The classic coffeehouse: Ten essentials

Shanghai café (photo by Tom Carter)

Café: 1) An informal establishment serving coffee and other beverages and originating in Continental Europe.  2) A bistro, brasserie or similar type of restaurant. 3) A coffeehouse.

Coffeehouse: 1) An establishment serving coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages. 2) An establishment serving coffee in 17th-18th century London and providing newspapers and space to do business; distinct from a teahouse or chocolate house.


Ye Olde Coffee House

Act 1 — A chocolate house
MIRABELL and FAINALL rising from cards, BETTY waiting.

MIRABELL. You are a fortunate man, Mr. Fainall.
FAINALL. Have we done?
MIRABELL. What you please. I’ll play on to entertain you.
FAINALL. No, I’ll give you your revenge another time, when you are not so indifferent; you are thinking of something else now, and play too negligently….

William Congreve, The Way of the World

William Congreve’s The Way of the World is remarkable on a number of counts. It was written and performed in 1700, an auspicious year marking the first century of the modern era: the age of reason, science, popular revolution, and the concepts of equality, liberty and universal literacy. It was at this time that the emerging middle class gave rise to an audience of voracious readers — women — and a new literary genre — the novel. In the realm of the theater, Congreve’s play seems to have sprung fully formed out of nowhere and marked a break from the stock characters of Restoration comedy, which had been little more than a vehicle for bawdy double entendre. Congreve’s characters stand out for their naturalistic speech and psychological acuity; note how Mirabell sparks Fainall’s opening lines by her mere facial expression. The characters are particularized in a way they had rarely been before (we have to go back to Shakespeare for more examples), as is the setting itself: a chocolate house. Prior to Congreve, English playwrights never specified the locale of their plays, as the setting was inferred from the dialogue. The occasional play with an opening stage direction indicated at most a city (e.g. London or Naples) or a generic location such as “a street” or someone’s “chamber.” By setting the play in a chocolate house, the environment, the décor, was immediately called into play, in the mind’s eye if not on the stage.

Rare glimpse of the early London coffeehouse (Wiki Commons)

There is a reason Congreve set his play in a chocolate house rather than a coffeehouse. England in the 17th-18th centuries mushroomed with coffeehouses, having invented the institution, at least the English variety of it, this newfound civilized space for the individual at liberty and leisure to socialize more respectably than in the tavern or gin house. Gender roles in the Enlightenment-era beverage establishment were clearly demarcated. The coffeehouse was male territory, the daytime domain of traders and brokers for handling business, their minds alert and unclouded by alcohol. Female servers, even female owners were present, and the discreet prostitute as well, but female customers were frowned upon. The chocolate house was the fair sex’s counterpart, a social setting congenial to fashionable ladies and couples, their business witty repartee. In time, the coffeehouse granted greater access to women, and the chocolate house lost its raison d’etre and disappeared (today only in Spain does it survive, serving real drinking chocolate that is, not cheap powdered cocoa). In England the teahouse took over some of the softer functions, while the coffeehouse became associated with the free thinker and intellectual, as did the parallel phenomenon on the Continent, the café.

Ornate-style New York Café (est. 1894), Budapest, Hungary (photo by Isham Cook)

European café culture reached its apogee at the turn of the 20th century, notably in Paris and Vienna. (A word on nomenclature. Café is the more inclusive term, connoting an establishment less specialized than a restaurant but with a range of food and beverage choices including alcohol; but a café can simply be a coffeehouse, and many coffeehouses call themselves cafés. Coffeehouse connotes something more pared down and functional, and nonalcoholic, being associated with the Puritan character of northern Europe and the U.S. I use the two terms interchangeably.) A comprehensive history of the American café up to and including the present awaits the right author. But I think historians of coffee culture would concur that, outside of immigrant neighborhoods and bohemian enclaves in New York City and San Francisco, the American café was for most of the 20th century a contradiction in terms. There were places to drink coffee, if that’s what you called the weak brew served in thick white cups and saucers or mugs (to reduce breakage) from a Bunsen coffee maker in the diners, also known ambiguously as “coffee shops,” those ubiquitous fluorescent-lit eateries of indelible popular lore and movie culture where the proles congregate, or if you just wanted coffee and something sweet, Dunkin’ Donuts. This period is referred to as the coffee industry’s “first wave.” (A side note: the “coffee shop” in its Netherlands incarnation signifies something drastically different from the American diner: an establishment where marijuana is sold and consumed.)

I was a bit more traveled than the average American of my age and first took an interest in café culture in my teens while living in Europe, when on a trip to Vienna in 1976 I was introduced to the Café Hawelka (est. 1939), famed haunt of artists and writers. Its comparatively plain wood-paneled interior (albeit with the requisite high ceilings) and modernist framed art contrasted pointedly with the more ornate cafés Vienna is famous for. The distinctive and mildly subversive environment was unlike anything I had encountered in bars and I was hooked. I was seventeen.

Recent History of the Chicago Coffeehouse

In my hometown of Chicago, the predominant “coffee” hangout in my Lakeview neighborhood of the early 1980s was the Dunkin’ Donuts on Clark Street and Belmont Ave. Every Saturday night the punks would come out of the woodwork and assemble in the chain’s parking lot in their mohawks and biker jackets, sometimes more than a hundred of them (earning this shop its “Punkin’ Donuts” nickname). I always wondered what they were doing apart from being noticed. They seemed to be just standing around and talking, many looking innocent and baby-faced, as if waiting for the school bus to take them home from their field trip. If it was a party it was a stark one, without refreshments. Whether for ideological reasons or because the most loyal customers were pudgy policemen, the punks were generally loathe to enter the donut shop itself. In any case they chose a suitably ironic Treffpunkt, the front parking lot of corporate America’s most representative cuisine — donuts and watery coffee.

