Saturday, 2 February 2013

At The Coffee Shop
(Saturday 2 February 2008, 10am)

Women mostly.  Serious shoppers: arms full of bags already.  Mothers and daughters, both young and old.

A girl catches my eye.  She half-smiles and her eyes hold my gaze for a second as her face turns back to the conversation.

A couple of young guys reading the sports pages.  Nursing hangovers perhaps, while they wait for their partners to finish their shopping?

A tired-looking young couple fondly, jealously, watching their baby as she sleeps serenely in her buggy.

A barista clearing tables.  As he bends over, the curious toddler at the next table reaches from his booster seat and gently touches the proffered buttocks...

                         One coffee shop,
                         one americano -
                         so many stories.

A true record of my surroundings as noted down during a few minutes break from shopping one Saturday morning five years ago.

If - when you actually stop and take a moment look - all of that can happen in one small place, in the time it takes to drink one americano, then how much more must pass us by as we rush through our daily lives?  How can we even begin to comprehend all that happens in a single instant in our own city, let alone in the whole world, in the whole universe?

I'm sure there must be lots of poems about cafés or about trying to comprehend the infinite - or indeed poems written in cafés while contemplating the infinite - that I should be recommending to you, but I can't think of any off the top of my head, so, instead, today's recommendations shall be cafés.

"more than a place that sells coffee: a coffee-house is also an idea,
  a way of life, a mode of socialising, a philosophy” - Samuel Johnson

If you are shopping or doing the tourist thing along Princes Street in Edinburgh, need coffee, and want an alternative the usual chains, then turn the corner into Castle Street and check out Castello Coffee Company at number 7a.  Their coffee is excellent, as are their brownies.

I can't personally vouch for the quality of either, but those of a literary bent (or just fangirling) might be drawn to Spoon (this location was Nicolson's Café in a previous incarnation) and Elephant House.  The claim to fame of both is that they were the cafés in which Joanne Rowling wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneElephant House also claims to have been frequented by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith.

The Edinburgh Filmhouse is one of two art-house cinemas in Edinburgh's West End (the other being the Cameo), and as well as being home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, it is also home to the Filmhouse Café.  The Filmhouse Café a great place for a coffee at any time of day or for something stronger before, or after, your movie.  It's also an excellent place for lunch: try the Chickpea and Coconut Curry - actually, try anything!

Also in the West End, and just across the road from my office, on Morrison Street, is: Pronto.  It serves excellent coffee, panini, stromboli, etc and the service is always delightful.

If Italian is your thing however, in Edinburgh, you cannot beat Valvona & Crolla.  They have two cafés / restaurants: the Caffè Bar, at the back of the original deli on Elm Row, and the VinCaffè on Multrees Walk.  The deli, established in 1934, is a shopping destination in it's own right, but there is also no better local choice than the Caffè Bar for lunch before a matinee at the Edinburgh Playhouse.  Being on Multrees Walk, VinCaffè is ideal for shopaholics, but, again, is worth seeking out for itself, and, in my opininon, much more deserving of your hard-earned cash than are Louis Vuitton or Harvey Nic's.

If you are taking a stroll through the Meadows, and find yourself in need of refreshment, then head up Middle Meadow Walk, and, giving the usual suspects a miss, try a Swedish café for a change: Peter’s Yard.

Whilst a walk in the Meadows can be very pleasant, there really is no better spot in Edinburgh to spend a sunny afternoon - especially with your children - than the Royal Botanical Gardens.  There are several of places to eat and drink in the gardens, but only one offers an unrivalled view of the city skyline, and that is the Terrace Café.

If hot chocolate rather than coffee is your thing then my friend Edible Rose recommends Zulu Lounge, in Morningside, but then, being from KwaZulu-Natal, she would wouldn't she?

It's no good to you if you are in Edinburgh, but if you are reading this in Spain - or you plan to visit - then thinking about hot chocolate reminds me of a day spent in Cartagena and a visit to Chocolaterais Valor (also in various other locations throughout Spain) and best hot chocolate (and churros) I have ever tasted.

As we have done for five of the last six years, we (me, my wife and our two sons) spent the Holidays in La Gomera.  We have fallen in love with the tranquillity of this unspoiled island, and for me one of the places that I felt most at peace this Holiday season was sitting outside the Bar Zumeria Cuba Libre, in the island capital: San Sebastian de La Gomera.  To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I've ever drunk coffee there, but when the friendly staff of this totally unprepossessing place take a glass from the freezer, fill it with draught Dorada, and set it down in front of me along with my delicious tapas, I feel like I've come home.  Sitting there in Plaza del Las Americas, with the occasional African collared dove fluttering down from the palm trees to peck at crumbs between the tables, the soft babble of voices as passers-by greet passing friends (I was so tempted to write: "drouthy neebors, neebors meet,"), the distant shouts of kids playing football on the other side of the square, the dappled sun warming my skin, and my family around me, I couldn't be happier.  Please don't go; we want to keep this little bit of heaven for ourselves.

And since we are now well and truly furth of Edinburgh, it brings me nicely to the finest café I have ever visited, the appropriately-named (for a visitor from Edinburgh) Prince Street Cafe in Lancaster PA: great coffee, friendly service, amazing food, leisurely service - all in all a bit of a hipster oasis, and not a quilt or a chicken pot-pie in sight...

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