Thursday, August 14, 2003

Something the French get right, or Why is it not possible to put a cafe and a bar in the same establishment in the Anglosphere?

France is full of shops with the word "Tabac" on the outside. Fairly obviously, this indicates that one function of the shop is as a tobacconist, and such shops sell cigarettes et cetera. Also not terribly surprisingly, such shops also function as newsagents, selling newspapers and magazines as well as phonecards and various other bits and pieces. However, there is more. You will find that at the back of the shop there will be a few tables, and a bar with a few stools. Behind the bar will be an espresso machine, a beer tap, and various other drinks in bottles on the shelf or in the refrigerator. As well as tobacconists and newsagents, these shops also function as bars and cafes.

And these tend to be the bars and cafes frequented by local people, who drop in to buy some cigarettes or a newspaper and stop off and have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and a chat with the locals. They seem to be a way in which the people of a local community keep in touch with one another. So if you want to watch ordinary French people just going about their lives, visiting a few such cafes are a good way in which to do it. (Also, these being establishments catering to locals, the beer and coffee tends to be cheaper than in establishments catering to tourists).

For some reason this arrangement seems to be illegal within the fifteen arrondisements of Paris. Paris has Tabacs, but they do not contain cafes and bars. Cafes/bars are completely separate establishments. I do not know why this is, but I think it must be regulatory, as the moment you cross La Periphique into the suburbs of Paris, you find Tabacs with bars in them as in the rest of France.

And this seems to me a good arrangement. But it is one that we have completely failed to manage in the Anglosphere. By the standards of Europe we have done a lousy job of integrating our businesses like this. In particular, we are unable to even combine a bar and a cafe into one establishment.

Partly I think this was the strange puritan laws on the selling of alcohol that exist in the English speaking world. Pubs were places that were behind closed doors, with no windows through which people walking down the street would be exposed to the horrible prospect of seeing people drink alcoholic beverages. This aspect of society had to be kept away from decent, law abiding people who just wanted to go about their business. If somebody wanted to sit down and have an espresso in a cafe, they shouldn't have to do it in the same place where people were doing such immoral and ungodly things as having a beer.

Except that, possibly even more puzzling than this, the Anglosphere didn't have cafes. Supposedly (a little scrolling down needed to find the article in English) Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski arrived in Oxford in 1969, having been banished for political reasons from Warsaw University. He walked the streets for a few hours and came home slightly puzzled. "It's a nice town," he told his wife, "but where are the cafes?"

It was possible to buy bad coffee in diners in the United States (and in fact for most of the 20th century, US coffee consumption was very high on a consumption per capita basis), and it was possible to buy even worse coffee in greasy spoon type establishments in Britain (although British people tended to prefer tea), but actual decent coffee made with an espresso machine was out, except maybe in an Italian restaurant.

However, the Anglosphere is now full of cafes. Oxford is now full of cafes. Cambridge is now full of cafes. London is now full of cafes. (Less urban parts of Britain are less full of cafes). And one can at least get a good cup of coffee. However, the road to them has been a little peculiar.

In a way, Australia got them in the most straightforward way. Australia received a lot of Italian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike for the bulk of Italian immigrants to the United States, this was after the invention of the espresso machine. And Italian style coffee spread out from the Italian community, but it evolved. The English habit of preferring hot drinks with milk worked its way in, and Australians took to drinking cappuccinos and lattes throughout the day, whereas Italians would tend to drink them only in the mornings. Australia adopted Italian as the language of coffee, with some English mixed in. So we have the cappuccinos and cafe lattes, but not so much the espresso. We do have the coffee, just not always the name. It's a "short black". There is also a "long black", which is a more traditional black coffee. There are interesting creations such as a "piccolo latte", and occasional abominations of the English and Italian languages such as a "mugaccino" (A large sized cappuccino, ie a cappaccino in a mug rather than a cup).

But, the key point is that in Australia, good espresso based coffee had become widely available and pretty much all encompassing by 1995. By that point, it was possible to get a decent latte in a Chinese Restaurant, and McDonald's had started opening "McCafe" counters (ie espresso bars) in their restaurants. It was good.