Just a few shops south on Clark was a pleasingly pretentious café by the name of Scenes, with a drama theme and lined with bookshelves of virtually every play in publication for sale. I was in college at the time and if memory serves me right it was the neighborhood’s first coffeehouse proper. It wasn’t all that large, but the floor-to-ceiling front window angled back to form a skylight and a bright, airy ambience. Scenes lasted about a decade before succumbing to the Starbucks invasion, one branch opening up only a few doors down, across from Punkin’ Donuts.

Heartland Cafe, Chicago (photo by Isham Cook)

Chicago’s first wave of dedicated coffeehouses was underway. My hometown will serve as a reasonably hip exemplar of middle-American culture. The homey Coffee and Tea Exchange on Broadway provided an alternative to Folgers tins with their huge barrels of freshly roasted beans crowned with self-service scoops. The first local café chain, Coffee Chicago, opened up several shops in Lakeview and Uptown in the mid ’80s and were notable for their clean spaciousness and fresh branded look, predating the onslaught of the national chains. Male immigrants from the Middle East, long accustomed to café life back home, were delighted regulars. Coffee culture had already been booming up in the hippie enclave of Rogers Park. There was the Heartland Cafe (1976-2018), more institution than café: health food restaurant, music venue, bar, general store, and trademark broken missile on the roof. Just a few steps up the street was the No Exit Café (1958-98), a relic by this time, a performance space for beat poets and lefties in a dark, stripped-down décor. And a bike ride away up in Evanston was a little bohemia brewing on Dempster Street — the Blind Faith Cafe vegetarian restaurant, opened in 1979 and still going strong (probably on the strength of their awesome cakes and pastries), and in the mid-’80s the artsy Cafe Express (eventually taken over by the current Bagel Art), Evanston’s only coffeehouse until the Unicorn Cafe (1991-2020) gave Northwestern University students an option closer to campus, with real marble bistro tables, only to succumb to Covid-19 after almost three decades of business. One of the oldest surviving Chicago coffeehouses, the Bourgeois Pig Cafe (est. 1993) on Fullerton in Lincoln Park, is still alive.

In bohemian Wicker Park/Bucktown, Urbus Orbis (1989-1998) adopted the fashionable rough-edged look of the era (thank grunge rock) in an old converted warehouse with unfinished ceilings, a Starbucks Coffee sign altered to read “FUCK OFF,” painted tables and weirdly pleasant waitresses. Its audacious size and cool crowd made it an instant classic. Outspoken owner Tom Handley turned me on to Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, and the author’s concept of the “third place” for the community to hang out in. This third place lasted a decade before being priced out of the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. Close by on Damen and Milwaukee was the rival Earwax Café (1990-2002 at the latter location) with a used bookshop in back, Myopic Books. Earwax kicked Myopic out after a dispute, and the bookstore moved to three different locations over the succeeding decades (one next to the Black Cat punk coffeehouse on Division) before returning in revenge to the very space formerly occupied by Earwax/Myopic, having now grown into Chicago’s premier secondhand bookstore.

New York City was the mecca of anti-establishment dives, as I found on a visit to the East Village in 1988. Several coffeehouses around Tomkins Square Park, which had recently been wracked by police violence against the homeless, featured graffiti-slapped wall murals and random tables and chairs scrounged from low-end used furniture stores, resembling homeless shelters more than cafés. Yet not all coffeehouses adopted the grunge theme. In Chicago’s North and Sheffield Commons, the New Age bookstore café Transitions (1989-2008) developed a loyal following with its colorful book displays, tinkling chimes, guru book signings, and Andreas Vollenweider’s electric harp swirling in the background. It gave neighboring Peet’s Coffee and the Whole Foods Cafe some hearty competition. Transitions was Chicago’s most elegant coffee retreat in those years, whatever one feels about a bookstore decked out like a luxury spa.

Just when the first wave of independent coffeehouses was flourishing they were steamrollered by the “second wave” of the national coffee chains Seattle’s Best, Caribou, Starbucks, and Peet’s. Diss these corporations all you want but they were undeniably popular. The Caribou Coffee on Broadway north of Belmont, across from the Coffee and Tea Exchange, the beloved Melrose restaurant, Unabridged Books and the gay collectibles boutique He Who Eats Mud, was the gay coffee hangout for a good decade.

Barnes & Noble bookstore and café, Chicago (photo by Isham Cook)

And then, exploding seemingly out of nowhere in 1992 was the Borders and Barnes & Noble juggernaut: massive book “superstores” with smart interiors and attractive café spaces popping up in cities all over the U.S. and worldwide. They were too successful for their own good and collapsed in the 2010s almost as fast as they appeared. Barnes & Noble hung on longer but gutted its book selection for knickknacks to broaden their appeal to those who hate books; its remaining stores finally succumbed to Covid-19 shutdowns in 2020; it’s uncertain whether such stores can ever be resurrected, with online shopping habits now so entrenched. But I actually miss them, their grandness, their luxurious novelty — you could bring a stack of books to your table without having to purchase them — as if the public library had been ingeniously reinvented. Another reason for their popularity was their accessibility, performing almost a civic duty sprouting up in practically every sizable shopping plaza in the country, locations which otherwise might have lacked any manner of café, coffeehouse or other “third place.”

Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago, in the 2010s (photo by Isham Cook)

Soon after the arrival of the superstores and as if in pointed contrast to them came the “third wave” of specialty, artisanal coffee and coffeehouses. In Chicago, Intelligentsia Coffee on Broadway south of Belmont led the way in 1995. Gone was the grunge look in favor of a sleek décor suggestive of Scandinavian design, with directed lighting and work stations (long solid wood tables seating multiple customers), a calibrated geometry of accents and paraphernalia expressive of a more serious approach to coffee. In nearby Milwaukee the hip Colectivo Coffee chain (est. 1993) was doing similar things but only arrived in Chicago in 2017. Recently being trumpeted is a so-called “fourth wave” of socially conscious coffee retailers who source their beans exclusively through fair-trade distributors and supposedly return some profits back to the growers themselves, though this seems to me more a logical extension of the third wave than a new phenomenon, and I haven’t seen any discernible changes in the coffee experience at the output end. I’ve patronized Intelligentsia since its inception and most recently visited their Broadway shop in 2019. Apart from some shuffling of the seating over the years, the café has kept true to itself and is largely unchanged, though hand-dripped brew has replaced the brewing machine and prices have gone up painfully, sending many customers to cheaper venues.

Next Door, Chicago. It occupied part of the space of a former Barnes & Noble superstore (photo by Isham Cook)

One such venue, which positioned itself as a kind of community outreach center, was the Next Door (2011-20), a ten-minute walk from Intelligentsia down on Diversey. A large space outfitted with business pods where customers could get private advice on jobs and finances (sponsored by State Farm), it was a handsome coffeehouse while it lasted, with comfortable seating and a relaxed vibe but alas became another Covid casualty. Perhaps a truly distinctive fourth wave will appear as a post-pandemic development.

And On the Other Side of the World….

Jin River terrace café in Chengdu, China, serving instant coffee, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook)

If you’re wondering what Asia, the tea side of the globe, could possibly contribute to international coffee culture, well, a lot. Let’s take China as an example, where I’ve been based for the last three decades. If there’s any photo I regret not having the presence of mind to snap it was of the first dedicated coffeehouse I visited in Shanghai in 1990 (while I was living in Japan), probably the only one in China at the time, on West Nanjing Road I believe. I retain nothing more than a hazy memory of waitresses dashing around the crowded, smoky and bustling shop with pots of their signature “steamed coffee” (whether brewed in percolators or steamed with milk I can’t recall), but it could only have existed in a city that retained a memory of once being the “Paris of the East.” In Beijing for most of the ’90s, on the other hand, coffee was only to be found in the lobby lounge of a handful of five-star hotels that happened to have a Nescafe dispenser. Even teahouses were hard to find, all such bourgeois excesses having long been stamped out in the Cultural Revolution, with the notable exception of the Sanwei Shuwu (三味书屋) teahouse, the closest thing to a beverage salon for intellectuals, on the second floor of a structure surviving from the earlier half of the century, and a bookstore on the first floor. In the late ’90s a tea craze hit the capital and several teahouse chains shot up around the city, with twenty-four-hour private rooms where couples could do things they could never get away with in their parents’ homes. Incidentally, the best book on worldwide tea culture has got to be Bruno Suet & Dominique Pasqualini’s The Time of Tea (Vilo International, 2000); I had the pleasure of securing one while it was still in print but used copies might still be found. The coffee equivalent would have to be the long out-of-print William H. Ukers, All About Coffee (The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1922).

Sanwei Shuwu teahouse, Beijing, China, 1994 (photo by Isham Cook)

In Japan, by contrast, thanks to the post-WWII American occupation, coffee culture was well established, to an extent that stunned me when I first arrived in the Japanese countryside in 1989. With a mere population of around 10,000, the town I was living in in backwater Wakayama Prefecture had a dozen coffeehouses, known as kissaten, elegant if old-fashioned affairs affecting a nostalgia for the classic European café, or the idea of such, serving coffee in fragile china we would associate with tea. Each cup of coffee was handmade in a “siphon,” two glass globes sitting one atop the other, the water bubbling up through vacuum pressure to mix with the grounds before flowing back down through a filter. It was surprisingly good coffee. I immediately bought a siphon and used it for years. The town’s main liquor store had a serving section where the family that ran it demoed the latest beans — hand-dripped instead of a siphon — fresh from their roaster. This was, again, the late ’80s. In the U.S. you had to be living in a sizable city to find a place that roasted its own beans. Today Japan exports some of the finest artisanal coffee equipment in the world. But there was one problem with the kissaten in rural Japan: apart from the odd table of middle-aged ladies, there were hardly any customers, not to mention a complete absence of young people, who were mostly away in college and had little intention of ever returning. I wondered how these lonely haunts could stay in business without some form of government subsidy. Their tenacity attested to coffee’s status in Japan as a beverage staple and daily necessity.

