Talk about Café Culture and two – of many – possible scenes can spring to mind. One is the blur of Starbucks or Costa facades that inhabit every high street and by street in the land. The other is the façade of a small curb-side café, its tables and chairs outdoors inhabited by Parisiens (or Romans depending on your locale) sipping espressos, smoking and watching the world go by. One is fast. One is slow. I know where I’d rather be.
One of the greatest of my many indulgences is spending long afternoons in cafes. The only company needed a pot of tea, a slice of something nice, my book, and occasionally a stranger to talk to. There is something soothing about letting the world rush on around you at its terrific pace while you take repose, in the middle of it all.
Unfortunately, the café scene in the UK suffers from a preponderance of chains such as those mentioned above, take-out culture and, most perniciously, very early closing times. Save for some rare exceptions and a few West End Starbucks, cafes usually close their doors at around 5pm – ridiculously early considering how many hours remain in the day before most people decide to head for bed. As a result of this and most shops’ early closing times, we are left with practically no other options than to go to bars and pubs. While I am vehemently partial to drinks of an alcoholic content and enjoy (some) drinking establishments, there are times when I am not in the mood for their bustle.
One city, already very much established and continuing to move up very rapidly in the world, with a wonderful café culture is Seoul. Like most things executed by the Koreans, everything down to the smallest detail is well thought through and mindfully presented – putting coffee in the ashtrays to banish the smell of stale cigs; a small contraption which buzzes and flashes when your drink is ready at the counter; sanitisers for doors handles; well selected music and décor; free use of a Mac computer, and delicious snacks and drinks such as the Grain, Sweet Potato and Wasabi lattes – only for the open minded Westerner.
A foreigner to Korea may be surprised by how most of the people sipping coffee and sharing desserts in cafes are in their Twenties (which means they look like they are in their teens). The café phenomenon has emerged within the last ten years; the concept is not a traditionally Korean one and thus the older generations have not developed a taste for this European tradition.
The fact that Koreans live with their parents until marriage necessitates the need for boyfriends and girlfriends – sadly, Korea is not as open minded about same sex couples yet – to go out on dates. This increased demand for cafes has meant that most stay open until Midnight, seven days a week, giving the people of Seoul greater variety when choosing how to spend an evening.
Contrast this to a recent Monday night in Camden Town when my best friend, Rachael, and I spent a good while trying to find somewhere to go for a spot of tea. After fifteen or so minutes of searching for an appropriate establishment we settled for the outside tables of a Brazilian restaurant and builder’s tea: the wonderful InSpiral café being, on this occasion, closed for a staff party.
I may have left London and my usual haunts, but my new home of Oxford has managed to satisfy and surpass my café expectations, giving me some great options for escape when the parental home becomes stifling and country living too quiet. The absence of both job and money in my life at the moment has meant that I have handed my CV in to a few of these cafes. But will working in one quell my love for them?
Find your perfect place with my discerning guide, divided by city over the upcoming blog posts. Let the masses take their take-out, while you take-in the clink of cups, the hiss of the coffee machine, the babble of chat and maybe even just the right music for your mood.