I was sitting with a friend in Café at 407 in Liverpool recently — one of my favorite places to have a cup of coffee, a bite to eat and a chat because of the comfort, welcoming atmosphere and good coffee — when the conversation turned to old style coffee shops. You know the ones I mean, the places with formica tables; plastic, colored, leatherette seats; sandwiches, soups (you’re in luck if they’re homemade), chilis; bouffant desserts — and coffee — endless cups from a waiter or waitress who might just call you hon.
Oh, and the food’s cheap and the menu doesn’t focus on trendy or newly discovered-to-be-healthy ingredients (pigs cheek, truffle oil, wheatgrass, amaranth or gluten-free anything). There’s always a lot of food. Sometimes it’s very, very good, and sometimes it’s not. Busy, noisy and usually badly decorated, old-style coffee shops are unlikely ever to be fashionable.
They were around before Starbucks around before one-off coffee places with curated beans and maybe even before (but here I’m not sure) the Italian cafes some call “coffee houses” which serve great Italian espresso in small cups with lemon zest wrapped around the rim imparting its oily, acid flavor to the drink and providing sweet pastry, great or not, depending on the place. I’m partial to the cannoli.
Other old time places to get coffee and a light meal have fallen by the wayside.
The wonderful Horn and Hardart Automats, which were like self-service toy shops in which food appeared seemingly by magic in little glass windows, are gone. Likewise, Schrafft’s, a chain of lunchrooms (I don’t believe they were in Upstate New York) where my grandmother would meet other ladies, clad like her in Chanel-inspired suits and white gloves. They’d eat nondescript, refined and not very memorable food followed by yummy ice cream; those visits displaying eating as an assertion of taste and class, as it so often is. Even if Schrafft’s itself didn’t exist up here, however, I’d bet there was something similar. But unless you count Starbucks for its shine and chrome, and I wouldn’t, the automats have not been replaced. And neither has Schraffts’s.
The newer coffee places, frequently with brown or dark green sofas and original paintings for sale on the walls, have their charms, not least among them comfort and Wi-Fi.
They’re great places to go when you want to write a blog, meet a friend or chat with the curly-haired guy with soulful eyes at the next table. I prefer the homey, simple ones to the sweet looking, overpriced frou-frou type my grandmother might have preferred (maybe I was wrong about Schraft’s not being replaced).
In addition to Café 407, two of my favorites are Recess Coffee, in Syracuse, and The Pewter Spoon, in Cazenovia, each with its own unique vibe and menu but all three welcoming, comfortable and unpretentious — and with excellent coffee. But despite being great places to spend some time, these aren’t what I’d call coffee shops. They lack the large-enough-to-drown-in menus and quickly moving patrons and wait staff that characterize those places.
Coffee shops provide unique snapshots of daily life, although they’re a little harder to find than they used to be. And they welcome everyone amid their bustle. Inside, you’ll find breakfast regulars, lunch pals from the office and people in a rush going God knows where, who can’t wait another minute to eat something. And emerging from the maws of an unseen kitchen come homemade bean and chicken soups, mammoth portions of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and string beans, endless varieties of eggs and the biggest piece of apple pie you’ve ever seen, all at breakneck speed and sometimes, if you’re lucky, delicious. In a nod to modern tastes and appetites, you might get a veggie burger if you ask for one, maybe even a chopped salad. Always open, usually rushed but with someone always ready to pour you another cup free — and to offer you a mint at the cash register. Don’t forget to leave a good tip.
Recall the old coffee shops, hon (by watching this video)
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