Café in Kyoto, Japan, 1990 (photo by Isham Cook)

Decades behind Japan, China took its time to grasp the concept of brewed coffee (see my “The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks” for more on what China has, and has not, learned from Japan). In Beijing the turning point came with three milestones, all around 1998 if I recall correctly: 1) The city’s first Starbucks arrived, with a shop near People’s University, respectfully decked out in classical hardwood Chinese furniture. 2) The lovely Shichahai neighborhood with its string of interconnected little lakes finally had its eureka moment (I had been wondering when it would come) and exploded with bars and cafés. The first one to open, in a former vine-covered house overlooking Qianhai (the “Front Lake”), was too understated to bother even with a front sign. They were eventually persuaded to adopt a name and styled themselves the “No Name Café.” It quickly became a hit not only for being one of the first of its kind, but the foreign customers could get away with smoking pot since the staff didn’t know what it was. And 3) the first coffeehouse proper, with palatable coffee (Illy beans) and just the right cerebral ambience, popped up in a strip of old lanes squeezed between Beijing and Qinghua universities, snobbishly entitled “Sculpting in Time” (雕刻时光) after the Andrei Tarkovsky film of the same name (it soon moved to the Beijing Institute of Technology when the lanes were demolished). Over the next decade Sculpting in Time opened shops throughout Beijing and other cities and is still going strong (scroll down to the bottom for a photo of their Xi’an branch). They got certain things right from the start, enabling the chain to thrive over the past two decades: comfortable wooden furniture and floors and warm, earth-toned color schemes. It was the beginning of the consumer era, and since then Beijing and Shanghai have come in to their own and positively sprouted with cafés, and trailing a few years behind, other Chinese cities as well.

The Coffee Palace Invasion

Joy Life, Beijing, view of the third floor (photo by Isham Cook)

The next milestone came in the early 2010s with an onslaught of chandeliers and other fresh décor concepts, led by the South Korean coffee invasion. The Caffe Bene chain in particular was hugely popular and quickly rendered Starbucks and Costa Coffee passé, until the Korean wave receded just as suddenly as it had arrived only a few years later in the face of local competition. Beijing’s café entrepreneurs were captivated by the new discordant, indeed chaotic approach to décor — rustic wood-paneled walls, intentionally mismatched furniture, chandeliers of every shape and size — and outdid the Koreans. As a northern city, Beijing’s food and beverage establishments are enclosed but expansive inside, with big brewpubs preferred to the open-front espresso bars and wine bars of Shanghai in the south and their more intimate, Euro feel. Likewise these massive coffeehouses, coffee palaces rather, resembled furniture and lighting emporiums more than cafés, and were ostentatiously impressive in their own way. The coffee too was a step up from the usual Illy or Lavazza beans, the Koreans having taught the Chinese the importance of roasting their own, and the elaborate waffle desserts appealed to customers who didn’t necessarily appreciate coffee.

Cloud Nest Coffee, Beijing, looking down from the third floor to the first and second floors (photo by Isham Cook)

But the coffee palace craze lasted only a few years. Predictably, the rents were unsustainable without the clientele constantly at capacity. Like the American book superstores, they were too good to be true and collapsed under their own weight. The most successful chain, Maan Coffee, which opened stores throughout Beijing and a few other cities, still stands but had to shut down many of its locations in the wake of Covid; it’s unclear whether it will survive, even though the Chinese economy has fared better than most. In my Beijing neighborhood of Shuangjing alone sprouted five such coffee palaces, one of which, Joy Life, was simply the most dazzling café I have ever seen, if outrageously so, with three formidable floors of bizarrely imaginative furnishings and so much seating they could never fill the space. It failed a few years back, but one of the remaining five, Cloud Nest Coffee, survives intact under a new name and management, Ms. Qi (Ms. 柒).

Voyage Coffee, Beijing, 2020 (photo by Isham Cook)

For every café in China that fails (or gets the boot by fickle landlords), two new ones open up. The latest trend has pulled back from the wasteful extravagance of the mid-’10s to adopt a clean, minimalist look, the color white predominating. The Voyage Coffee chain exemplifies this with its flagship store in Beijing’s revitalized west Qianmen area and smaller shops opening up around the city and in Shanghai. Another quality chain, Soloist Coffee, has adopted odd furniture items (e.g. old streetcar seats) as its signature décor. What makes this latest phase more than a mere shift in fashion is the improved coffee experience, now that the younger generation of Chinese baristas have caught up with the rest of the world and sourced beans and hand-dripped brew are becoming the norm.

Global Coffee Culture

As may by now be apparent, the café, or coffeehouse, shares a number of commonalities the world over, even as venues, brewing techniques and coffee quality change over time. Unique innovations may take hold in one place or another, similar solutions may be arrived at independently, and there are tried-and-true methods that work everywhere. Apart from a natural curiosity about what’s going on in other countries, this larger perspective seems valuable to me. Viewing coffee culture as a global phenomenon infuses it with greater importance than the confining biases of one’s local or national experience. As a globetrotting coffeehouse enthusiast and connoisseur running on five decades now, and long curious as to how different countries variously construct the coffee experience, I believe I have something to contribute on these questions. What follows are a few tips for those considering opening a coffee establishment as well as for those already running one.


