How to Travel: Cafe Hunting

As I was saying about desserts, cafes are better in German-speaking countries. Allow me to elucidate. Imagine a small café, about half the size of a normal Starbucks with almost everything a person needs in life. Big glass front window with display of Stollen, Lebkuechen, small gingerbread houses, and Christmas cookies. You enter through sliding doors, with a semi-circle of velvet drapes around the door to keep draft out in winter. There’s a decorated, high ceiling and wooden parquet floors. To the right when you walk in, there is a small display of high-quality chocolates, then a wall of all different kinds of freshly made bread, croissants and rolls. Refrigerated cases display fancy desserts, fresh yogurt with muesli, packaged salads, plates with selection of cheese and fresh fruit, elaborately decorated open-faced sandwiches and there is a shelf below the glass part of the case to rest your purse on while you are deciding what to get. Further back there is a small curving ‘bar’ with 5 stools. To the left a series of small wooden tables with wooden chairs, wooden parquet floor, shelf with newspapers. Five waitress/ counter staff in matching clean uniforms in an age range from 20 to 60, all helpful, smiling. And drinks! Every kind of coffee and tea concoction, fresh-squeezed orange juice, beer, wine and Prosecco. Now can you think of anything else (except occasional lobster bisque and steak with béarnaise sauce) that is necessary for your blissful existence? No.

What do you get in an English café? Tea. And more tea and… why do Brits drink so much tea? They have to have liquid available to dunk all their rock-hard cookies in. Americans are technology innovators because they don’t have to slow down their typing to insert cookies into warm liquid to melt them into a palatable consistency. This is a fact. Trust me a person with wide experience and fastidious research.

Italian cafés are nice but you are expected to slam your espresso and leave quickly, not to mention most things are coated with powdered sugar so you have to wear a matching shade of white. At French cafés, you need a table, knife, fork, sommelier, starched linen napkin and a C2 level of language proficiency according to the CEFRL. The socio-political-economic ramifications are immense.

Australia is fine for everyday life: David Jones food-halls, pro-biotic yogurt with pureed passion fruit at the 7-11, upscale liquor store with bar pulls so you can drink a pint of Heineken while you shop (not to mention drive-through liquor stores), take-away places with those little scrumptious Dutch pancakes, omnipresent thick-cut raisin toast. (To be sure, they are a little nuts about their thick-cut raisin toast, really it is everywhere, I ought to also mention a predominance of cherry and mint candies, and a highly developed interest in pumpkins. And can I just mention lavender-scented dressing rooms!]

But in the upper elevations… one lovely place has been serving tea every day since 1873 but, unfortunately, they still don’t have it right. Straw-colored drapes, with a camel-colored, fleur-de-lis pattern. Parquet wood floors; plain wooden pillars; shiny, steel-colored chandeliers; plain white tablecloths; plain white china. ’Tis true, ’tis pity, ’tis pity, ’tis true that Aussies don’t understand the vital importance of over-decoration; understated elegance is all well and good in theory but it doesn’t accomplish much in practice. No one ever swooned over a plain wooden pillar, no one ever went mad or got drunk and lost their head over straw-colored curtains, silk or not silk.

And you are not given a pot of water with tea leaves; they pour the tea already brewed from a possibly silver-plated, but perhaps simply metal tea pot, which tells you everything you need to know but I will mention in passing: revolting sandwiches, excellent scones, passable Devonshire cream, not utterly ghastly pastries. Not the sort of place you would wear your red flamenco dress and have violent scenes with Enrico de Castile over your petit amour with Gaston, the chauffeur’s assistant, more like the sort of place you take your dentist or your banker after a successful refinance.

But of course, I do not judge hastily, so I also went to a café in “world’s most beautiful” shopping arcade: from the 1800s, peach sandstone and the nicest ladies bathroom I have ever seen. The tea was pretty good (sliver plated services, not solid silver; étagère in the wrong order: sandwiches, sweets, then scones when the whole world knows it is sweets, scones, and sandwiches). I simply don’t understand why people call me picky, as I am perfectly willing to forgive the heretical addition of a spinach spanikopita, a Devonshire cream which was a tad more liquid than we like to see, scones a bit crustier than strictly proper and a good white tablecloth which could not manage to hide or overcome the déclassé grey table legs. I won’t even mention the slightly wrinkled apron but there are limits. Spindly watercress?! Mais non.