Magic of the Coffee house

Throughout history, coffee has served as a social and political lubricant. Coffeehouses were always the gathering places of the lettered and well-read, the politically connected and the socially aware. In Vienna, coffee was so popular that it inspired Bach’s Coffee Cantata. In Milan, coffee was sold in apothecaries as a panacea. In the Ottoman Empire, coffee emporiums were among the only places where men could meet and discuss things over a social libation. And in London, the first coffee house opened at Oxford University in 1650. Less than 50 years later, there were over 2,000 coffee houses in London.

Magic of the Coffee houseMagic of the Coffee house – image copyright @ Charlie Brewer

In London, coffee houses were known as Penny Universities. Much like today, the coffee houses attracted the educated and bored, those looking for intellectual and conversational stimulation. The price of a cup of coffee was the price of admission to hours of discourse on culture, art and politics. None of this has changed. Today, the local coffee house is likely to be the gathering place of college students and professors, a venue for spoken word and open mike performances and a gallery whose walls showcase local artists and offer them a place to sell.

There’s something unique about the atmosphere in a comfortable coffee shop. As shiny new Starbucks and Tim Horton’s spring up all over the landscape, the cozy ambience that encourages strangers to interrupt conversations and share tables just doesn’t seem to translate. Neighborhood coffee shops – from the corner breakfast grille to the college coffee klatsch – share a unique bond that extends to welcome anyone who steps through their doors. How do you tell if a coffee shop or cafe is a part of that unique camaraderie or just another place with owners who want to cash in on the latest trends? Here are some hints for evaluating the coziness factor of your local coffee house.

1. Check out the decor.


The cozy coffee house is not smartly turned out and dressed to the teeth. That’s the purview of the big coffee house chains with their polished bar tops and Italian marble floors. The neighborhood coffee shop has a sort of shabby chic that can’t be manufactured. It’s made up of comfortable castoff armchairs and sofas – at least one or two of each – and bookshelves stocked with hand-me-down paperbacks. Chances are that there’s a game shelf with a checkers board and a chess set, a couple decks of rubber-band wrapped playing cards and at least one cribbage board. If there’s anything at all that’s shiny and new, it’s the espresso machines and equipment for making the best coffees in the world.

2. Look for a bulletin board.

It’s probably near the door or near a main wall where everyone wanders by. It will be covered with hand-lettered announcements, postcards announcing local bands in concert and index cards posted by people looking for rides, roommates and guitars.

3. Examine the walls.

They’ve probably been pressed into service as a gallery for a local artist. You can tell if all the photographs and paintings have a little index card with the name of the piece, contact info for the artist and a price. There’s also a good chance that if one of the pieces of art catches your eye, the barista on duty can pick up the phone and have the artist there in ten minutes or less.

4. Check out the baristas.

They won’t be wearing uniforms or anything that looks like a uniform. They may be wearing t-shirts and jeans, a bustier and mini-skirt or anything in between. They most certainly won’t match – if there’s more than one on duty. While you’re at it, look for the menu. It’s probably posted on a chalkboard above the counter where it can easily be rewritten as the favored blends of coffee arrive or run out.

5. Sniff the air.

Coffee… you’ll smell that amazing aroma of fresh-brewed coffee that just can’t be duplicated anywhere that only serves one or two varieties of the bean. It’s rich and dark, almost intoxicating. It doesn’t smell like breakfast – it smells like romance and mystery and pure seduction.

If you’re still not sure, order your coffee. Ask the barista to surprise you, and she (or he) will, usually with their own favorite shot – which they will enthuse about in no uncertain terms. Listen to the conversations around you, and interject a comment when it seems appropriate. If it’s a real neighborhood coffeehouse, you’ll simply be accepted as part of the conversation. If you pull out a deck of tarot cards, people will wander over and invite themselves to sit. Strangers will introduce themselves. You will make friends. It’s the magic of the coffeehouse. Trust in it, be part of it, and enjoy.