Coffeehouse Culture: New York v. Elsewhere

by Sandy Ikeda

The life of a city mainly consists of what goes on in its public spaces. In New York, and increasingly in other American cities, coffeehouses are a vital part of this public life.

According to Café Life in New York, “cafés” or “coffeehouses” as I prefer to call them, “function mainly as gathering places with coffee and/or tea as the central offering. … These cafés beckon the patron who has come to stay awhile, often a long while – order a single cup of coffee, and you are welcome to stay as long as you wish … the primary purpose is to provide a ‘third place’ – beyond home and work.” (I’m not really recommending this cute little book, subtitled “An insider’s guide to the City’s neighborhood cafés,” because it doesn’t mention any, not one, of my favorite coffeehouses!)

While it may not be as old, coffeehouse culture in its various forms thrives in New York. But if I may generalize there do seem to me to be important differences.

First, and I realize this isn’t an original observation and I’m certainly not an expert on Paris, but I’ve noticed that few people there seem to have coffee-to-go. I didn’t see many places where one could even do this, although I did find a Starbucks in central Paris. (I probably should have gone in and ordered a “Venti Java Chip Frappuccino” to do a comparative analysis, but the idea just seemed too bizarre.) There it seems to be the rule, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that if you want coffee you sit down or stand at the counter. I don’t think this is entirely due to the French having lower time costs than New Yorkers (although this is probably true, I don’t have the corroborating data). The preference for lounging in coffeehouses may simply be stronger there on average.

My next observation is about Europeans in New York. I’ve noticed that when groups of Americans sit together, they usually have their cup of coffee or whatever and then leave within 10-15 minutes. The Europeans I’ve noticed in my local hangout, French and Italians as well as some who to my ear have Slavic-sounding accents, tend to sit down and talk over a single cup of coffee for at least 30 minutes. For them, coffeehouses appear to be much more than just places to have coffee. Americans on the other hand seem to focus more on the coffee (or various coffee concoctions), than on socializing, conversing, or people watching.

Finally, in New York when it’s warm enough to sit outside, if say the side of the table toward the street or pathway is at 6 o’clock, the chairs are generally placed at 3 and 9 o’clock, facing each other. In Paris (and elsewhere in France), I’ve noticed that the chairs tend to be placed at 11 and 1 o’clock facing the sidewalk. This is well-illustrated in van Gogh’s famous “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, At Night.” The French it seems are more forthright in their recognition that one sits outside to watch people.


11 thoughts on “Coffeehouse Culture: New York v. Elsewhere

  1. Daily I visit one of the three coffee shops of a small local chain in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I always go with a book or paper that I want to read, but I’m also open to good conversation with old or new friends I meet there. The coffee shop provides perhaps half of my social life.

    The last two jobs which I have gotten have been for friends I met in the coffee shop. They knew me as a Java developer from the books I was reading and the conversations we had.

    Good as this sounds, I would like better, in that I’d like to know of a social setting where I could more regularly meet businessmen, economists, and beautiful libertarian women. I’ve toyed with the idea of moving to NYC.

    The local chain of shops, if you are curious, is called Joe van Gogh. They have a web page at

  2. Thanks for your comment, Richard, and for the link — sounds like a great place. They weren’t around when I taught in Chapel Hill back in 1986-87, about the time when the coffee craze took off from Seattle.

    As for the kind of social settings you seek, I don’t think you’ll have much luck finding them in NYC coffeehouses. Paradoxically, I think you’re more likely to find them in smaller cities and towns. People go to a great city to network and seek opportunities, but privacy is even more precious here than in smaller places. In NYC people actively socialize in coffeehouses (or just about anywhere else) almost exclusively with people they already know, not with strangers. Coffeehouses are, of course, important social spaces, and in a later post I’ll discuss the other reasons people go to them.

  3. Actually, the NYC bar scene is an entirely different matter but I know almost nothing about it from personal experience. There are, however, other excellent economist-bloggers here at ThinkMarkets, who I strongly suspect have extensive and detailed first-hand knowledge of this area.

