Saturday, March 27, 2010

The City Observed: Cafe Culture

I’ve always had a thing for cafes. It began in high school, with a search for a personal identity. (That’s an interesting time in a teenager’s life – her first unaccompanied forays into social activities. What one chooses to do, where one chooses to go, has everything to do with one’s true character.)

There were few cafes in Salt Lake City, Utah at that time, and I gravitated toward them because of their clientele: what my friends and I later nicknamed pseudo-intellectuals, the most interesting people in Utah. These people knew Shakespeare by heart, they each had a favorite poet, they carried notebooks full of sketches or scribbled stories, they wore clothes other than the typical Utah uniform of khaki pants and polo shirts, and they – gasp – drank coffee. Coffee was much frowned upon in Utah and most restaurants didn’t carry any. The majority population considered coffee shops the devil’s playground, but I’d been to Seattle, I’d been to New York, I knew that café culture was a place for writers and poets and artists and conversationalists. If this was the devil’s work, I wanted a job.

While in college in New York City, my café habit became one of necessity. Living in tiny spaces rife with roommate woes, the café became a refuge - the only decent places to get any work done.

Now well into my adulthood, the café is once again a place for musing, for nurturing my now well-established personal identity. I read, I write, I work, I drink a lot of coffee, and I love people and people-watching. However, over the years of nurturing this habit I’ve also adopted a fairly judgmental attitude. I am very critical of cafes and their décor, their color palate, their music, their air-quality, and the comfort of their chairs. And with today’s ever-changing technological needs, free wifi and plug-ins also now inform my regard for a cafe.

I have, in my mind, a very favorite café. It has lots of tables and comfortable chairs, as well as a lounge section of clean and plush couches and armchairs. It boasts natural lighting by windows or skylights by day, and by evening is lit entirely by floor lamps, and also has a bank of tables with those green library lamps for people who need to get some real work done. It has free wifi and lots of plug-ins. It has a book exchange. It offers a large selection of loose-leaf teas, and serves good, free-trade coffee with a lot of care. It serves simple egg sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, cheese and onion sandwiches, and the usual selection of pastries, cakes, and bagels. Most importantly, the music selection is entirely instrumental, mostly classical, but also a little jazz or bossa nova or salsa or other atmospheric but non-distracting music. It is warm, inviting, clean, and non-pretentious.

I have never found this café, and I’m not sure that it exists (no café I’ve ever been in plays classical music). I may have to build this cafe myself. In the meantime, here is a list of my favorite cafes in no particular order, followed by a list of my least favorite cafes.


1. Solar de Cahuenga, Hollywood
Free Wifi and plenty of plug-ins. Great coffee, good teas. The décor is warm and cheerful, and there are wrap-around windows that provide a lot of natural light. The chairs and tables are plentiful and quite comfortable. It’s a great place to sit for a long spell and get a lot of work done.

2. The Oaks Gourmet, Franklin Village
Free Wifi. No plug-ins. Great coffee, good teas, delicious pastries. It’s a combination deli/gourmet food store, wine shop, and café. It has a nice outdoor seating area that overlooks Franklin avenue, and the Wifi signal is strong out there. The chairs are very comfortable.

3. Urth Caffe, Downtown
Free Wifi, a few plug-ins. Great organic coffee and teas. Really expensive, though! Tons of tables and chairs. Chairs are decently comfortable, but not the best. It’s located in the industrial arts-district, and is a good café for people watching.

4. Casbah Cafe, Silverlake
I love their snacks. Soft-boiled egg sandwiches, warm brioches, and exotic frittata-type things. They’re kind of expensive, and their wifi rarely works, but the atmosphere is wonderful. It doubles as a middle eastern gift shop, and the goods for sale, in their saffron and jewel-tone color palette, make the place feel really warm and comfortable.

5. Intelligentsia, Venice Beach
Free wifi. No plug-ins. It’s sleek and everyone there is tres fashionable. Whenever I go there, I feel like I’m on a very fancy vacation. Also, their coffee is absolutely incredible.

Least Favorites

1. The Bourgeois Pig, Franklin Village
It’s a café designed specifically for ravers or Fraggles. Horrible atmosphere, just horrible.

2. Sabor y Cultura, Hollywood
Free wifi, plenty of plug ins, but the décor is terrible – the walls are dirty and painted in drab, muted shades of mustard and red and purple. There are not enough tables, so it feels unfinished. The music selection is horribly distracting – they’ll put on Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Metallica, and my ability to get any work done is stamped entirely out. The coffee isn’t good, the baristas don’t know how to make a good latte, and the pastry display and counter area are sparse, which makes everything in or on them look lonely and unappealing. Tip of the trade: always keep a pastry display filled to the gills, and if you’re running out of supplies at the end of the day, put whatever’s left in the top shelf, and push it all to the front of the display closest to the customer’s view (keeping everything well-arranged) and turn the lights off on the bottom shelves. This will give the illusion that you’re well stocked, because the customer’s eye will only travel to the illuminated shelf.

The staff can be very grumpy, too, and very slow. It once took my friend 20 minutes to get a single cup of coffee even though there was only one person in front of him.

3. Starbucks, Anywhere
Starbucks fails at the very thing they’ve attempted to do: provide a warm and comfortable café lifestyle with good coffee, good music, and an inspired atmosphere. Their décor and the floorplan/layout of their spaces are the absolute worst. The whimsical swirls and trite quotes all over everything are just annoying. Also, most Starbucks cafes in urban cities are dirty and unorganized. The coffee chain has become such a behemoth that it can no longer exercise quality control over its staff, and many of them are unprofessional, barely-fit-for-employment, downright terrible customer service representatives.

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