The reinvention of the café as a many-splendoured thing

 “You have all Manner of News there: You have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please: You have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the Transaction of Business, and all for a Penny, if you don’t care to spend more.”

Maximilien Misson

I first got the idea of writing this piece on the repurposing of the café from a conversation with Martyn Hyde, co-owner of the Eat Me Café in Scarborough.

I was excited to be talking to him because his café had won the Good Food Guide prize for Best Café in the UK. Critics such as Xanthe Clay had been praising the food on offer there. Christopher Hirst, writing in The Independent, said:

“….the menu, which incorporates Thai, Mexican, Malay, Japanese and Shetland elements, is … exceptional.”

Martyn Hyde - co-owner of the Eat Me Café in Scarborough
Martyn Hyde – co-owner of the Eat Me Café in Scarborough

So I began by asking Martyn how Thai cuisine came to feature on the menu of a backstreet café in Scarborough. “Well, I lived in Thailand for a time” he tells me, “but you’re missing the point. Cafés aren’t really about the food or the coffee – there’s something much more important about cafés. What really interests me is their function, what they can do for the community that surrounds them. They can become both a hub, a centre where people can gather and meet; and also a place of comfort and solace”.

A social worker in a previous life, Martyn cares passionately about this giving aspect of his café’s offering. “We started with just 19 covers and we still have only 30 – a café shouldn’t get too big.”

“Cafés aren’t really about the food or the coffee – there’s something much more important about cafés.”

lively discussions in a coffee house
lively discussions in a coffee house

The café as a social hub

He’s right, of course. Intimacy is important – whether the customer is seeking conversation or a sense of peace.

And it’s interesting that the concept of the café-as-hub, the new church or pub if you will, is to see their development turn full circle. The formula is clearly successful. According to Retail Times over the past year, on average, three new coffee shops opened in Britain every day.

The original seventeenth century coffee houses in Britain were such centres of serious discussion that some historians credit them with making a significant contribution to the ‘age of enlightenment’ – the introduction of reasoned argument into how society was run as opposed to the simple acceptance of authority by most which had up until then been the norm.

Hogarth's engraving of Tom King's coffee house in London
Hogarth’s engraving of Tom King’s coffee house in London

Other historians referred to the coffee houses in Oxford as ‘penny universities’, where, for a coin, you could gain access to a place frequented by the local highbrows and where reporters known as ‘runners’ flashed past, calling out the latest news. Scientific breakthroughs and new theories of philosophy were teased out in discussions in these establishments.

Whatever the subject, there are richer pickings to be gained from the cut and thrust of a live debate than from any virtual chat room.

For more about the importance of the coffee house as a centre of innovation, watch this TED talk.

“There are richer pickings to be gained from the cut and thrust of a live debate than from any virtual chat room.”

Cafés as places to meet people not like you

Academics and political activists still prefer to meet in cafés today.

However, one of the most interesting characteristics of coffee houses, or cafés, is that the clientele, as well as the topics discussed, are usually eclectic. Rather than drawing in a particular homogenous group they have tended from the very beginning to attract a whole miscellany of mankind like a magnet. So a café is a great place to observe life’s rich pageant.

And it has always been thus. As Aytoun Ellis describes in The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee Houses,

“Like Noah’s ark, every kind of creature in every walk of life (frequented coffee houses). They included a town wit, a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer, a worship judge, a reverend non-conformist and a voluble sailor.”

One of my favourite FT columnists, Susie Boyt, has recently updated[i] this mix of characters to include females. Her list comprises:

“A housekeeper who once used to ‘do’ for the Queen Mother and now takes care of a theatrical knight. The actor who played Zeffirelli’s Romeo as a teenager…. There was the only woman I have ever seen who routinely wore a mink coat and flip flops”

Sounds like rich material for a sit com? Yes, indeed, it’s already been done by The Café’s screen writers, Ralf Little and Michelle Terry.