  4. There are actually four distinct coffeehouse cultures : the Vienese, the Turkish, the French and the Italian.

    You described very well the French coffeehouse culture. Drinking coffee is essentially a social event. People take long coffees, they drink it slowly and are there primarily to enjoy the company of others and the conversation. The French café is the quintessential public space, generally situated on or close to a busy boulevard. It’s the place to meet and to “live” the life of the city. You read the newspaper, find out the news, the social, cultural and political events that are taking place, you find out about the plays in the theaters, the movies in the cinemas and so on; and you discuss all of this with your friends and the other customers. It’s also the preferred place for the French people to hold a public informal event : a small conference, for instance, or a meeting to plan a student strike or a civil protest; or maybe a literary discussion or an informal philosophy seminar etc). Quite a number of artistic movements, philosophies, civil protest and even revolutions started in these French cafes – and not only in France!

    The Vienese coffeehouse fulfills almost the same functions, but they’re less of a public/political/civil vehicle, even though they’re also the preferred place of gathering for the intellectual, artistic and litterati community. They’re also more luxurious and elegant compared to the French coffehouses, but in an austere and dignified way. The furniture is usually made of high quality black or dark brown wood, the widows are usually covered in red-coloured drapes and the light is discrete. The people come and order a long coffee, engage in quiet conversation around one table – not more; they read the newspapers you find on the table or – as it’s more often the case – they read a book which they found on the shelves nearby or which they brought it from home; they play chess or scrabble…and so on. Of course, in an authentic Vienese café (which doesn’t necessarily have to be located in Vienna, you can find them all over Mitteleuropa) you should have classical music in the background, usually chamber pieces.

    The Italians have a totally different style, on the other hand. They drink a lot of coffee all the time, several times a day. But they drink it really fast, in small coups usually with a very high concentration, very strong. The Italians actually have a charming saying about their coffe which goes like this: “Il caffe dev’essere caldo come l’inferno / nero come il diavolo / pure come un angelo / e dolce come l’amore” which translates as “Coffee should be hot as hell / black like the devil / pure as an angel / and sweet as love”. Typically Italian, right ?

    Italian coffee is not meant to be sipped slowly for hours in this case. And they have different coffes for different times of the day, moods, regions and so on. Coffeshops are places people stop on their way to or from work and generally drink a strong espresso – or a cappuccino – while standing, from a small coup, generally in two or three sips. Usually these places have don’t have chairs, only tables. There are also places where people just relax, meet friends, engage in conversations , play games and so on, but although you can also drink caffe there, they’re generally bars.

    Finally, the Turkish cafés , although originally the inspiration behind European coffeehouses, are something completely different. They generally have an outdoors terrace, essentially a garden with trees to keep shade and decorative plants to create an aesthetically pleasant environment. They serve long and sweet, typically Turkish, coffee; and one can also smoke hookah (nargile in Turkish) with different aromas. Outside Turkey, they can also be found – in a more or less authentic form – in different countries around the South-East part of the continent.

    I personally tend to be biased towards the Viennese café (no, not because of Austrian economics, because of the music) though the French café is more lively. This last Saturday, however, I went to a Turkish coffeehouses (a Finnish friend was in town, so I thought he would also like to taste the Orient a little bit).

  5. Thank you, Bogdan, for your very informative comment. So then if I understand you correctly, the Italians I see hanging out at my local coffeehouse are just trying to act French?

  6. Well, I think that it might be too much to say that they’re trying to act French because generally the Italians definitely like to lounge around in bars, trattorias and so on at least as much as the French. But when it comes to coffee, this was my experience – lots of busy coffee shops serving strong espresso in small coups with very few, if any, places to sit down. Now, I only lived for a month in Torino, so I might not know how things are in other parts of Italy, but I remember asking around about this – precisely because I was somewhat surprised of the strong coffee and the fast drinking – and I was told that this is pretty much the custom in the country.

  7. Annoyingly, even at many places in New York where people do stay and chat for long periods, they don’t even HAVE ceramic cups so that you can have a civilized experience and not feel like you’re sitting on the curb at a stripmall.

  8. Bagdan, really interesting analysis there. Funny the Cuban tradition is most like the Italian (I say this not knowing much at all what Spanish coffee culture is like). In the morning you have café con leche and throughout the day you have coladas (black sweet espresso) or cortaditos (cut with milk if black is too harsh). All of this is usually standing up at the counter, or grabbing it on the way to the office where you share it with your coworkers in little plastic thimbles provided to you.

  9. Hey Sandy Ikeda,
    I am doing a thesis-like paper on the culture of coffee houses in New York through the years. Right now I am on the search for information about coffee houses and their culture in the past.

    Thanks for you help

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s