[Photo by Stuart Noble on Flickr]
So London now has a version of Friends coffee shop, Central Perk. It opened last week. Yes, last week, in 2009, around a decade after the peak period when everyone wanted to be part of the Friends gang.
I was pleased to see that the Guardian responded with a piece in praise of independent coffee houses (a list of the ten best, plus a call for readers to recommend their own favourites). The UK is ready for a coffee house revolution. Actually, scrap that and let’s call it the café revolution. It was our striving to recreate the All-American ‘coffee house’ that lead to the problem. Now we’re tired of the Costas, the Neros, the Starbucks. This month Starbucks unveiled a new plan to try and inject some personality into its stores. They want to become less corporate and will now rebrand by debranding. Urgh. The fact that people are using that language shows the battle is already lost.
I used to go to the chain coffee shops from time to time in the London, but here in Buenos Aires, I refuse. I’ve said this before, but Buenos Aires has a refreshing absence of carbon-copy coffee shops. There are only a handful of Starbucks here. I can’t help feeling that to stop the spread all we have to do is resist an overpriced milky drink with a dash of coffee and take the rash step of drinking a reasonably priced, strong cortado. As challenges go, it shouldn’t be too hard.
Where do I go for a good cortado? My local is the wonderful Bar Gallego in Palermo Viejo, which is a workman-style cafe run by an elderly Gallician owner who fled Spain after during the civil war. In the 1990s he was offered a million dollars to sell his prime-location premises, but heroically refused and the place has barely changed since. It is known for serving huge chunks of meat, jamon crudo sandwiches, shiny chips and strong coffee. I love the fact that one of the more eccentric waiters always leaps out of the shop to greet me when I walk past and always tries to speak a token bit of English, even though that usually just extends to "thank you very muchy". You wouldn’t get this sort of service in Starbucks. As the Observer’s Word of Mouth blog says of the Starbucks fall from grace:
As the shops proliferated, their bright, studiedly informal interiors began to look like cynical clones, the staff quietly morphed from stunning resting-between-jobs actresses into stunned looking minimum-wage droids with thousand yard stares, and everything began to smell of sour milk. What had once looked like the brightest of futures began to look like McDonald’s.