Category Archives: Coffee shops

Terrible bad – and the need for free wifi

I’ve been terrible bad, barely blogging here – partly down to our broadband being not so much super-fast as super-dooper-sssslllloooowwww, and partly down to simply working too much on other things.

TH Cafe
T H Café, Dolgellau (photo from Trip Advisor)

Due to the aforementioned broadband running like a snail with arthritis, I have been working quite a bit in a couple of cafés in the nearby towns, and have come to the conclusion that an essential ingredient for a perfect café is free, decent wifi.

Happily my absolute favourite choices, depending on where I am, are generous with the wifi – they are TH Café in Dolgellau and the Llew Glas Deli in Harlech.There are others I use, but generally they fall down on other factors (customer service, ahem), or their wifi is either only free for a limited period of time and/or ensures that you are bombarded with marketing drivel for ever and ever. Making a pact with the devil would be a better bargain than getting ‘free’ wifi from one of the high street chains…

How did this happen? It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a post about local cafés, in which I went on about decent coffee, customer service, even the quality of the seating. The quality of the broadband barely occurred to me – then. Now it’s crucial. Is it something to do with the fact that I now carry my very own edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in the form of my iPad) everywhere?

It intrigues me, though.

A couple of days ago I sat in one of my favourite cafés and noticed a family of four nearby. It was a glorious day though the wind was a little nippy, but the sun was beating down, the countryside was gleaming with new leaves and the sea was the sort of deep blue you normally associate with the West Indies rather than West Wales. And yet this evidently holidaying family were sitting inside a café, each of them lost in their own mobile device – either tablets or smartphones. It wasn’t just that they weren’t paying attention to the world outside, they weren’t even paying attention to each other. Or the food, either: they could have been served a helping each of slugs stewed in their own juice, and they’d not have noticed. As they left one of the staff wished them a good day, and the mother said that they were going home tomorrow, and how thankful they’d been for the wifi.

I went over to pay myself, and started chatting with the staff (I know them, it’s OK, I don’t always start gossiping to complete strangers). Apparently the family had been in every day for a week, had never stayed less than a couple of hours and sometimes more, had almost never spoken to each other except to order food and drink. It’s been a good week, weatherwise, too. The staff were slightly baffled and so was I – why come to somewhere like Snowdonia for a holiday if you’re not going to get out into it?

This prompted me to ask about the wifi. Could the caff imagine life without it? No need to imagine, I was told – a few weeks previously it had gone down (no surprise there, I think BT believe that if they improve the cables in Wales they’ll just get eaten by dragons). And so had their takings.

So I’m making a plea to us all, including myself. Yes, let’s use cafés with wifi, and why not? But do let’s enjoy other things too. Counryside. Coasts. Our friends, our families. Cakes. Coffee. Or the slug stew will come out. Honest it will.

 

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Whatever happened to afternoon tea?

I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.

afternoon tea...A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.

A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?

All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.

Alice

It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).

Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.

(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)

But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?

But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):

coffee and cake

Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).

There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.

Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!

well, quite

(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)

There are more than two coffee shops in Wales…

Way back in January of last year, one national – hah, allegedly – newspaper published a list of the fifty best independent coffee shops in the UK. Wales, apparently, has – wait for it – two. Both in Cardiff. At least they restricted their choice of London coffee shops to ten, but there were still more in the EC postcode area than in the whole of Wales. Hello?

Now this might have been acceptable, or even vaguely accurate, about twenty years ago (then again no, it wouldn’t have been either) but today it is merely lazy and complacent. There are plenty of good independents. Plenty. Even in small towns like those near me. OK, there are some bad ones and some which are merely indifferent. But there are some which are stonkingly good.

I’ve had a bit of a rant about coffee shops here before, where I contrasted a bad experience and a good one. Just to show that there’s more than one good coffee shop in Gwynedd, despite what what the Daily X might think, I’m going to have a quiet rave about another favourite: the Llew Glas Delicatessen in Harlech. It’s just had its second birthday (as it were), but it’s already hard to remember what Harlech was like without it.

