It Starts with a Table
Hello, and (belated) happy new year. We had some delicious time off here at Place, and we hope you did too. To welcome you back to your inbox, we’re delighted to bring you our 84th issue today. Over the break, Place editor Kylee Pedersen got to thinking about the granularity of spaces that invite stillness, joy, or the types of conversations we may not often have – memorable ones. Do those locales involve the space of a tabletop between two people? A desk facing a window? Are they instead the more fluid scenery of a walk, or the passing world outside a car window? Eventually, she settled on a particular venue, one that can repeatedly emit such palpable moments – that of the café. In today’s newsletter, Kylee reflects on some of her favourite cafés that she’s been to around the world, and wonders, what is it about these places that begs us to seek them out, no matter where we find ourselves?
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It starts simply enough. A surface, usually wooden, sometimes formica, rarely – but charmingly – plastic. This surface could then take the wider shape of a table. Circular or square, large and rectangular; communal, or just meant for two. Then comes some kind of seating. Chairs are common, as are stools. Benches not so much, but they can be nice, especially if they are padded.
Then, this immediate space grows. Walls rise up around it, some covered with art, others bare. Windows may be prominent, or perhaps, no room takes shape at all – instead, where you sit butts up against a busy sidewalk, or a quiet lane. Your surroundings may buzz with activity or exude a slow stillness. But despite these differences good cafés have at least a couple things in common. There is usually coffee, and always the absence of feeling rushed.
All of my favourite cafés have shared at least these qualities, among others that shift with time and mood. Lighting is always important – when a table graced by sunlight fills your morning, it seems not much can go awry in the rest of your day.
Below is a list of some of them, what I liked about them, and what they mean to me now looking back:
A place for mornings, is what I remember most fondly about this café in London, a short walk from where I lived for two years. Its facade was full of windows and faced east. The morning light would stream in, reflecting off of its white tiled floor, giving the light wooden tables lined up beside each other a warm glow. It had a pleasant stream of patrons, never too busy, but never empty. It was run by two french girls who wore great sneakers, and whose murmured voices would echo out the door as they delivered coffees deftly to tables. During lockdown, it morphed into a kind of grocer, selling fresh local produce, flowers, milk and yoghurt. I went often, but always on Friday mornings, for a coffee and a sausage roll. It wasn’t a place that I worked or read in, as some cafés become. It was simply a place to sit and enjoy the first hours of the say, while making small talk, and petting passing dogs.
Some cafés become places of deep familiarity, safety even. When I moved rather unexpectedly to Warsaw, I knew no one in the city, and was in a rather fragile place emotionally. This café down the street from me became a place where I could construct a level of community, albeit one that I existed in in silence. Being around other people was comforting, and being in a café meant I could escape the pressures of a restaurant, where the clock on how long you can stay begins ticking when you sit down. The other demographic of the other patrons was often middle aged to older, and they spoke in hushed tones over their cups of coffee and donuts. I learned enough Polish to order for myself, and once that happened, this small space became a sort of home.
As opposed to most of the cafés on this list, which I more or less stumbled upon, this one was purposely sought out. I was in Helsinki for a weekend, and was looking for breakfast. After a quick Google search this one popped up. It had solidly good reviews and was in a little park by the water – I was sold. It remains one of my favourite breakfasts I’ve ever had. The food of course was wonderful and simple (smoked salmon on rye bread alongside a freshly baked cinnamon bun and coffee), but the location was pristine. We sat at a small red table, the same colour as a fence which ran the length of a seawall, separating us from the still waters of a small inlet. The cafe itself had no seating inside, and was open only seasonally. It was a small red shed, with a single counter inside for ordering, and a menu that didn’t fuss about with much. As we ate, joggers and walkers meandered through the park that surrounded us, the crisp spring air and the morning sun levelling one another out in gentle waves. Perfection.
While some cafés I remember as specific moments or feelings, this is a café I remember with my stomach. One ingredient in particular refuses to be forgotten – the butter. It simply is the best butter I’ve ever had, and perhaps ever will, and it came alongside a fresh sourdough bread that’s smell still lingers when I close my eyes. This was a cafc in the Danish town of Aarhus, where I studied for a year, and it generally employed all of the elements of Danish design that so many find irresistible. It had low smooth tables, quaint wooden stools, a record player in the corner that played quiet, humming, rhythms. The tableware were dark heavy ceramics, practical but intriguing. And while the coffee was also excellent, it was bread and butter that could be found on every plate around the place, at all hours of the day.
Food, atmosphere, familiarity, consistency. These are all good reasons to remember or love a café. Another is its decor. Usually, the interior of a café alone isn’t enough for me to immediately love it. But that’s exactly what happened when I stumbled into this café in the working class neighbourhood of Ostiense, Rome, soaking wet after being caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella. The personality of the place was impossible to ignore, and it came at you first through a colourfully painted bust of a woman, who resembled the Hindu God Kali, placed almost defiantly on the glass pastry case at the front counter. This was a place that rebelled against the clean minimalism so prized in most trendy cafés, instead, it prioritized colour, clutter, and sharp edges that ensured it would be set apart. On the ceiling hung a chandelier covered in twigs, offset by a gleaming brass bar where coffees in patterned mugs were churned out with force. I’ll never forget the thrill it gave me, or the colour of the lips of the bust of the woman. A dark purple, lush.
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