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{18/02/2013}   The trendyisation of cafes

I met a friend in a kind of shabby cool cafe in Shoreditch the other day.  It’s a lovely cafe and I’ve been there a few times over the years but it somehow made me feel a bit fake, like I was pretending to be cool by being there.  I’m not sure how or why I felt like that as there weren’t that many people in the cafe and it’s not a pretentious or remotely smart environment (mismatched tables, plates, chairs, etc).  I had intended to go into a cafe about 100m away but on going in I realised there was a queue of people waiting for seats and a lot of people sitting down were expensively dressed iPad types (yes, yes, sweeping generalisation, I know) and I felt out of place.  Actually, I suspect it was more the area (though how come so many people were lazing about drinking coffee, chatting and iPadding on a Friday morning at about 10.30 am in the Brick Lane side of Shoreditch, ie not so close to Liverpool Street and the offices around there?) than the cafes but it got me thinking about cafes and what makes the environment feel right and conducive to sitting around drinking coffee.  Yes, I was a 10.30 am not-working coffee drinker, lounging about and meeting a friend but I wasn’t one of them, as it were, or so I thought.

I love cafes, indeed I want one of my own, but why do so few make me feel relaxed and comfortable?  The more I think about it, the more I realise it probably was more to do with the people in the area, it’s a bit hip and trendy and I am neither and nor have I ever wanted to be.  But I do like a good coffee and both those places serve good coffees.

For me, an ideal cafe would look similar to the one I met my friend in, Leila’s Cafe on Calvert Avenue.  I love that the food is prepared in an open kitchen, like a big kitchen in a house.  The menu is simple and they have an adjoining shop which sells what they use as ingredients.  They do lovely ham and eggs, cold meats and cheeses; simple, good quality food.  The coffee and cakes are also good.  I like that there are slabs of butter in old enamel dishes on the table, food is served on old wooden boards or in terracotta oven dishes or in enamel plates or bowls.  They use old, mismatched sugar bowls; it’s kind of rustic and refreshingly informal.  So why do so many painfully cool people end up there?  It annoys me.  Admittedly it was a sunny morning but far too many people were wearing sunglasses.  And they didn’t take them off inside either – too cool, huh?  I saw lots of skinny jeans and trousers – the men.  There was an iPadder with a very smart coat, a beautiful couple who rocked up in a taxi, knocked back their freshly squeezed blood orange juice and left and a rather magazine pretty man wearing magazine type clothes.  And there I was, embracing the shabbyness of it all, resplendent in a white top (so not my colour) with a large coffee stain along the neck line.  I think I take the chabby chic look too literally perhaps?  Actually, it’s that I have no magazine style, something which I’m actually proud of, though I don’t usually go out with milky coffee stains down my top.

I did part of my degree in Oxford, Mississippi.  We used to sit in late night cafes studying for exams and doing our homework, fuelled by caffeine and feeling part of a film set for being in a cafe.  At night time.  Drinking coffee.  That’s not how it was in the UK in 1996 and I missed those places when I got back.  It was some years after that that there suddenly seemed to be cafes everywhere here, though sadly most were and are chains.  I still think of them as places to go to do something, ie studying, reading, writing or merely waiting for someone or something.  I do often just get a takeaway coffee but most of all I love being in cafes.  My main issues are that I will do everything possible not to go in a chain, but sometimes it’s hard to find an independent cafe, and that most places serve hideous coffee.  I know I’m a coffee snob but I genuinely only enjoy coffee when it’s good.  I would rather have no coffee than a powdered cappuccino (I’ve had that in a cafe before, more than once, and it was nauseating) or a massive bowl of weak, milky coffee from Costa or a coffee from Starbucks that gives me excessive shakes.  So why on earth does good coffee have to be associated with trendy cafes?  Why can’t a normal cafe serve a really good coffee?  And don’t say I haven’t tried, I really have, and I have wasted a lot of money on revolting coffees.  Maybe, probably, it’s a matter of taste, kind of how some people enjoy ready meals while others would baulk at the idea … and therein lies a minefield of controversy, socio-economics and politics!

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