“You have all Manner of News there: You have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please: You have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the Transaction of Business, and all for a Penny, if you don’t care to spend more.”
I first got the idea of writing this piece from a conversation with Martyn Hyde, co-owner of the Eat Me Café in Scarborough.
I was excited to be talking to him because his café had won the Good Food Guide prize for Best Café in the UK. Critics such as Xanthe Clay had been praising the food on offer there. Christopher Hirst, writing in The Independent, said
“….the menu, which incorporates Thai, Mexican, Malay, Japanese and Shetland elements, is … exceptional.”
His wife, commenting on the Thai fish curry, commented appreciatively:
“I pronounce that very good indeed.”
So I began by asking Martyn how Thai cuisine came to feature on the menu of a backstreet café in Scarborough. “Well, I lived in Thailand for a time” he tells me, “but you’re missing the point. Cafés aren’t really about the food or the coffee – there’s something much more important about cafés. What really interests me is their function, what they can do for the community that surrounds them. They can become both a hub, a centre where people can gather and meet; and also a place of comfort and solace”.
A social worker in a previous life, Martyn cares passionately about this giving aspect of his café’s offering. “We started with just 19 covers and we still have only 30 – a café shouldn’t get too big.”
“Cafés aren’t really about the food or the coffee – there’s something much more important about cafés.”
The café as a social hub
He’s right, of course. Intimacy is important – whether the customer is seeking conversation or a sense of peace.
And it’s interesting that the concept of the café-as-hub, the new church or pub if you like, is to see their development turn full circle.
The original seventeenth century coffee houses in Britain were such centres of serious discussion that some historians credit them with making a significant contribution to the ‘age of enlightenment’ – the introduction of reasoned argument into how society was run as opposed to the simple acceptance of authority by most which had up until then been the norm.
Other historians referred to the coffee houses in Oxford as ‘penny universities’, where, for a coin, you could gain access to a place frequented by the local highbrows and where reporters known as ‘runners’ flashed past, calling out the latest news. Scientific breakthroughs and new theories of philosophy were teased out in discussions in these establishments.
Whatever the subject, there are richer pickings to be gained from the cut and thrust of a live debate than from any virtual chat room.
“There are richer pickings to be gained from the cut and thrust of a live debate than from any virtual chat room.”
Cafés as places to meet people not like you
Academics and political activists still prefer to meet in cafés today.
However, one of the most interesting characteristics of coffee houses, or cafés, is that the clientele, as well as the topics discussed, are usually eclectic. Rather than drawing in a particular homogenous group they have tended from the very beginning to attract a whole miscellany of mankind like a magnet. So a café is a great place to observe life’s rich pageant.
And it has always been thus. As Aytoun Ellis describes in The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee Houses,
“Like Noah’s ark, every kind of creature in every walk of life (frequented coffee houses). They included a town wit, a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer, a worship judge, a reverend non-conformist and a voluble sailor.”
One of my favourite FT columnists, Susie Boyt, has recently updated[i] this mix of characters to include females. Her list comprises:
“A housekeeper who once used to ‘do’ for the Queen Mother and now takes care of a theatrical knight. The actor who played Zeffirelli’s Romeo as a teenager…. There was the only woman I have ever seen who routinely wore a mink coat and flip flops”
Sounds like rich material for a sit com? Yes, indeed, it’s already been done by The Café’s screen writers, Ralf Little and Michelle Terry.
“Like Noah’s ark, every kind of creature in every walk of life frequented coffee houses.”
The café as the mainstay of the writer
So it’s not surprising that cafés have served as a source of inspiration, as well as a warm and comfortable place to work for many writers.
Most people are familiar with the origins of Harry Potter, a character conceived by JK Rowling in the back room of the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh. It was the only place she could afford to be where it was warm enough for her to write.
Earlier august scribblers such as Hemingway, Gide, Sartre, De Beauvoir found inspiration at Les Deux Magots in Paris, although in their case is was the impassioned discussions they had amongst themselves that fed their creative juices as much as the hearty fire.
“Harry Potter was conceived in the back room of the Elephant House Café”
The café as a source of artistic inspiration
Cafés have also sponsored the visual arts. At the Café de la Rotonde (also in Paris), for just ten centimes, or a drawing if cash was tight, Picasso and Modigliani could nurse a hot espresso and find a warm place to sit for an hour or two.
Van Gogh was inspired by the building itself – one of his greatest masterpieces is of the terrace of the café on the Place du Forum in Arles, and from his description of the colours he obviously enjoyed every moment he spent painting:
“On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green”.
Back in this century and on this side of La Manche, the artist Eleanor Langton, also finds inspiration in cafés. As she explains,
“My love of working in cafes started during a year of study in Rome in 2003. Ever since I have kept sketchbooks and drawn in many cafes and other public places all around the world.
