travelling the world's cafes
Last week, while working at Dolores Park Cafe, I watched the birth of a new romance and hit “subscribe” for weekly updates. A man in dark-brown glasses and a burgundy hoodie initiated small talk with the slender, smiley lady in front of him. He did the smart thing—asked her if she’d been there before and what she’d recommend from the menu. She answered with just enough of a smile and the classic hair tug behind the ear.
He read that and they kept chitchatting while the slow line trudged along. I know that man never wanted the queue to speed up. He was happy in that position next to a cutie who was receiving his attention. Every so often he’d make a little comment that made her laugh—softly placing his foot on the accelerator—while giving her enough time to choose what she wanted from the menu. Perfect execution.
Eventually, they sat together, and the baristas and I continued to get our fix of real-life reality TV. Who needs Love Island when you could watch this live? The laughter and giggles continued to rebound throughout the cafe. I saw him hand his phone over and she typed into it with a grin. Then, they left it off with a hug that lasted long enough that suggested they'd see each other again. And I was left wondering their Blasian babies would look like.
This cafe was well-equipped for this meet-cute. Because of the way it's laid out, the queue breaks up into little fragments that encourage polite small-talk. The menu is printed on a huge overhead chalkboard that anchors the space. So everyone looks up in the same direction. The cafe sits a few feet from Dolores Park—so on a sunny day, there's a constant stream of happy, formerly-sun-starved strangers pouring in. Opposite is a thriving ice cream shop which serves as perfect people-watching material. A little belief and banter and your new stranger is only a hello away.
While I love a good romcom, most times when I'm in a cafe, I'm there to work—in fact, I realized my sabbatical has essentially been a global cafe tour. This year, I went to thirteen cities and scoured the scene—little Spanish cafes more ancient than the patrons, a Balinese cafe that served me pooped-out coffee1, and a cosy art cafe in central London where the macchiatos are served with a free side of sarcasm.
These experiences have built up my taste profile on this topic, and I assure you there are many flavors of cafe, something for everyone. If you’re going on a first date, you want a mix of chic and escapability. You’re not going to take them to a run-of-the-mill chain like Costa Coffee or Peet’s. You want to butter them up with your banter and freshly-baked pastries. You want outdoor seats so you can see how they glisten in the sunlight. But you also want an exit route if you find out your partner has a penchant for axe murder.
If you’re “co-working”—recapping your weekend adventures with a friend and taking a few mandatory calls—you need another setup. Wifi connection is important for obvious reasons. You might want the option of Prosecco depending on your degree of debauchery. But the cafe shouldn’t feel stale—it needs some bounce in the air, some light disturbances that serve as the background for your tales.
But if you’re at the cafe to actually work, there’s so much that goes into making it right—the furniture, the music, the air, the temperature, seating layout, the occupancy rate, —and of course, the coffee selection.
In a Bad Work Cafe, the desk wobbles on every keystroke. Chairs are sized at awkward heights so you don’t know where to put your elbows. The lattes and cappuccinos are scalding hot—you burn your tongue on your first two sips. The music is bumping like a thriving club—playing so many bangers you keep Shazam-ing every few minutes, so you do very little work. Or the bass of the beats knocks every good idea out of your head. There’s too much motion in your front and peripheral view so you can’t really focus. Someone’s always walking across or in front of your view. Your food options are limited to stale pain aux chocolats or $14 slices of toast, a price justified by preaching how many different grains and cuddles went into kneading the bread dough.
In a Good Work Cafe, the music is subtle and sweet. Even though I’m going to bury my head between my headphones, I need the audio aesthetic to be carefully curated. Anything with hard-hitting beats is a no-no for me. Soft on the palette. Easy on the easel. Feed me French Jazz. Blend in the Blues. Words are optional, I could lull off this luscious instrumental for hours, but sometimes the vocals provide gentle twists that reset my rhythm. The volume is as important as the music choice—there’s nothing worse than having to scream at someone next to you. This isn’t a bar, and even bars shouldn’t be that loud.
Furniture is a big one. You can tell a cafe’s intentions by its furniture choices. When guests are invited to sit for a while versus when the intention is high-throughput. Picture those flimsy, pesky chairs that offer a pittance of support to your back. Slabs of rickety wood stitched together that are barely structurally competent and unpleasant to look at. You know you can’t do any deep work there. Unless you’re one of those freaks with perfect posture who doesn’t need back support. On the second floor of a twenty-hour cafe in Bangkok, I struggled to find a comfortable resting position—the chairs were sunk too low, and the accompanying coffee tables were unbearably high. They clearly were not designed for humans.