Sigh. What’s not to like?

cakes at Freya'sEvery time I go in I’m reminded of Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

OK, Rick’s featured a casino and not cake. And it’s not the gambling, the diamond dealing, the Nazis or Bogart in a tuxedo, either: it’s the fact that everyone ends up here. As Rene says in the film, ‘Everybody comes to Rick’s’. I have seldom been in the Llew Glas and not known anybody there, but it’s not just a local haunt – some friends of mine popped in recently, complete strangers to the area, and were made to feel just as much part of the scene.

I came up with several pointers for a decent coffee shop in that earlier post – good coffee, good alternatives, good food and good service were, predictably, my top four (the others were a little more, um, idiosyncratic, including a complete absence of religious quotes and seats you can actually sit on).

The Llew Glas wins on all those; the coffee is good, as are the non-coffs, the herb tea (me), the hot chocolate (not for lactose-intolerant moi but for almost all of my friends). The food is great. There are light lunches – soups, sandwiches, a choice of scrumptious quiches – which are freshly cooked and not bought in, as well as the usual staples of gorgeous cakes and, as the sign outside says, ‘probably the best scones in Harlech’.

But for me it’s the service which shines out. An Irish friend of mine used to do a splendid act as a waitress in a newly-flash, Celtic Tiger, Dublin eaterie. She slouched up, got too close, sniffed juicily and then said, loudly and in tones of deep boredom, ‘y’aright?’. Once upon a time service like this was the norm; customers were a nuisance who got in the way. Unfortunately there are some places which haven’t realised that times have changed (another friend of mine was asked recently whether he could ‘take down’ the – accurate – reports of bad service which a restaurant had received on TripAdvisor, and was berated when he explained that this was impossible). But fake, we’re-afraid-of-TripAdvisor, service is one thing. Genuinely good service is another, and that is what you get at the Llew Glas.

Many years ago, some friends and I had a drunken conversation about something that was missing in Harlech. There were pubs (two, then, in the upper town) and a couple of very traditional cafés, but we didn’t feel that they catered for us or our friends. A wine bar was our conclusion, then. The main reason we felt we needed one was that it would provide a place for us to socialise without going to one of the pubs – no reflection on them, but they were quite a male preserve. To an extent, and a very considerable extent, the Llew Glas has filled this niche – and it’s a tribute to how good it is that it has done so without selling alcohol or being open in the evenings. After all, ‘everybody comes to Rick’s’ or, in this case, Freya’s…

harlech castleDetails? Well, the Llew Glas Delicatessen is at 3, Plas y Goits, Harlech – just opposite the Plas restaurant, in what is often known as Blue Lion (Llew Glas) Courtyard.

It’s open 10-5, Monday to Saturday; Sundays in the season, and if there’s only one piece of raspberry and coconut slice left, you won’t like it. Honest. Leave it.

A tale of two coffee shops

We’ve got a new coffee shop. Admittedly, it’s part of a chain – it’s a Costa – and it’s also in the town ten miles away (TTMA, from now on), but it’s an exciting new development. Well, it is if you’re me,  and judging by how busy it is, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s an improvement. For one thing, their coffee doesn’t taste of old, charred, sock. So far.

Ten years ago, the choice of coffee in the TTMA was comparatively limited. There was, and is, a small department-ish store with a lovely café where you could get a decent coffee and, er, pay well for it. The food was good, too, but for me – well, it reminded me too much of Saturday shopping when I was a child. Doilies, tablecloths, lots of ladies of a ‘certain age’. Don’t get me wrong; I still go there sometimes – it’s delightful. But it also has the ability to make me want to leap on a table, shout something outrageous like ‘knickers!’ and run away. There was also a deceptive café with plastic seats where the coffee was great even if the ambiance was dodgy, and another place where your coffee (soooo burnt sock) came with biblical quotes. That was it. We’ve had additions since then, but none of them have quite managed to get it right – in my opinion – though there is a deli which does do great take-away coffee.

