For Easter I went to Saratoga Springs to visit my 94-year-old grandfather and a sprinkling of my extended and immediate family. Every morning we would go downtown to a café for breakfast. We discovered Uncommon Grounds almost ten years ago on another visit and fell in love with their breakfast bagels and coffee. Now, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I love the coffeehouse culture. Over an espresso macchiato during one of our mornings I mused what exactly it is that I like about them. I discovered that I am very particular indeed about what makes a perfect coffeehouse.
To start with, the ambiance has to be appropriate. There has to be a wide range of seating with over-stuffed armchairs and sofas as well as large and small tables (preferably tucked into funky corners or separated by bookshelves and plants). Antique or well-used furniture is preferable, if those aren’t available then anything but furniture that looks like it was just assembled with picture instructions from IKEA. The lighting needs to be good as well, and ideally as natural as possible, to encourage studying or reading when I’m tired of conversing (or is it that I need light to converse when I’m tired of studying?).
Next, the music has to be good – it can’t be turned up too loud or down too soft, and the genre has to be unobtrusive. Canned doesn’t do it for me either – Starubucks therefore, among other things, is a big “no” on my list.
Finally, and most importantly, the food and service. I like nice baristas, but I don’t want them to be my best friend (unless they really are). They need to take pride and ownership of their work, but by no means get a big head about it. There’s nothing worse than a barista who is huffy and snobbish about her coffee. Cafés should educate people gently, not make them feel stupid. The quality of the coffee, tea, other beverages, and food served is much more important though. Organic fair trade should be a standard, not the exception. Without proper food and drink, a café is simply a ghost of an establishment serving brown water and stale pastries.
Furthermore, a café that charges for refills, especially when the coffee already seems amazingly expensive, is a sad state of affairs. I understand the need to make a profit, but for me there is an ethical component to the spirit of a café as well. Customers should come in and feel taken care of, if not a bit spoiled. A café is an indulgence. It requires dedication from those on both sides of the counter. It shouldn’t serve primarily as a take-out caffeine gas station, but a cultural center for creativity, conversation, and contemplation.
In short, a café should be everything a philosopher would need to come up with the meaning of life, but catering to those of us who need an escape from juggling the practicalities of our existence.