Sun, 09 Feb 2003

True cafes offer relaxing ambience but beware...

Joko E.H. Anwar, Contributor, Jakarta

Shortly after coffee was first introduced to Europe early in the 1600's through the activities of the East India Company, word about the unique drink quickly spread across the continent.

The first coffeehouse was opened in Italy in 1645 and was immediately followed by many others. By 1670, London had been swept by the coffeehouse craze.

It is hard to explain why these coffeehouses of those eras somehow had one thing in common; they became forums where free speeches were made. Many of these coffeehouses even published their own newsletters.

By the 18th century, coffeehouse sub-culture was very established in England. Worried by the free speech nature of such venues, the authorities attempted to close down the coffeehouses, to no avail.

In 1802, the word "cafe" was adapted by the British from the French word which means "coffee" or "coffeehouse".

Two centuries later, cafe has become part of the daily language in many parts of the world, especially since chains such as Starbucks Coffee can be found in almost every city on Earth.

Regardless of their location, real cafes share a similar exterior and interior design, mostly the vintage style of western Europe.

According to a London-based website on cafes,, the decor of such places in the 1950s and 1960s was the culmination of cafe designs and cafes which preserved the design of so-called classic cafes.

As many other types of eateries opened, the difference between cafes and those places became blurred, especially outside of Europe.However, a cafe can be recognized by its "third space" factor.

The phrase, which was coined by the Starbucks folk means "an area away from the distractions of home and office, somewhere for calculated repose and day dreaming: private yet social, discrete yet visible. Somewhere to get away from the crowds and bustle".

To many Jakartans, cafes have been places to escape the daily routine, either from work, school or home. In many low-lit venues, patrons can enjoy a relaxing atmosphere which is melancholic and liberating at the same time. This is unlikely to be found at other kinds of establishments, like nightclubs or restaurants -- provided you find the real deal.

At cafes, food quality is important but not a determining factor. Interior design and lighting are crucial aspects, wherein a cafe can create the intended ambience with the appropriate music.

Most of the cafes in Jakarta are more like pubs or nightclubs and feature loud live music which destroys any ambience it have had. They are far too loud and have no tranquility, for which the original cafes were always meant to provide.

Most of the time, when a Jakarta cafe becomes popular, it tends to be filled beyond capacity. Some of the well-known establishments which put cafes in their title here are actually eons away from being a classic coffeehouse. They're overcrowded, overpriced, loud, pretentious and one wonders what the response would be if you asked the bartender for a coffee.

Fortunately, there are a few cafes in the capital which actually do offer the original coffeehouse atmosphere. Cafes in the traditional sense should have a free-spirited, mellow atmosphere that attract people from various backgrounds. Again, because it's private, yet social.

Here, circles of friends can gather and when one circle interacts with another circle, a new circle is created.

Cafes are also associated with a "hedonistic" lifestyle by our many close-minded brethren. Negative remarks and gossip of "immoral behavior" are often voiced toward anyone who frequents a "cafe", but of course to open-minded, educated people, nothing could be further from the truth, especially as it regards the classic coffeehouses.

In advanced countries, cafes help create societies which are closely linked to music, writing, and other forms of art, like in the Soho area of London or its counterpart in Greenwich Village, New York.

Our local cafes, have not achieved such maturity, but some have become classy places for aspiring musicians to try to get noticed.

Many successful local bands started out as "cafe bands" which is quite a prestigious attribute. Of course, not every place which bears the word "cafe" should actually be considered the real thing, they should probably just change their name to pub.

Perhaps the "third factor" is the best way to distinguish true cafes from the loud, annoying pubs which use the name inaccurately and have been springing up over the years.

Particularly after the economic recession swept the country in 1998, there were more and more people who lost their company jobs, but had enough savings to put up a place with table and chairs, a bar, some lighting and music, and viola! They think they own a "cafe". And young, unknowing Jakartans who go there think they are real coffeehouse trendsetters.

Most of the time, just the word "cafe" connotes something to local people as an attractive place -- which is good for business, but usually it is nothing more than a commoners eating and drinking place. This is because the word "cafe" is associated with golden eras of the West and lifestyles which, to most Indonesians is still considered luxurious, if not a bit hedonistic.

Although establishments with the word "cafe" can be found in many sections of the capital, Kemang in South Jakarta is well- known for its nice, classy cafes.

Good cafes can be an oasis for those who feel tired of busy life in the city. Among the many fakes, there are a lot of real cafes out there waiting to be discovered, so enjoy the experience of discovering them for yourselves.