On 10, Aug 2018 | In Travel & Culture | By jane
Cafés: More Than Just Coffee
Two worlds. Outside, reflected in a stretch of café window-glass, a gleaming doppelganger streetscape. Elm leaves gust from city-grown trees, waltz around the Sturt Street bandstand’s cupola then scud across the road in golden flocks to rest at the feet of umbrella-sheltered outdoor patrons. By the door, lifting lazily in an autumn breeze, the points of a white cloth over a small table holding water jugs, glasses and napkins.
I step into L’Espresso, the Ballarat café world that’s welcomed me for decades, and hear the familiar sound tapestry—the door’s gentle screak, the clink-chink of cutlery and cups, the spluttery hiss of steam frothing milk, the textured chatter and laughter of half a hundred voices all woven through with the languorous drift of Miles Davis’ trumpet. Divided by a low wall, the softly lit café is filled with people seated at closely spaced tables, each woman and man both actor and audience in the playhouse of café life, their choreography of gestures, words and glances a part of each day’s ever-changing dance of communication.
Since Persian beginnings in the 1500s, cafés have colonised the globe. In this era of countless human diasporas, these many-layered small worlds are as much havens for those far from original families and homes as they are for longtime locals. They’re essential public meeting places for diverse modern tribes. Ordering and drinking coffee—in L’Espresso or in any other café—is just a cover story. The hot sepia liquid downed daily in billions of cups—despite its fragrant allure, its caffeine-charged ability to kick-start a stalled brain, and around which a mystique of bean terroir, sculptural machines, barista secrets, foam art and snobbery has grown—is a pretext. It’s a masquerade for sharing intimate spaces with people known and unknown, where regulars and newcomers mingle within the distance of a breath. Where a sideways glance or the inadvertent touch of an unfamiliar elbow or knee may catalyse a conversation that lasts an hour or a lifetime. Cafés are about more than just coffee.
Cafés become stage sets for everyday spectacles as fascinating as fiction, homes away from home where people come as themselves, or in disguise. They’re scenes for private meetings in public places, for political, philosophical and artistic discussions, for the exchange of ideas. Besides offering company to the lonely, solace to the sad, and vicarious engagement to the disengaged, they’re for lovers old and new as well as internet daters, for hanging out with friends and family, for aimless lingering, writing, dreaming, and of course, for semi-sanctioned eavesdropping by the curious. A New York friend related the story of discreetly observing a young Joni Mitchell lookalike in a flirtatious tête-à-tête with a balding check-suited older man, during which came a rare café-wide lull in conversation. In the brief silence before the orchestra of voices resumed, everyone heard the woman croon, ‘I want to kiss you all over’.
I love café atmospheres grown over time. Like tree branches forming season by season, each element takes shape in harmony with others over the years, maturing together in a process of becoming. In Paris, I’ve spent time in Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots, Le Dôme (lunched there, unplanned, for my 21st birthday) and La Coupole—bustling, intriguing places that have grown in just that way, places drenched with the lingering presence of the poets, writers, painters and other luminaries who found ineffable influences there that augmented their creative lives. Verlaine, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Camus, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Picasso and Léger were among the habitués. It’s heady stuff sitting where they shared ideas and shot the breeze. Cafés lure creative people, and like homing pigeons, they return to their favourites.
Let’s come back to Ballarat and L’Espresso. Beside the cash register, a shameless call to temptation—house-confected cakes in a chilled glass cabinet, reclining courtesans confident of their sweet power to seduce. In the shadowy back, a wide horizontal hatch is piled at one end with novels by internationally award-winning local crime writer and L’Espresso habitué Peter Temple (his books sell well here). Through the hatch, I catch glimpses of fast-moving checked-trousered cooks and kitchen staff—searing, slicing, stirring—deftly preparing and plating up artfully assembled food that’s delivered to tables all day long by young black-aproned wait staff who slip nimbly through the café’s tight spaces with the suppleness of dancers.
A successful ensemble act like this isn’t a haphazard affair. Angela, the wise, always-patient manager of the past fifteen years has a honed attention to detail. She holds everything together with the skill of a marionette master, and her staff selection is impeccable. Greg, the owner, is here four days a week, taking orders, pouring coffee, lining up cups on the countertop’s curve. This university biology major has been on site since 1976 when he opened the independent Black Swan Records music shop, partly as a raison d’être for going to places like Paris and New York to hunt for the lesser-known jazz recordings he couldn’t find in Australia.
When it became clear that selling only music wasn’t economically viable, in 1986 he opened L’Espresso. He grins when he admits that the music side of the shop is now just a nice decoration for the café, adding that it does at least provide both music and a meeting place for aficionados of interesting, little known and rare music from the past and present. Looking for Velvet Underground on vinyl? You’ll find it here.
Greg’s vision and perseverance created the subtle details of an atmosphere that has kept people coming back for nearly thirty years. Writers, artists, film-makers (like Ballarat-born Los Angeles director Roger Donaldson) and former and current politicians are among its regulars. L’Espresso seeded the sophisticated café culture that’s bloomed in this town, and its charms attract Melbourne café owners eager to unravel the secrets of its appeal to such a diverse and loyal clientele.
Along with packaged pasta, records, drinks and cups displayed on a wall of shelves, are some of Greg’s personal treasures. A gift from artist and sculptor Rick Amor, a plaster maquette of the ‘running man’ was the model for the image used in L’Espresso’s shop-front signage. Created locally, the signs were made from old copper hot water services, as are the café’s rectangular down-lights. A Sherrin football memorialises an impressive streak of goal-kicking from Greg’s younger days (he played eighteen AFL games for Melbourne). And that’s his cream model Citroën DS (pronounced in French ‘Déesse’—goddess). Greg tells me he’s still driving the real thing—a classic French car designed by an Italian sculptor and industrial designer, and styled and engineered by a French aeronautical engineer. This café proprietor, with his understated style and tenacity, continues to unfold his dream—and he’s a man with the satisfaction of having done exactly what he loves for a long time.
Here for the afternoon, after lunching on succulent duck confit, I take photos for this essay, including one of a man quietly sketching. He loves drawing, he says, and introduces himself as Melbourne political cartoonist Ron Tandberg—a multiple Walkley award winner (for excellence in journalism). Since finding it by chance, he’s been a L’Espresso denizen for seven years. The signs are right with good cafés, he says—the number of people inside tell you. He likes the quality of the light here, its Renaissance feel. And he’s intrigued by people’s reasons for going to particular cafés, places where they go and feel utterly comfortable. We talk about our mutual enjoyment of people-watching, about how some dominate while others make encouraging noises before the roles change. About how you don’t need to read a book in a café because there’s a whole story unspooling beside you. He’s right. A heavily muscled man with a jarhead haircut uses his hands like a conductor as he talks about training and keeping up the heart rate. ‘Be mentally strong’, he says, placing his fingers at his temples and sliding his hands back and forth. Her elbow gripped by a man in a peaked houndstooth cap and sunglasses, a slender, fragile-looking woman dressed from head to toe in olive green allows him to propel her to a table.
Foolproof patterns for fashioning exceptional cafés don’t exist, but our love affairs with them are long-term when we’ve found one. As is mine with L’Espresso. In these hallowed places, it’s always about more than just coffee.
Essay and photography (except window view, courtesy of L’Espresso) © 2015 by Susie Surtees
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