The café as the mainstay of the writer

So it’s not surprising that cafés have served as a source of inspiration, as well as a warm and comfortable place to work for many writers.

Most people are familiar with the origins of Harry Potter, a character conceived by JK Rowling in the back room of the Elephant House Café in Edinburgh. It was the only place she could afford to be where it was warm enough for her to write.

Earlier august scribblers such as Hemingway, Gide, Sartre, De Beauvoir found inspiration at Les Deux Magots in Paris, although in their case is was the impassioned discussions they had amongst themselves that fed their creative juices as much as the hearty fire.

 “Harry Potter was conceived in the back room of the Elephant House Café”


The café as a source of artistic inspiration

Cafés have also sponsored the visual arts. At the Café de la Rotonde (also in Paris), for just ten centimes, or a drawing if cash was tight, Picasso and Modigliani could nurse a hot espresso and find a warm place to sit for an hour or two.

Van Gogh was inspired by the building itself – one of his greatest masterpieces is of the terrace of the café on the Place du Forum in Arles, and from his description of the colours he obviously enjoyed every moment he spent painting:

“On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green”.

Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night
Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night

Back in this century and on this side of La Manche, the artist Eleanor Langton, also finds inspiration in cafés. As she explains,

“My love of working in cafes started during a year of study in Rome in 2003. Ever since I have kept sketchbooks and drawn in many cafes and other public places all around the world.

Drawing on location is a way to fully immerse myself in a place. I become aware of the objects, people, and sounds. If I didn’t draw I would probably sit with my own thoughts and not be so observant of my surroundings.

While I draw I love hearing the clatter of plates and cups, the stirring of drinks, the chatter of friends or family catching up. These conversations and interactions feed into my work of painting still life. I hope the viewer gets a sense of the interactions I have observed and the joy that I feel in studying my surroundings.”

Eleanor painted Bakehouse Latte (the featured image for this post) from a set of drawings she completed in the Bakehouse café in St Albans (unfortunately the café has since closed down).

Creative art space cum café in London's Soho
Creative art space cum café in London’s Soho

“While I draw I love hearing the clatter of plates and cups, the stirring of drinks, the chatter of friends or family catching up.”


The café as an office-from-office

Cafés can offer a workplace for those working in business as well.

Whereas intellectuals clustered together in coffeehouses in Oxford, in London Lloyds coffeehouse was a place where merchants and sailors congregated to negotiate deals and develop relationships. It became such a centre for the shipping industry that it eventually morphed into the famous insurance market, Lloyds of London.

The advent of the internet café further developed the concept of the café as workplace, with many a fledgling business set up as much on the café table as the kitchen table.

But nowadays the rows of screens have mutated into the simple provision of wifi. Today’s connected cafés serve as a haven for lonely entrepreneurs: a place for or serendipitous creative exchanges or informal meetings (my jeweller daughter chooses discreet cafés in which to show commission clients her dazzling wares).

The café as a place to work
The café as a place to work

 “The coffeehouse frequented by merchants and sailors developed into the Lloyds insurance market.”

Dual purpose cafés

Café owners are often pragmatic. It makes sense to maximise a return on capital, so they often offer additional services, a double whammy this, because the customer benefits too.

Boyt’s café, she tells us, was “rather unique as cafés go, combining a coffee shop with a legal practice.”

Other cafés transform themselves, Cinderella-like, at night into elegant restaurants – The Greedy Pig in Leeds becomes The Swine That Dines on Friday and Saturday evenings, while once a month East London’s Canvas Café becomes Nick Gilkinson’s supper club, The Potlatch.

Some cafés double as art galleries – Café Art is a brilliant new concept which uses café walls to exhibit the art work of the homeless. The charity’s walls and cupboards were heaving with unseen art, while local cafés walls were depressingly bare. Now fifteen cafés across the capital showcase the work.

Tea, Toast and Post, a café I discovered in Yorkshire, was also operating as an outlet for the beautiful hand-turned wooden boxes made by a friend of the barista working in Canada. It’s also quite a famed music venue.

