Traveling the world through cuisine

Embracing Café Culture

Intelligentsia Cafe in Chicago

When I talked about coffee back in July, I kept the focus mainly on its history, cultivation, and best methods of preparation. However, coffee is more than just a beverage. It’s a culture, which can explain why I’ve been so into it since I started traveling years ago.

Since its humble beginnings, the coffeehouses of yesteryear have slowly evolved into a shining symbol of what many see as the culture surrounding hot and cold beverages beyond coffee. For the masses, the café is their escape from the office, home, or even the bar scene. We go there to socialize, dwell, or work quietly. Great thinking, creativity, and social change have come out of cafes.

Despite origins in the Middle East, I’ve always looked at Europe as heart of this Café Culture as I like to call it. Probably the very best venues I’ve encountered have been in my travels to the continent. When I first visited Aristoules Square (Thessaloniki, Greece), and sat in those beautiful open outdoor cafes, I had finally understood the social aspect of this culture. How many Europeans make the café a part of their daily lives. From there, it became a love affair with each trip I took, and I always look forward to lounging in the plush settings of the modern European-style café.

Cafes in the United States

Coffee Culture in the USIt’s always surprised me how slow the United States has been in embracing café culture. Originally, the only coffeehouses one would encounter were small, hidden venues normally frequented by immigrants. These were usually very plain and often smoky (this was before smoking bans came into legislation). The average American would more enjoy coffee at the local diner.

Despite a boost from the Beat Generation, artsy types, and college students, cafes in the US never really caught on with the mainstream public until Starbucks started opening franchises all over the country. Now you can’t walk a block without spotting someone carrying a $4 coffee drink.

I won’t lie, I never liked Starbucks. I know they have many fans in the US, but I’ve always found their coffee to taste burnt and bitter, thus why many Americans enjoy it loaded up with sugar, milk, and flavored syrups.

Still, there is hope. In the last few years, many Americans have begun trying more smaller coffee providers and locally-owned cafes. They’re putting less in their coffee and instead seeking roasts more favorable to their palettes. Even loose tea has caught on heavily, hence why one cannot say the café is only about coffee.

Making the most of your café visit

Julius Meinl Cafe

If you’ve never really visited a good café, or you have only seen coffee as some hot liquid you chug to stay awake, try changing that. Cafes aren’t all havens for stuffy intellectual snobs, nor are they bland cookie-cutter spots to get hot drinks.

First and foremost, find the atmosphere that’s ideal for you. Every café has its own personality. You’ll see it in the location, the decor, furniture, food and drink offerings, staff, and customers. I’m personally a fan of Viennese style European cafes, but I’ve seen others who love the cozy “rough around the edges” New York style, or exotic Middle Eastern ones. You should choose places that fit your desire and taste...even if it is Starbucks.

Be open to explore a variety of venues. It’s ok to have one or a few favorite spots, but don’t dismiss a new café when it opens. Even if you think it might not fit your sense of taste, go once anyway. You never know when you might add a new favorite spot to your list. I’d also suggest you go local and small. As I said in before, this is not some anti-corporate/anti-establishment thing, but simply stating how smaller locally-owned cafes will always give better service and quality drinks over the big chains.

Don’t be afraid to seek recommendations. You can easily spark the mind of a talented barista by asking them to help you decide. If you’re used to loading up on milk and sugar (and want to change), they can suggest better roasts to try. They also have plenty of interesting coffee drink recipes worth trying, so if you aren’t sure...ask.

Stay awhile. Cafes are social places to dwell in, whether you’re chatting with friends, working off a laptop, or quietly reading a book. I know it’s not always ideal when you’re on the go, but a good café can be as much a hangout as a local pub. Some cafes double as both with a full bar in house.

Cafe latte in porcelain cupIf you’re staying in, ask for the porcelain. You’ll normally see plenty of porcelain cups and saucers sitting on top of the espresso machine. Ask for your drink to be put in one, because those paper cups will actually alter the flavor of your final drink. I can understand when you need it to-go, but if you’re staying, go all the way and ask for the cups. Any good barista won’t take issue.

On that subject, be sure to tip your barista. I know the tipping of food service workers has become a hot subject lately, but I think that even if you don’t believe in tipping, toss a dollar in that jar anyway. If you plan on frequenting a place, the tips show your appreciation and baristas will show it. That could be a free shot of espresso in your drink, some new concoction they’ll want you to try (for free), or even a cookie or muffin just because they like you. I’ve come to treat baristas not so much as service workers, but as occasional friends who make me the perfect cup of coffee.

If you feel the desire to comment, please share with us your favorite cafes you love to frequent.

Tags: coffee, cafe, culture, beverage, tea

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