Drawing on location is a way to fully immerse myself in a place. I become aware of the objects, people, and sounds. If I didn’t draw I would probably sit with my own thoughts and not be so observant of my surroundings.
While I draw I love hearing the clatter of plates and cups, the stirring of drinks, the chatter of friends or family catching up. These conversations and interactions feed into my work of painting still life. I hope the viewer gets a sense of the interactions I have observed and the joy that I feel in studying my surroundings.”
Eleanor painted Bakehouse Latte (the featured image for this post) from a set of drawings she completed in the Bakehouse café in St Albans (unfortunately the café has since closed down).
“While I draw I love hearing the clatter of plates and cups, the stirring of drinks, the chatter of friends or family catching up.”
The café as an office-from-office
Cafés can offer a workplace for those working in business as well.
Whereas intellectuals clustered together in coffeehouses in Oxford, in London Lloyds coffeehouse was a place where merchants and sailors congregated to negotiate deals and develop relationships. It became such a centre for the shipping industry that it eventually morphed into the famous insurance market, Lloyds of London.
The advent of the internet café further developed the concept of the café as workplace, with many a fledgling business set up as much on the café table as the kitchen table.
But nowadays the rows of screens have mutated into the simple provision of wifi. Today’s connected cafés serve as a haven for lonely entrepreneurs: a place for or serendipitous creative exchanges or informal meetings (my jeweller daughter chooses discreet cafés in which to show commission clients her dazzling wares).
“The coffeehouse frequented by merchants and sailors developed into the Lloyds insurance market.”
Dual purpose cafés
Café owners are often pragmatic. It makes sense to maximise a return on capital, so they often offer additional services, a double whammy this, because the customer benefits too.
Boyt’s café, tells us, was “rather unique as cafés go, combining a coffee shop with a legal practice.”
Other cafés transform themselves, Cinderella-like, at night into elegant restaurants – The Greedy Pig in Leeds becomes The Swine That Dines on Friday and Saturday evenings, while once a month East London’s Canvas Café becomes Nick Gilkinson’s supper club, The Potlatch.
Some cafés double as art galleries – Café Art is a brilliant new concept which uses café walls to exhibit the art work of the homeless. The charity’s walls and cupboards were heaving with unseen art, while local cafés walls were depressingly bare. Now fifteen cafés across the capital showcase the work.
Tea, Toast and Post, a café I discovered in Yorkshire, was also operating as an outlet for the beautiful hand-turned wooden boxes made by a friend of the barista working in Canada.
Cafés transform themselves, Cinderella-like, into elegant evening restaurants. The Greedy Pig becomes The Swine That Dines.
Cafés as places of support and solace
Martyn mentioned comfort and solace, and I suspect for him this is their most important function. Those battered for one reason or another by modern living, find sanctuary in cafés. Susie Boyt’s poignant description will resonate with many:
“On the corner of my street there was a café until recently…I used to work there, every day, during a sad time of my life. It was a home from home, a hundred yards from my actual home…I had my little corner next to the buzzing refrigerated unit, and it was soothing.”
And it wasn’t all take on her part.
“People I knew used to see me in the window and pop in and ask me for help with their problems. “Should you blind bake the pastry for a lemon meringue pie (Yes). Should I do a PhD (try not to).”
Even for those who aren’t regulars, cafés can provide a place for valuable one-off sessions of sanctuary.
When I was researching the post on cafés in Brussels I found myself gorging in rare moments of quiet meditation in the midst of the normal maelstrom of my frantic working life.
On another occasion I’d been walking along the spectacular Yorkshire coastline… and got lost. After much circuitous trudging I finally spotted the village of Robin Hood’s Bay and headed straight for the local café (the Tea, Toast and Post mentioned above) – they were just closing. “Can I have a quick coffee and then rush to the chemist for blister plasters?” I gasped breathlessly.
“Sit down, take your time, we’ll stay open until you finish”, reassured the welcoming barista, handing me the menu and offering a restorative brew of locally roasted beans. “Don’t worry about the plasters” he added. “I have some here, you can have a couple of these”.
Relief. Weight of my feet. Warmth. Comfort. Quiet. I watched the busy scene below where boats were being hauled up the tiny harbour. And then I looked out over the North Sea and began to ruminate happily.
Greater than the sum of its parts
Cafés can offer a place to meet, or for artistic inspiration, they can be a business hub, a centre for fervent political revolt. They can reinvent themselves as art galleries, elegant restaurants, and concert halls.
But perhaps the most important gift they offer us is time – precious moments in which to truly enjoy the company of others, or in which to savour our own company.
Whatever your need, a café offers a lot more than just a cup of joe.
[i] The Financial Times The ballad of the mad café 2 December 2016