CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Bernie Flynn sat in his cluttered Newbury Street office, across the Charles River in Boston's Back Bay, combing his thick mustache.
"A good cafe," said Flynn, owner of Trident Booksellers and Cafe, "is a place where you can foment revolution, have a romance or just spend time by yourself without feeling out of place. What goes on there is the people who are sitting there."
In true Spanish style, Josefina Perez Yanguas is dressed entirely in black. Her coffee-brown eyes regard a visitor warmly. Yanguas' apartment on Bow Street in Harvard Square lies directly above Cafe Pamplona, which she opened in 1959 and named for her native town, the Pamplona of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises."
She has long supervised the making of espresso, cappuccino, gazpacho and flan for customers' enjoyment, but to the question of what makes a good cafe, Yanguas answers instantly: "People."
An Endangered Species?
In Cambridge and Boston, cafe society travels within a limited territory, confined with few exceptions to Harvard Square and Newbury Street. Against the standard set by Paris, where one cannot trip without falling into a cafe, those here perhaps deserve protections as endangered species. The existing spots reflect the often-noted European spirit that pervades the two cities.
"Americans are not used to 'waste time,' " notes Pamplona's Yanguas, using her fingers to make airy quotation marks around the offending phrase. "But you don't waste time in a cafe . . . you talk."
And talk and talk. Sometimes a single order of espresso can last a practiced cafe society habitue an entire evening. In a good cafe, no one really minds.
Beginning about April, Boston cafes bring out tables and chairs from their winter-long hibernation. A prized spot for coffee sipping and people watching throughout the warmer months is at Cafe Pamplona's compact patio just off the Bow Street sidewalk.
Inside the cellar-based cafe, which seems to have been laid out on a postage stamp, conversation is often punctuated with a loud whoosh-cough-cough from the steamed milk nozzle on a Milanese-made espresso maker. Much gentler is the sound of a waiter tapping out coffee grounds into a copper-lined pail hung behind the counter.
No Pastels Here
To Pamplona waiter Michael Moore, what makes a good cafe is "a lack of pastels." On that point, this cafe earns a perfect score. The theme is black and white--on the linoleum floor tiles, on the white shirts, black ties and black pants the waiters wear, and, of course, the black and white of coffee and cups.
At Algiers Coffeehouse, another basement-level cafe in Harvard Square's Brattle Theater building, 40 Brattle St., the Arabic coffee must be sipped slowly.
The coffee, which is served in small tin pots known as rakweh , is hot, naturally, but more than ordinary care is necessary to prevent swallowing a cupful of grounds. Arabic coffee is traditionally brewed to a muddy consistency. One sips by straining the coffee through pursed lips. At Algiers, the rakweh pots are sweetened with hab-el-hale spice, an unusual flavoring vaguely reminiscent of anise.
An exotic atmosphere reigns at Algiers, and an exciting way to make an entrance there is through the wrought-iron doors at an alley between the Brattle Theater and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.
For loners in cafe society, Algiers is especially inviting. It is the only cafe here with a counter and stools. Otherwise, the room is full of nooks and crannies, lending a degree of intrigue to the goings-on.
"An authentic coffeehouse is an Arab coffeehouse," Algiers owner Emil Durzi boasts. He notes that even the word coffee has Arab roots.
In Boston, the newest stop on the cafe society trail is a reverent bow to the world's cafe capital. Cafe de Paris, at 19 Arlington St. beside the Arlington Street Church and overlooking the Public Garden, has an authentic French accent. The father-and-son proprietors, Gilbert and Oliver Bony, are native Parisians who moved to Boston 12 years ago.
Working with French designers and using French-made materials, the Bonys have created an atmosphere as much Paris as freshly baked baguettes. Indeed, the Bonys come from a long line of French bakers.
Son Oliver, who studied the baking trade in Paris, prepares the croissants and tartes that complement coffees and cappuccinos. A special kind of approval has greeted the Paris, which opened in mid-December last year.
"Very often I can hear people speaking French," says Gilbert Bony. "Also, they start now to come to buy their bread for the evening. They leave with baguettes under their arms."
Cafe de Paris' front window faces the Public Garden and is framed with translucent curtains. Mirrors line the walls, and booths are tastefully upholstered. On the sidewalk two enormous brass lamps with opaque white globes light the scene at dusk, just as the originals do at Cafe Lutece on Boulevard Raspail.