The literal internal atmosphere is important too. Air needs to be present for obvious reasons but it can’t move too fast, we don’t want a wind tunnel swinging us from pillar to post. Though it’s nice to have a slight breeze that slicks the stress sweats off my face when the words refuse to pour on the page.
Some cafes feel airy and generous from the moment you walk in. Others feel cramped and claustrophobic as if oxygen is in short supply. The size of the cafe plays a role here, but the way you arrange the tables and chairs can give life to, or suffocate a space. Sunlight streaming through glass windows feeds the green plants within. And those windows give you something to gaze out of while you’re scratching your head to find the right word to describe a familiar feeling. It might sound obvious but worth repeating—if your cafe is in a hot, tropical location, air conditioning is not optional.
Coffee is obviously essential, but beyond that, there should be at least a few non-caffeinated drinks for the fiends amongst us who need temporary reprieves from that drug. Smoothies, juices, teas, come to mind. The aforementioned Dolores Park Cafe has a $9 bees-wax smoothie that I am yet to try.
I don’t want a cafe that’s more than a third occupied. I know that’s bad news for the business but I want ample space and limited distraction. A few stoic soldiers soldered to their seats staring into their computers. You know the ones that look like they’re doing serious work—so you get that second-hand positive high from them. Perfecto.
Through my trips through the continents, I’ve seen many cafes, some were blessed with the right music and spacial setup, others were a little too Instagram-y and buzzy for deep work. I want a maximum of one YouTuber with a ring-light in my cafe. Please have mercy on me. But every now and then, I find a little gem that hits enough of the right notes and I camp there.
Right now, Robin’s Cafe in the Mission is holding court and playing the role. It offers three different seating areas that cater to the different moods I might bring there. Four sets of dark-brown patio chairs and tables decorate the outside. Great for relaxed conversations. Inside, there’s a glass window with tall bar chairs that face the intersection. A slow intersection that offers the right amount of visual stimulation for creative work. One of the roads is closed to through traffic, and occasionally, I see shirtless bikers, driverless cars, and Recology trash pickup trucks.
Diagonal from my view is a little community garden that sparkles in the sun. Perfect for when I’m gazing into the distance—like I’m doing this very moment, pulling my beard hair thinking of how to conclude this essay. And further inside, there’s a focus area—a few steady, well-spaced desks for when you need to concentrate.
Robin’s has become my second-home—I come here three times a week. But it’s a bit expensive…the tell is the $4.50 pain au chocolat. It has many elements of Good Work Cafes, the desks don’t wobble, it’s never “full”, and the bright windows are generous in their welcome. I have claimed the middle bar chair facing 17th St as my personal property—if someone else sits there, I scorn under my breath. They close at 4pm which is tragic news. But at least they’re open everyday.
The global cafe tour is currently on pause, but if you have any cafe suggestions in the Mission, please recommend them in the comments!
🌸 updates from the house
Twenty minutes with Tobi—I opened up my calendar for anyone to book Zoom calls with me. So far, I’ve had 8 or 9 of those and have had a lot of fun! I knew there would be really interesting people in this community. I’m keeping the calendar open for the rest of September. Next month, I'll try a small-group experiment.
Technical writers in the house—is anyone here? Many of you know that I worked as Software Engineer for five years. And now I’m a writer. I’d love to combine these worlds and begin work as a writing consultant for startups (helping with technical documentation, eng comms, ghostwriting, editing, blog writing etc). If you do this kind of work—I’d love to talk so please reply to this email, respond in the comments, or book some time on my calendar
Thanks for reading. It’s been a busy few weeks. More updates and stories coming soon! Peace and love 🧡.
Luwak coffee—is coffee made from coffee cherries that have been eaten and partially digested by civets (mammals from the Viverridae family). The beans are then pooped out by the animal, collected, thoroughly washed, sun-dried, and fermented before roasting. This practice has been done for several centuries. The resulting coffee is less acidic and is reputed to have a smooth, rich flavor profile. I had it as part of a platter of twelve teas and coffees in Ubud, Bali.