1. Space

Coffeesmith, Seoul, South Korea (photo by Isham Cook)

A coffeehouse’s greatest asset is its size. Most of us coffee habitués are drawn to big busy establishments where we can people-watch — and be watched. I’ve always wondered what it is about space that feels so luxurious. Is it the suggestion of wealth, of living or lounging for a few hours in a grand interior as if it were one’s own? Restaurants and bars don’t seem to rely as much on the same appeal (though it can hardly hurt); in them you’re more caught up in a process — the potent fragrances of the food and drink, the company and the conversation at hand, the contracting funnel of inebriation — than in a place. You’re in, and you’re out. In a café, on the other hand, there is no hurry to get up and leave, whether due to pressure to vacate your table, or because you’ve had enough to drink, or you’ve succeeded in scoring your one-night stand. You are able, indeed encouraged, to stay as long as you want. In the café, time settles and slows down. You’re left to your own devices and resources. You’re invited to take in the surroundings, merge with them as it were. And the surroundings, therefore, are all the more important.

As space is at a premium, however, size is not always an option. Small cafés need to consider what they can do to compensate for their modest assets. A high ceiling can create just enough of an illusion of space to do the trick, like the two tiny cafés shown below in Hong Kong and Taipei. Note their clever use of the existing interior to extend the décor right up into the exposed ceilings:

N1 Coffee & Co, Hong Kong (left); Cama Café, Taipei, Taiwan (right) (photos by Isham Cook)

Another solution is the open patio or street-side terrace café. Nothing appeals more than a nice outside space. This can even be done inside a shopping mall, like the faux-Parisian café in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, below. Another solution is the café I visited in Saigon, Vietnam, which extended its original interior forward with a makeshift structure of two walls, open front, and an electrically powered retractable roof that I was able to see in action when it started to rain.

Paris-style café in Kuala Lumpur mall (left); Saigon café with retractable roof (right) (photos by Isham Cook)

2. Light

Crumb & Coaster, Kuta, Bali (photo by Isham Cook)

Light in the coffeehouse serves two distinct yet equally important purposes, one aesthetic and one functional. Aesthetically, the coffeehouse signifies the day, and calls for light; the bar signifies the night, and calls for a duskier ambience. There is nothing preventing you from preferring a bar in the daytime or a coffeehouse after dark. These are just the inevitable significations. Nevertheless, it behooves the coffeehouse to acknowledge its original role as a venue where one could comfortably read a newspaper without the aid of interior lighting (originally candles or oil lamps). Many customers actually want and demand this. There is something reassuring about an adequately illuminated space, a space with large windows or skylights to let in natural daylight; we are drawn to it the way we are drawn in the other direction to dark bars when the nocturnal urge takes over.

Reading Café, Seoul, which had a silence policy (photo by Isham Cook)

Especially when one needs an adequately illuminated space. If the facing windows don’t permit enough daylight, interior lighting must compensate. The rule of thumb is that the light should be sufficient to read a book without eye strain at most of an establishment’s tables. This brings us to the second purpose, the functional: adequate lighting for reading and work, for people who still enjoy the physical book but whose imperfect eyesight requires proper lighting. A poorly lit café sends the message that books aren’t welcome. Decent, directed lighting, or even simple reading lamps set on the table as in old-school libraries, shows respect for the traditional café habitués — the reader, the thinker, and the writer. One coffeehouse near a university in Seoul, as you can see, respected the book so much it defined its clientele as the studious university student and forbade talking.

3. Décor 

A Little Khmer Café, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Isham Cook)

Décor is impossible to prescribe, being a matter of taste, and you either have it or you don’t. But at its most basic, décor is people. The customers are the fundamental décor, enough of whom can enliven the drabbest, most perfunctory coffeehouse interior. Who wants to go to a picture-perfect café that’s perpetually empty? There is even an advantage to downplaying décor. Some interiors appeal for being subtle, understated, minimalist, even shabby (if consistently so). But décor can cost money, and before a new coffeehouse decides upon throwing a lot of it away, it had better make sure the essentials are up to par — the location, the service, the coffee, and the rest. (As far as location is concerned, it depends on too many local factors as well as local expertise for me to treat it separately; it’s at once more important and less important than all the essentials combined.)

Green Cloud Coffee, Seoul (photo by Isham Cook)

Furniture is a major part of the décor (tables are dealt with below), since the customer is in intimate contact with it. Chairs should be sturdy and comfortable with a certain luxurious tactility to them, without necessarily being actually upholstered. The Siem Reap café above has only hard straight-backed chairs but they are nonetheless inviting due to their spacious arrangement, colorfully adorned walls, beautiful floor, and open front for people watching. Some décors, on the other hand, sacrifice functionality and table space for a strong artistic statement, such as this Seoul coffeehouse whose terraced steps produce an uncanny effect, part amphitheater, part artificial landscape, which while warm and inviting also verges on the intimidating.

Coffee and Coconuts, Amsterdam (photo by Isham Cook)

The tricky balance between extravagance and intimacy is on display in the magnificent Amsterdam coffeehouse at left. They seem to have done everything right, artfully exploiting every square inch of their vast space, including nooks and crannies created out of comfy sofa arrangements, plentiful artwork (including iconic John Lennon and Che Guevara posters), paraphernalia displays, choreographed lighting, good food and coffee, and friendly service. Yet whenever I visited the place — and I did keep coming back — there were only a handful of customers. I’ll let the reader mull over this paradox.