Beautiful hand-turned wooden boxes on sale at Tea, Toast and Post
Beautiful hand-turned wooden boxes on sale at Tea, Toast and Post

 Cafés transform themselves, Cinderella-like, into elegant evening restaurants. The Greedy Pig becomes The Swine That Dines.

Cafés as places of support and solace

Martyn mentioned comfort and solace, and I suspect for him this is their most important function. Those battered for one reason or another by modern living, find sanctuary in cafés. Susie Boyt’s poignant description [i] will resonate with many:

“On the corner of my street there was a café until recently…I used to work there, every day, during a sad time of my life. It was a home from home, a hundred yards from my actual home…I had my little corner next to the buzzing refrigerated unit, and it was soothing.”

And it wasn’t all take on her part.

“People I knew used to see me in the window and pop in and ask me for help with their problems. “Should you blind bake the pastry for a lemon meringue pie (Yes). Should I do a PhD (try not to).”

Even for those who aren’t regulars, cafés can provide a place for valuable one-off sessions of sanctuary.

When I was researching the post on cafés in Brussels I found myself gorging on rare moments of quiet meditation in the midst of the normal maelstrom of my frantic working life.

On another occasion I’d been walking along the spectacular Yorkshire coastline… and got lost. After much circuitous trudging I finally spotted the village of Robin Hood’s Bay and headed straight for the local café (the Tea, Toast and Post mentioned above) – they were just closing. “Can I have a quick coffee and then rush to the chemist for blister plasters?” I gasped breathlessly.

“Sit down, take your time, we’ll stay open until you finish”, reassured the welcoming barista, handing me the menu and offering a restorative brew of locally roasted beans. “Don’t worry about the plasters” he added. “I have some here, you can have a couple of these”.

Relief. Weight of my feet. Warmth. Comfort. Quiet. I watched the busy scene below where boats were being hauled up the tiny harbour. And then I looked out over the North Sea and began to ruminate happily on the help which cafés can offer.

For example, there are some wonderful cafés which support people in need:

  • social enterprise, Change Please, recently opened its first London Underground café in Clapham Common tube station. 100% of the profits go towards training, and then employing homeless people to become baristas.
  • Café from Crisis, is next door to its owner, the charity Crisis. 50% of its fresh food comes from food redistribution charity, FareShare. Also on offer is the café’s own blend of beans sourced from super-fair trade roaster, Volcano; and bread sourced from social enterprise bakery, The Dusty Knuckle. Even the furniture is ‘up cycled’ at Crisis Liverpool.
  • Ship of Adventures, run by charity Hackney Pirates, helping to develop literacy and confidence in local youngsters outside school. The café serves harissa humous and home-made peanut butter cookies.
  • At Café Van Gogh, committed to zero-waste, they run on the job training programmes as well as classes teaching low-income parents how to cook on a budget.
  • Hagerston Perk is run by the Tower Project. It offers a win-win-win by offering: training and employment to locals with learning difficulties; helping to ease the staffing crisis in the hospitality industry; and offering jobs to the needy.
  • My Jamii Café employs young people with no, or low, qualifications, trains them, and helps find work placements. Food and drink is locally sourced.

Greater than the sum of its parts

Cafés can offer a place to meet, or for artistic inspiration, they can be a business hub, a centre for fervent political revolt. They can reinvent themselves as art galleries, elegant restaurants, and concert halls.

But perhaps the most important gift they offer us is time – precious moments in which to truly enjoy the company of others, or in which to savour our own company.

Whatever your need, a café offers a lot more than just a cup of joe.

[i] The Financial Times, The ballad of the mad café  2 December 2016

For an interview with Tracey Dowse, owner of the tiniest café in Britain, follow this link.

For an interview with Rob Broadbent, founder of Lynwood & Co, Australian cafés in the Cotswolds, follow this link.

To know your cortados from your lattes, follow this link.

Music to listen to as you sip your coffee

Below, listen to The Ink Spots, singing The Java Jive.

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