Caught by the rain, I ended up in one of the additions recently. It’s popular, but – and we are back to singed-sock coffee, by the way – it takes more to create a cool coffee-shop ambiance than slinging a couple of sofas in your window. Especially if you have neon lights and chairs that punters slither off when they relax too much. And – and this is today’s bugbear – if the (very young) staff are not adequately supervised. When serving in a not-that-busy coffee shop you do not a) forget about a customer’s order until they come back to the counter and remind you of it, and b) forget about it because you are too busy discussing some customers’ appearance with your colleagues, certain that you cannot be understood because you are speaking Welsh and it’s the weekend when there are lots of visitors about. Wrong, on so many levels. They did have the grace to go bright red when I deliberately chased my order in Welsh (fairly bad Welsh, but there was no way I was going to let them assume I didn’t understand what they were saying).

So I took to scoring local coffee shops – the only newspaper available to read was the Daily Mail, and the sea hadn’t frozen over so I had to find something else to do while the delicate aroma of footwear and employee embarrassment faded slightly. These were my assessment points:

* Good coffee. Oh, all right, drinkable coffee. But definitely no socky element.
* Good alternatives, especially tea – which should not be an afterthought.
* Good food, or maybe that should be decent food (let’s be realistic). Not, preferably, bought in.
* Helpful, attentive staff who keep their personal opinions to themselves. In any language.
* A relaxed atmosphere.
* Lighting which doesn’t make you feel like the Gestapo are hanging around outside.
* Seats you can sit on (there’s radical), and which may – shhh – actually be comfortable.
* A complete absence of religious quotes, though I might make an exception for some of the more, ahem, colourful parts of the Old Testament.
* Moderate pushchair count – so that there’s room for the non-pushchair-pushers to get to seats / counter / loo without injury. Not a complete absence – the ideal coffee shop should welcome everyone – but customers and staff do need to keep their limbs intact. Plus, blood can be difficult to get off any upholstery.
* Atmosphere. Character. Individuality. Not being a Starbucks. There. I’ve said the ‘S’ word.

The coffee shop I was in scored a 1 because it’s a religious-quote-free zone. Maybe a 1.5, because the food can be good, though it has let me down. OK, a max of 2, perhaps a 3 because it does have some individuality and isn’t part of a chain, but then the bible-citation place would score on that scale too (though that one compensates for the evangelizing by having generally good home baking and being safely veggie, should you need it).

Now, about the same distance from my house in the other direction is another small town. No chain coffee shops here. Here we have something as near to perfection as is theoretically possible on my scale, an independent coffee shop in an ex-ironmonger’s. I was interested to see how it would stack up.

THAtmosphere? Well, the old shop counters still remain, as does the shelving along the walls and the whole of the cashier’s office, which makes a great snug / pushchair corral. There’s lots of polished wood, a display of local crafts, some newspapers (and they do help – except when the only choice is the Daily That’s Outrageous and It’s Someone’s Fault, free wi-fi, and home-made cakes so decadent that they should be made illegal. There’s not the slightest hint of footwear in the coffee and there is an amazing choice of tea: Russian Caravan? Rose Puchong? Organic Orange Pekoe? Citrus Rooiboos? Strange compost-scented tisane? No problems.

The lighting is fine, the seats are fine (yes, there are sofas, but they’re at the back and not statement sofas in the windows), the staff are welcoming nine times out of ten – nobody’s perfect 100% of the time, but I’ve never yet caught them talking about their customers – and the pushchair tally is also acceptable. And there are no passages from any holy book whatsoever to distract you, either. I think they get a 10. Maybe a 9.5, because perfection is impossible. But I’m sure they’re working on it – and let’s hope Starbucks don’t notice, given their predatory behaviour towards successful coffee shops. I trust we’re ostensibly too remote…