4. Music

Néctar, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (photo by Isham Cook)

Music is part of the décor — being aural décor. But unlike visual décor it should be discreet, or it risks devolving into noise pollution. A coffeehouse is not a bar. It’s a place for easy chatting or discussion, reading or work, and contemplative relaxation. The music should never be loud enough to interfere with normal conversation. (A tip for making the music discreet is a high-quality audio system, which delivers more music at less volume and less boominess and tinniness.) Starbucks understands this and keeps their default music — jazz — at no more than moderate volume. It’s not because jazz is inherently superior to other types of music that renders it suitable. Although I do greatly enjoy jazz, I’m mainly a classical fan. And I can state that classical music is not recommended for the coffeehouse, even of the most inoffensive Mozart or Vivaldi variety. You will send some customers out the door, due to a peculiarity among Westerners who happen to have bad childhood associations with music played in tuxedos. I was in my favorite hotel café in Bangkok once, the Atlanta, whose expat owner, an American old-timer, is still around to this day. You can’t imagine anything more unobtrusive, but his pet Renaissance lute music caused an angry European customer to confront the staff before she tore her hair out. Western coffeehouse owners and baristas have very keen musical tastes and naturally show off their knowledge in painstakingly compiled playlists. But customers have keen tastes of their own and may not necessarily share yours. The peculiar advantage of jazz is that people don’t have quite such violent reactions to it, even for those who don’t like it. It’s so omnipresent in our society that it easily blends into the background. There is an endless variety of it as well, over a hundred years of it to choose from, and you’re unlikely to hear the same jazz tracks in any two establishments. Jazz’s sophistication also dovetails with the café’s intellectual lineage; the modern café’s origins seem almost inseparable from jazz.

Clay Studio Café, Chiang Mai, Thailand (photo by Isham Cook)

China is a curious exception to the standard advice about music and a special case. Many Chinese will freely admit they are not mentally structured to understand jazz, and café operators will resort to random domestic pop music. The one type of jazz they happen to like they amusingly label “Sax,” their term for jazz Muzak, otherwise known as smooth jazz (see my “On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China“). But their problem is in fact more serious, music culture under socialism having over the generations been thoroughly revolutionized, i.e., obliterated. That’s why many cafés there have the annoying habit of putting the same few songs, or the same song, on repeat all day (a problem I discuss in “The Chinese art of noise“). This problem is not entirely confined to China but can be found anywhere among the musically naïve or indifferent. On the other hand, classical music goes down better in China, e.g., the classical music-themed café Santa Cecilia (patron saint of music) pictured below, formerly located near the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

5. Tables

Lokal, Shanghai (photo by Isham Cook)

I suppose for most customers, a table is a purely functional thing standing on four legs and it’s enough it doesn’t collapse. But ask yourself if you are able to visualize the tables of your favorite coffeehouses in your mind’s eye. If so, you may even appreciate the café table as a thing of beauty. Whether of the polished marble or rugged wooden sort, it’s functional all right, being designed not only to be strong and stable but to appear so. A table that wobbles and causes the coffee to spill, or worse, onto one’s book, is not only traumatic, the anticipation of such is traumatic. There is a logic to the design of the classic Parisian marble-top bistro table with its cast-iron base: it’s heavy and indestructible and visually guarantees your coffee will be earthquake proof. Most bistro tables have a tripod base. You can also find them with four feet, which might seem to convey greater solidity but are in fact prone to rocking if the floor isn’t perfectly flat, whereas three feet are immune to rocking.

Les beaux objets (clockwise from upper left): Panino Teca, Soloist Coffee, The Coffee Club, Da Giuliano, Beijing (photos by Isham Cook)

All too many a coffeehouse I have visited over the years have the inevitable wobbly table and makeshift wad of tissue wedged under one of the feet to stop the rocking — until you shift the table, the wad comes out and your coffee is all over the place. It’s almost as bad as the waitperson who sets your coffee down clumsily and spills it, though that’s hardly the table’s fault. Or flimsy, wobbly chairs, as anyone knows who has ever had the unforgettable experience of the chair collapsing out from under them and being plunged to the floor.

You don’t have to outfit your café with bistro tables. Not everyone can afford them. Strong solid wood tables will do just fine, even with four feet, provided you take care to wobble-proof them with felt bumpers, screws, etc. Small round tables convey a sense of independence for the solitary café-goer — who “owns” the table — while larger square tables convey a sense of inclusion for several customers as in restaurants, and can be placed closer together than in restaurants, where customers are loathe to be imposed upon by strangers.

A big work station (with sufficient electrical outlets and of course reliable wifi) is also a good investment; some enjoy the proximity to other customers and the communion this encourages. The table should be of thick solid wood, which like marble looks and feels nice to the touch and is satisfying to set the cup down on. One can lean on a heavy wooden table without disturbing one’s, or others’ coffee. As an alternative to the work station and also serving a socializing purpose, some coffeehouses have a “hearth” space — a sofa or two, a low shared coffee table, and a throw rug to complete the space. An Oriental rug is ideal; relatively inexpensive ones, made of durable wool, are worthwhile to track down and can last years.

