Ernest Hemingway made a career of sorts out of hanging out at cafes. Whether it was Cafe Flore or Aux Deux Magots in Paris, or some unknown dive in Pamplona, Spain, Papa knew how to drink the brew. But then maybe he was spiking it with whiskey. Whatever it was, I think the old man was on to something, because cafes seem to provide an unfiltered view of a place and its people. If you want to see the real deal from London to Lisbon, San Francisco to New Orleans, check out a coffeehouse. And no decaf, please.
In San Francisco, coffeehouses are a true representation of their particular neighborhood. At Caffe Trieste in North Beach, the city's Italian district, the strains of opera can be heard on Saturday afternoons, thanks to owner Gianni Giotta and his son Gianfranco. These two have been hosting weekly opera slams at this atmospheric cafe for over twenty years. Midweek, the cafe takes on a more bohemian air, befitting its roots as a hangout for the beat poets in the mid-50s. Writers write, painters paint and radicals rant at the colorfully-tiled tables in this sun-drenched cafe. Bring your opinions and order a double espresso for good measure. Across town at Cafe Flore in the city's Castro district, buff boys and an occasional gal pal primp and pose at this hangout for the gay crowd. The best haircuts in town can be found at Flore, which has prompted some regulars to dub the place Cafe Hairdo. Grab an outdoor table on the cafe's ample sun deck and watch the 90s version of The Love Connection take place right before your eyes. The coffee's good, too.
The folks in Seattle like to think they know coffee better than anyone else. At minimum, they know what they want. Walk into Cafe Allegro in the city's U(niversity) district and you'll encounter laid-back students of all ages warming up over a cup a joe. Uh, make that a double decaf latte short with no foam. Or a tall mocha nonfat iced. Nah, make that a ristretto espresso macchiato. What hath Starbucks wrought? Actually, the Allegro was founded by Dave Olsen, who went on to become Starbucks' chief coffee buyer. If you want to see the genesis of the Seattle coffee craze, this woodsy cafe is the place to be.
People in New Orleans don't take their coffee, or much of anything, very seriously. Remember, the unofficial (or is it official?) motto in this town is "let the good times roll." Roll on over to Cafe du Monde and you'll get a taste of hangin' out, Southern-style. This open-air cafe has been serving chicory-laced cafe au laits and plump, doughnut-like beignets in the French Quarter for well over a century. A soulful saxman near the front door provides the musical interlude, his high notes piercing the heavy, humid air. The du Monde is open 24 hours a day because in this town, the party goes on all night long.
Speaking of long nights, that's exactly what you'll get in Norway, the land of the midnight sun. The tradeoff for those long summer nights is some pretty short winter nights. That may be why Norway ranks second in the world in per capita coffee consumption, right after Finland. Pay a visit to Oslo and you'll find a thriving cafe scene. At Cafe Bacchus, in the shadow of a centuries-old church, young bohemians can be found discussing socialism and existentialism between cigarettes. They also drink coffee here, usually a kaffe kanne for 24 crowns (a whopping $4). At those prices, they should be talking inflation. The scene is more serene at Halvorsen's, a throwback to the old Viennese-style cafe. The emphasis here is on coffee and cake, and with good reason. Halvorsen's is a konditori (bakery) first and coffeehouse second. Most customers come with their grandma, or some other suitable grande dame, and order a mondo-sized piece of cake to go with their coffee. If you wear your Sunday best, you, too, can play along.
So you say you want to be the next Hemingway? Better start drinking coffee now.