March 09, 2011

Every Intellect Needs A Café

There’s something about those little plaques that really saddens me. ‘So-and-so used to come here and behave like a bohemian’, they tend to say. And the hipsters and tourists flock to the cafés where these plaques hang in order osmotically to acquire the genius left embedded in the very tables and chairs. Theirs is a conspicuous consumption of over-priced caffeine, and they will likely be remembered for nothing. The sadness arises because I see the erection of a plaque as a cultural period. If a spot is designated as formerly a hive of intellectual and artistic activity, then it is now nothing more than a relic, and artists and intellectuals will give it a wide berth. Nothing says cultural death quite like a plaque.

The truth is that every artist and every intellectual still needs a café. Give us the quiet of an urbane apartment and we go stir crazy. Give us an office and we recoil at being at work. Put us in a library and we object to all the out-of-place noise and bustle. But give us a café, with wait staff who look and act like waiters and waitresses; with a sense of age and tradition; with a nonchalant superiority in cakes, pastries and savouries; and with a decent wine list for when espresso no longer cuts the mustard – give us this place and we shall relish creation. The noise of this place is not distracting, as it would be in a library, but atmospheric. The public becomes a muse for our endeavours. We acknowledge the faces of those whom we recognise as being similarly engaged, and we think of ourselves as a salon. Occasionally we meet, talk, inspired and aspiring, lose track of time, loosen the grip of society’s sense of the importance of time, and loose our imaginations.

I am an itinerant; I am always in need of a place like this. In Paris I confess I went directly to Les Deux Magots, but Hemingway and Picasso are long-since gone. I wasn’t there long enough to come up with better, but in the sun’s penetration of the smoky terrasses of Saint-Germain-des-Prés I knew I was in the right neck of the woods. The very air suddenly turned me into a photographer:

Oh, if I were there now. Why does my camera only work occasionally?

Other cities have afforded more time. In London, Patisserie Deux Amis, a short walk from the British Library, and Café Mozart on Swains Lane (now closed, so a plaque is no doubt being conceived), have been my bolt holes. Don’t all crowd out the former, or you’ll spoil the place. Anyway, it’s mine.

In Cambridge, Simon’s on Mass. Ave between Porter and Harvard Square, if you could ever find a seat.

The eponymous Simon. Photo by Mark Garfinkel, Boston Herald

In Montreal, I’m unimaginatively attached to the ghetto cafés on opposite corners of Milton and Parc, the 24-hour Second Cup and the Presse Café that faces it. These attachments are more productive than romantic, and there’s little actually to recommend them (which is perhaps as it should be). But if my legs are working you’ll find me at the Nocochi Café with its Persian cookies, or at the Première Moisson a bit further along Sherbrooke.

Favourite haunt of McGill undergrads, as well as their profs.

In Berlin I’m spoiled for choice, but my destinations of choice are pretty well set. Leysieffer and Café Einstein offer all the old-world charm a thinking man needs, the former peddling the finest chocolate outside Switzerland, the latter doing fine fare in general and Apfelstrudel in particular. Anna Blume I’ve already covered, but a stone’s throw away one can happily intellectualise oneself into a coma at Weinstein – not really a café, but that’s how I treat it, which is all that counts.

Leysieffer, Friedrichstrasse

Einstein. Just a perfect place. Photo by tip Berlin.

Weinstein. Emphasis on the Wein. Photo by tullintusch, Qype

Where to next? The world hasn’t let me know yet. But just in case, let me know where you all go to create, wherever you happen to be. Maybe I’ll meet you there.


  1. Oh, I thought your photograph was a painting!

  2. Wow, you are well travelled!!
    I have hung around various of the Paris haunts, but my coup was having a pint of Green Goblin cider sitting in the same seats used by Tolkien, Lewis and the other Inklings at The Eagle and Child in Oxford and trying to absorb greatness fundamentally, as it were.
    If I had to think of a place I'd like my plaque, should I ever be famous, I'm not sure I'd be able to pin down one place, but perhaps the Rainbow Cafe on King's Parade in Cambridge??

  3. As i spend hours with people daily, and am committed after work with paternal duties, I usually pull an espresso at home, then attend to the manufacture of a satisfying home cooked meal for my 3 blondes while listening to my music collection. Cafe life is now past tense, and from afar, is quite lovely and sorely missed. Nice image.

  4. Thanks for the visit Viv. Maybe I'll have to erect a plaque in your honour.

    Now ScaleWorm, the life you describe sounds like another version of bliss. You must be blessed.


  5. Yes indeed kind Sir, yes indeed.


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