Gorgeous work-station table, Coffee Circles, Rangoon, Burma (photo by Isham Cook)

6. Edibles

Mini scone, La Colombe, Chicago (left); pumpkin maple square, The Other Paw Bakery Cafe, Jasper, Canada (right) (photos by Isham Cook)

The dilemma of food for the coffeehouse is the smells: enticing for the hungry but unpleasant for the sated. This is the key distinction, if there is one, between the coffeehouse and the café. The latter has traditionally offered a wider food selection, or at least sandwiches. Coffeehouses on a shoestring may even offer no food (I’ve seen such places) but this is not recommended. Not to have at least something to resort to is really quite inconsiderate of the guest. Standard American coffeehouse fare has remained fairly consistent over the decades (later additions being of the gluten-free or vegan variety): some combination of cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, lemon glaze, biscotti, chocolate-covered graham crackers), muffins, scones (with jam, butter or a dollop of whipped cream), toasted bagels (plain, whole wheat, onion, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin) and cream cheese, croissants. Richer fare (cakes, pies, sandwiches) are fine as long as a few items are available for less than the price of a coffee. This is not just due to the many regular coffeehouse-goers who are on a budget (indebted students, starving artists), but we often want nothing more than a little mid-afternoon snack. Included as well should be savory, not just sweet edibles, mindful of those who don’t like or can’t tolerate sugar.

There is no limit to the tasty delectable available to any creative coffeehouse, especially when one sees what’s available in other countries. Indeed, how the café expresses the culture of its era and geography is the subject of another book that needs to be written. For example, Chinese cafés tend to favor slices of fancy cakes for their treats, influenced as they’ve been by their Japanese and Korean counterparts, which have long followed in the footsteps of the “Kaffee und Kuchen” tradition in the Viennese café. Starbucks fare likewise varies from country to country to reflect local taste buds.

Revolutions have their bad side, and the Starbucks revolution brought with it the nasty concoction known as the Frappuccino: coffee syrup, milk and ice ground in a blender and topped with whipped cream. While refreshing on a summer day, this overpriced concoction had no real justification, nutritional or otherwise, except as a marketing strategy. Coffeehouses everywhere had to step in line with their own versions — and blissfully contribute to a new form of noise pollution, the horrible roar of grating ice. The coffeehouse that wishes to claim its heritage as a realm of spiritual rejuvenation would do well to consider foregoing the ice blender.

Churros and drinking chocolate (left), prosciutto and coffee (right), cafés in Santiago de Compostela, Spain (photos by Isham Cook)

7. Coffee

You may think coffee quality has always been taken for granted, but the concept is fairly recent — not until arabica strains and locally sourced beans entered popular consciousness a mere few decades ago (in the Romance countries prior to that). As my focus is on the setting rather than the set, the coffeehouse rather than the coffee, and I am not a sommelier or even a barista, I have no great advice to dispense here other than the obvious: one starts with choice, freshly roasted beans and purified water, and ideally the beans are ground right before brewing (whatever brewing method used). I mention coffee quality, however, to underscore a point pertinent to the coffeehouse. There are many coffee styles and flavors, and each coffeehouse or café is indelibly stamped with the particular aroma and flavor of its coffee. It’s precisely this combined olfactory-gustatory memory that draws one back to the same establishment again and again, or to a host of establishments one rotates among. We don’t want to visit the same café every day, any more than we want to visit the same restaurant or drink the same wine every day; their appeal derives from contrast and variety and they beckon most keenly when they’re missed. I can say this much: no matter how attractive and commodious the establishment, you won’t see me back there if the coffee is flat.

Coffee roaster displayed in a Seoul café (photo by Isham Cook)

In the early 2000s South Korea got caught up in the coffee craze, and it became such a source of national pride that the government subsidized small businesses to encourage the industry. When I visited Seoul in 2013, there was a bewildering array of coffeehouses large and small, many fetishizing freshness to the extent of roasting their own right out in the open and filling their shops with the stench of roasting coffee, which is not the same as roasted coffee and can be overpowering and offensive. The sight of its own roaster may reassure customers that the shop takes its coffee seriously, but not if it’s a mere aesthetic gesture. In fact the coffee produced by many of these shops I found underwhelming. Roasting your own defeats the purpose if your beans aren’t of high quality to begin with. You’re better off buying your coffee from an established roaster, whose brand will do the work for you.

8. Shine

The Coffee Club, Bangkok (photo by Isham Cook)

Shine is the effect achieved by neatness and cleanliness. It refers both to a “clean” style of décor — the ensemble of colors and textures right down to the surfaces of the floor and tables — and to the actual state of cleanliness. The surfaces need not literally shine. The hard sheen of floor tiling combined with the glare of a window-heavy environment can reinforce a cold, unwelcome ambience. This can make a coffeehouse interior feel colder than it actually is in wintertime and “cold” in summertime as well, if blinding sunlight is allowed to penetrate without adequate shading. The branch of Bangkok’s Coffee Club chain shown above has a pristine modernist design with just enough wood tones to preserve a sense of warmth and customer empathy. The Burmese café below acquires the same with its bright orange accents.

A café in Rangoon (photo by Isham Cook)

In private life, people array themselves along the full spectrum of hygiene habits, from germaphobes who maintain their house to hospital operating room standards, to pigsty dwellers. If your coffee is too hot for your taste, you can simply wait a few minutes, but if it’s not hot enough, you’re stuck; you have to go through the hassle of getting it reheated or a new one made. Similarly, if you’re put off by hyper-clean surfaces, you can always create your own mess on the table. But if the table is grimy to begin with, you again have to go through the hassle of getting it recleaned, even having to micromanage the waitperson in pointing out spots they’re neglecting (if they already knew how to wipe their tables down you wouldn’t have noticed anything to begin with). In other words, you can’t reverse entropy. Sanitation not only keeps the health inspectors happy, but customers as well. Those who don’t care won’t notice.

