As you like architecture I thought you may give it a try.
    http://www.architecture.com/RIBAVenues/RestuarantAndBar/Restaurantandbar.aspx#caf

  4. AC
    17 August 2012
    12:44 pm

    “Whatever you do, just don’t go to Starbucks. Have some dignity and self-regard.”

    Is there actually any difference between Starbucks and Caffé Nero? It’s the same pretentious, post-modern concept catering for equally pretentious youths with laptops. Have you not seen those black and white pictures of old Italian men playing dominos (a desperate stab at “authenticity”)? Moody female student staff wearing black t-shirts is de rigueur, and table service is anathema.

    I once saw a man in work clothes at Caffé Nero. It turned out to be the milkman (so much for “authenticity”).

    Well, at least Caffé Nero doesn’t finance Planned Parenthood – at least as far as I know.

  5. Baron v Hetterscheidt
    17 August 2012
    10:28 pm

    The last comment struck me forcibly.
    I was in Munich last summer and breakfasted habitually in a German version of the ubiquitous coffee shop. ALL classes ate happily together. They dressed, spoke, and attacked their food very differently (and the working class types smoked much, much more), but nobody was offended by the presence of the other. The mutual respect was palpable.
    The Germans remain a Volk; the British are a stratified and mutually loathing mob.

  6. 18 August 2012
    5:43 am

    Except for those ‘haughty French chaps’ you seem to be describing a staff that is rather marriageable.

    Interesting compromises on staff policy; find your Alt-ish Aussie & Kiwi exceptions fascinating. Perhaps worthy of an essay exploring Hippie/Young-Fogey tolerances and limits?

    I’d be interested since, as an Australian, I have two potentially alt-ish sisters myself who cause me to test my own limits, resulting in both grief and humorous exchange.

  7. Alexander Shaw
    17 October 2012
    11:25 am

    ‘North, not South of the Alps?’ And East? The Viennese opened their coffee houses after the retreating Turks left sacks of beans behind. The tradition certainly has spread to Budapest and probably through the Balkans. I’m not sure I agree with your assertions about counter space. The last real coffee houses are social institutions – everyone has to be crammed together and breathing each others’ smoke. As for using a computer inside – you Philistine! Newspapers are provided, held in wooden cleft stick thingys. Europeans drink coffee from a thimble, so you can easily get seven on to one small, round marble table. Also, the waiters must remain disdainful, rude and petulant regardless of whether it is your first or thousandth visit. Recognition of patronage is inferred by the number of glass thimbles of water they put on your tray – I got to three after six months in Hawelka.

  8. Andrew Cusack
    18 October 2012
    9:16 am

    I was imprecise in my choice of words: I was not reading articles on JSTOR (i.e. with a computer) but off (i.e. printed off from) JSTOR. The use of computers in coffee places is a lementable innovation.

    Also, newspapers may very well be provided, in those irritating clunky wooden things, but they should be ignored. You should buy your own newspapers, thus allowing you to fold it underarm and up sticks at a moment’s notice and continue your reading at a later point in another place.

    Leave the wooden cleft stick newspapers for the tramps and those who can’t afford their own bloody paper.

  9. Baron v Hetterscheidt
    18 October 2012
    10:53 pm

    Quite wrong, Mr Cusack, quite wrong. You very clearly do not know Vienna or its coffee house traditions. Mr Shaw equally clearly does.
    All of the necessary papers are provided in these establishments, dozens of them. It would be the height of affectation to bring one’s own (a book, or, better, writing paper for one’s first novel, is fine). One never “ups sticks” in a Viennese coffee house either; one enters only if one intends to spend the entire morning or afternoon there.
    I understand Mr Shaw’s affection for Hawelka’s: it is elegant, and its collection of papers is perhaps the best in Vienna. But I prefer the Tirolerhof; just down the street from the Kapuzinerkirche; shabby, worn, and sublimely indifferent to the passing scene outside its smudged windows.

  10. Andrew Cusack
    19 October 2012
    10:33 am

    Heck, I’ve never even been to Austria! I was talking about cafés in countries I’ve inhabited, in which the wooden things have been clunky and irritating. Perhaps they are more skillfully executed in Vienna, less burdensome and more easily manipulable.

    I’m afraid, while I am a dweller, sometimes my ideas take flight and require a bit of perambulation.

  11. Gilbert Pinfold
    30 October 2012
    3:22 am

    The best Australian coffee shops display Mediterranean technique and ingredients (subject to locavore sensibilities, of course), with a style only quarter-way Oriental.

  12. J Seymour Clifford
    24 July 2014
    9:16 pm

    Australia!

  13. 28 July 2014
    11:20 am

    Wogs have rightly cornered market in the Australian Coffee scene. Whilst Anglos cannot help themselves – ubiquitous ‘tattoo sleeve’ are like some mandatory uniform, sort of the antithesis of the cheap but cheerful McDonalds staff.

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