Cafes in Australia were and are more Italian than anything else. They generally have waiter service. However, they do not sell alcohol, whereas cafes in Italy generally do. The reason for this is simply that for a long time it was not legal for them to do so. Restaurants were not permitted to sell alcohol to people who did not also buy a meal, so sitting down and stopping for a beer was out. This law has been repealed in some of the country but not all of it. (It still holds in Sydney). There were also laws in some states prohibiting establishments with less than 50 seats from selling alcoholic drinks at all, although I believe this one has now been repealed everywhere. So coffee culture was necessarily non-alcoholic. (Perhaps some of my Melbourne based readers will tell me if this has changed since Jeff changed the laws. I suspect though that these customs only change slowly).

Which was why when I first came to England in 1991, things were not so good. The English were tea drinkers, and their coffee was terrible. But, things improved. By about 1995, companies with names such as "The Seattle Coffee Company" were opening stores in urban areas. These sold a product that was that clearly derived from the same Italian origins, but was typically a little more stirred and whipped than the coffees sold in Australia, and which perhaps had flavoured syrup added. It came in large paper cups with lids on, and cafes that sold it generally only offered counter service, although they often have nice comfy seats in which customers could sit down after buying their coffee. I took to this quite well. I went through a brief period of drinking lattes with flavoured syrup, but I ultimately got over it.

Of course, I later learned that there had been an Italian coffee revolution in Seattle over a period of a couple of decades, and that a company named Starbucks was now spreading this throughout America. And it came to Britain in a big way, probably because the existing coffee was so terrible. Starbucks itself entered the market by acquiring the Seattle Coffee Company and then rapidly expanding, and several other chains of Starbucks clone - Coffee Republic, Costa Coffee, Cafe Nero - expanded as fast if not faster. All adopted the American counter service model. Being American influenced, portions were large. Rather than the 8 ounce cup that Australians drink coffee from, these guys were selling 12, 16, even 20 ounce cups of coffee. The language of their coffee was once again bastardised Italian, but bastardised differently. In particularly it was bastardised to describe the sizes of the cups. English for the smaller sizes (Short and Tall) and Italian for the larger. (Grande, most notably. Starbucks started using "Venti" for its largest cup, but trademarked this, meaning that its competitors have had to make up alternative words such as "gigante".

In any event, because they are American derived, the one things that these cafes do not do is serve alcoholic drinks. I think there is something to be said for having a few bottles of beer in the fridge for people who would prefer one of those, and there is really no difficulty under English law opening such a cafe.

However, American model does not allow from this. The puritan culture still rather runs through it, I think. This is a country that thinks it is bad for college students to drink alcohol, and it would no doubt be a terribly immoral thing for a cafe selling coffee to people under 21 to also sell beer to adults. And in any event, people over 21 shouldn't have to watch such a thing if they don't want to. Selling alcoholic drinks at Starbucks or similar would be like selling alcohol at McDonald's or selling alcohol at Disneyland. It just doesn't really fit in the American cafe model. And that is the one we have in Britain for now.

Except of course that these things still evolve. When EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris) was opened in France, it initially was completely non-alcoholic, just like in California or Florida. The French public responded to this by shaking their heads in blank incomprehension, and changing this rule was one of the first things done (along with changing the name) to help fix the situation when EuroDisney was initially loss making. (It now makes large profits). It may be one day that American-Italian Starbucks culture in Britain will evolve into some authentically British-American-Italian-Slavic-Armenian coffee culture, which does allow beer. But I think it is a while away.

So there we are. For the moment, the Anglosphere seems unable to to combine a bar and cafe as does the Latin world. I think this is silly.

But for now the American Starbucks coffee model seems to be spreading. Even Australia has Starbucks, and American bastardised Italian seems to be invading. McDonald's is rolling out espresso bars elsewhere in the world based on the Autralian model, but with Starbucks speak. The cafe-bar may even be in decline. This would be kind of sad, except that there is not much to decline from.

And I think this may be a little denbestian. But it is my blog.

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