9. Service

The down-home 8th Street Coffee House, Escanaba, Michigan (photo by Isham Cook)

There is no good or bad service, just service or the lack of it. What I mean by this is waitstaff should withhold the urge to trumpet their service with that ingratiating, unctuous performance style (the personalized greeting, the menu-of-the-day speech) American restaurants are prone to and the servers rely on for tips. This is less of an issue in the coffeehouse with only counter service. On the contrary, coffeehouse staff even in the U.S. provide on occasion less than optimal customer service, appearing frosty and unfriendly, or dazed or bleary-eyed, if not outright rude. This can be a function of benumbing routine and low pay, or where there is a youthful clientele and an establishment’s reputation for hipness and displays of emotion are uncool. The best service doesn’t require a lot of emotional labor, just unruffled efficiency, the impression you give of doing your job, and doing it well. If I appreciate the barista’s smile, it’s not because it’s necessarily meant for me but because it follows from their own satisfaction at producing a perfect cup of coffee: the service is delivered and accomplished as intended. Smiling is icing on the cake, but even more impressive is the server who remembers me and my particular requests, and mere eye contact upon entering does the job.

A no-no: café owner in Beijing publicly berating her barista (photo by Isham Cook)

China again provides a fascinating point of contrast. Many shops and restaurants line their staff up outside in virtual military formation to harangue them right in front of passersby, often singling out one member for special censure (see my “From struggle sessions to public dressing-downs: China’s continuity of psychological control“). This obnoxious practice has fortunately been on the wane in recent years. Social attitudes are changing as the Chinese economy grows and people mellow out ever so noticeably. Nevertheless, tempers can flare in eating and drinking establishments everywhere. I’ve worked as a waiter in North America and recall the tension in the air so thick the cooks could cut it with their knives, and the care with which we had to negotiate each entrance into the kitchen. Poor management is usually behind dour-faced staff. It’s every bit as evident to customers as parents’ quiet fighting is to their children.

Santa Cecilia Music Cafe, Shanghai, the owner and her barista (photo by Isham Cook)

At least the owner in the Beijing café above got it off her chest and out of the way rather than letting it simmer, even if her harangue did take a full hour. And at least she tended to be around; most Chinese establishment owners and managers never show their face, being too proud to have to deal with customers. So when the boss does make a point of hanging out, as this Shanghai café owner at left regularly did, it’s perhaps the single most reassuring thing they can do.

10. Subculture

Café Casino (est. 1873), Santiago de Compostela, Spain (photo by Isham Cook)

The complete coffeehouse, finally, needs to proclaim its links to tradition. One way to do this is to take over a storied space that held a former café or restaurant and preserve or maintain it. Carved wainscoting, stamped ceiling, elegant flooring, furniture, etc., may already be in place. But given that this is a rare fortuity, a compromise is to recreate the classic café ambience with a few suggestive design features. One recently opened Shanghai café, Funk & Kale, calls up the city’s earlier era of a century ago with its art-deco rounded corners. A few bookshelves with real books, literature for paging through, lending or purchase so that they aren’t mere décor (a ladder can establish this as in the Seoul coffeehouse below), or an artful symbolic bookcase, can effectively remind guests of the coffeehouse’s cultural heritage, refuge of bohemians and misfits and eccentric idea-generators, some of whom may become notorious enough to be immortalized and discovered by your grandchildren.

Funk & Kale, Shanghai (photo by Isham Cook)

Why must the coffeehouse have anything to do with so-called tradition? Who gives a crap about crusty trappings if it fills up with customers? I can’t wholly disagree with that. Any new concept that succeeds is its own justification. There’s lately been a fad for the cat café, swarming with feline creatures and the customers who love them. And there are the nail cafés, where you can have your nails done over coffee. In China, which is a more inventive land than you might imagine, a motorcycle dealership in Beijing set up a café in its showroom. There are cafés adjoining massage shops. You’re free to do come up with any idea you want, but I don’t want to go to your café if it’s culturally comatose and devoid of a cultivated ambiance.

Symbolic bookcase in a café in Taizhong, Taiwan (left); Cafe Comma, Seoul (right) (photos by Isham Cook)

Subculture refers to the realm of distinctiveness and rebellion. It’s anti-mainstream, anti-suburban, anti-banality. It’s political: the space for those with an ironic understanding of their status in society and a recognition of how they wound up in it. It’s for the rejects, for those with the imagination to grasp that there is a place for them. It’s a place without any socially constructive purpose, much less for eating or dancing. If every café and coffeehouse in the world disappeared, the bulk of the population would never notice. And that’s just fine. It’s for the rest of us to assemble, to stare, to contemplate, and even to commune in.

Sculpting in Time café, Xi’an, China (photo by Isham Cook)

*     *     *

Of related interest by Isham Cook:

Confucius and opium. An investigation of intoxicants in the time of Confucius
Coffee and massage in Burma. Burma’s burgeoning massage and café industries considered in tandem
Black forest cake blues: The customer service problem. The idea of cake, or a jokester’s cake for flinging in the customer’s face
The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks. Profound cultural differences epitomized by Chinese and Japanese Starbucks

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for this! I moved to Chicago from Dayton, Ohio 1990, where I was working at the long gone Oregon Street Coffee House, a classic smokey, artsy coffee house. My new job in Chicago was at Starbucks, not that I had a clue about them. I lived in Wrigley Ville and went to other coffee houses searching for places like Oregon Street. I must have been in some you mentioned. Thanks!

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