Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cafe Culture

Last year a coffee and sandwich cafe opened up across the road from me. It joined a wood-panelled organic frozen yogurt shop, a French patisserie and a perpetually crowded ice-cream parlour slash art gallery. These outposts of the brave new gentrification sit uncomfortably next to coffeeshops, barbers, maid agencies and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Old men and women shuffle from one void deck to another, some collecting cans or stacking cardboard. Stray cats amble over to the wet market stalls, waving their insolent tails at the durian-seller with his cleaver poised to whack open a D24. It's that kind of neighbourhood.

I do tend to visit the new shops more than the old. My Mandarin is bad enough that I can't speak properly to the people at traditional stalls, but good enough that I can understand their exasperated grumbling about me. Why go through the inevitable stress and grimacing, when I can simply walk into a designer space with Moroccan tiles and order a freshly ground, single-origin flat white? I can have lunch seated comfortably at a long wooden bar, where the sunlight is perfect for an Instagram snap of my smoked salmon and arugula sandwich.

Lately the novelty has been dying out. It's not that cheap, for starters, to buy a $6 coffee and a $14 sandwich and finish off with an $8 biodynamic coconut fro-yo. And there's something unbearable at times about the chirpy, clueless teenaged servers, the constant rotation of Josh Groban and Feist, the owners' friends who drop by to reminisce loudly about their corporate warrior days and express opinions about the media, politics, terrorism. Stabbing into a wetly dressed salad while listening to all three of the above, the moment feels overexposed, an inept photograph passing itself off as deliberate art.

I've never wanted to own or run a cafe. I don't have the people skills, or the desire to clean toilets and kitchens on a daily basis. But I sometimes daydream about what an ideal neighbourhood cafe would look like. The kind of place you can visit regularly, feel almost at home in.

In doing so I often find myself returning mentally to a cafe in Melbourne's Hardware Lane, an alleyway with a minor reputation for being touristy and filled with touts. This cafe was shabby, small, tucked in a nondescript corner. It was dark and cool in the early morning, with dusty pickle jars like cucumber glass tombs squatting on marble-topped tables. They had a black monolith of a 90s'-era CD player in a corner. The blues were playing, turned down low in order to help customers ease into the day. There was no avocado or flaxseed on the menu, just your basics: espresso, latte, flat white, ham and cheese. They did tell you which farms the ham and cheese were from, though.

It was great. If I had known it existed I would have had breakfast there every day. The blond server was freshly scrubbed, friendly, efficient. The white marble was cold against my elbows and the hiss of the espresso machine and the clink of cup against saucer were the only sounds coming from the counter. Not that the workers were monkishly silent, just quiet, low-voiced. Laid-back.

Other cafes along the stretch were more crowded. They offered superfood green fritters, poached eggs, cold-drip coffee and Japanese filtration methods. They had tattooed servers with ironically waxed moustaches and certificates in teaching yoga. Going into one of these cafes felt like making an effort to keep up and be part of a constantly moving newness that was raw and exhausting.

In Singapore, the closest to my ideal cafe that I can think of is the PS Cafe outlet at Palais Renaissance, which is arguably the oldest, least hip of the entire chain, apart from their in-mall outpost in Paragon. I like the fresh flowers, the black and white tiles, the brass details and high ceilings. It hasn't changed in 20 years. Expensive, of course, but that's Orchard Road for you.

If I had a cafe in my neighbourhood I would keep it open late at night, and early in the morning. No Pinterest rainbow cakes, or red velvet nonsense. No craft beers with cutesy names. Dogs allowed, larger dogs preferred. Zinc countertop for the bar, pendant lighting, those marble-topped tables. Everything a bit scratched, beaten up from use. A place for grown-ups to sit, have a coffee, a bite, a little time to think. You'd walk in, say hello, survey the specials, get your usual order. Inhale the scent of baking bread. The servers would respectfully leave you alone and you'd feel free to walk up to the counter to grab napkins, straws, whatever. If it rained you wouldn't mind waiting it out. Lean back in your seat, elbows on the marble, watch the world outside get wet while you stay dry. Flash photography banned, food bloggers thrown out on sight.

If I had a cafe, it would go bankrupt in two weeks. But it's always nice to dream.

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