Posted tagged ‘Bewleys’

Wake up and smell the coffee!

February 4, 2011

I suspect it is very similar in most other cities familiar to readers of this blog, but the face of Dublin is changing as a result of the recession. We have already mentioned bookshops closing, but in fact you can walk along any major shopping street in Dublin and see the casualties. Shops have disappeared, restaurants have closed. But there seems to me to be one exception to this experience: coffee shops.

When I was a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, there was really only one coffee shop (or actually, it was a small chain), and that was Bewleys. This was a company with Quaker origins, and it ran five or six outlets, each called ‘Bewleys Oriental Cafés’. I was never quite sure what the ‘oriental’ bit was referring to, but actually if you went into them at the time you tended to walk through a dark panelled entrance hall, and to me there was always a whiff there of something exotically Victorian, as if one of the doors leading out of the hall might open into an opium den. They didn’t, or at least I don’t think so, but these cafés were big on atmosphere. I’m not sure what we’d make of the milky coffee and sticky buns now, but they kind of went with the image.

Bewleys is still there (or at least it’s there on Grafton Street), but not at all what it used to be. And all over Dublin the café culture has shifted from Victorian London to modern day Seattle, with Starbucks now on almost every corner, and local lookalikes spreading out in between. And the recession does not appear to have damaged them: they are still there in numbers, and when I go inside they all seem to be full.

I confess I like Bewleys as a nostalgia trip in my memory, I don’t need the old version to return. And I find that the modern US-style coffee shops do something for me, from the smell of the coffee to the hint of business-meeting-alternative-culture of the clientele. I rather like taking out my iPad and writing something on the spot (probably 50 or so blog posts have originated there). I like watching the world from there. I like eavesdropping. There is something social about coffee shops, and as we have lost so much recently, let us not lose these.

Cafe culture

October 23, 2008

When my family first moved to Ireland in 1961, Mullingar (where we moved to) did not boast too many cafés or coffee shops. I was really too young at the time to take much notice of this, but as far as I can recall there was only one coffee shop, called Shaw Murrays (although the Greville Arms Hotel did also serve coffee, on special request). Shaw Murrays had coffee, but it was instant coffee made with hot milk, a particular way of preparing it I never warmed to.

Dublin had Bewleys Oriental Cafés, and you could get a good cup of coffee in the Hibernian Hotel, or the Shelbourne, or (best of all) the Hotel Russell. But in truth it was not just that there were very few places where you could get a cup of coffee, there were even fewer where that cup of coffee came in the kind of social setting that might have marked out, say, one of the Vienna coffee houses.

Even when I worked in Dublin in the 1980s, there was really still only Bewleys, and perhaps the Kylemore Cafés. And while Bewleys was a really important institution, and almost every Dubliner will remember the smell of freshly roasted coffee if you passed by it, it could not possibly satisfy the entire cultural needs of a major city.

Now Dublin is a city where you can find a coffee shop around every corner. Bewleys is still there on Grafton Street, though not quite the same as in the old days; but in addition there are several international varieties, such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, and a whole host of local coffee shops, such as West Coast Coffee and Insomnia. Dublin has finally embraced the global coffee culture, and while there are many things I would like to see changed in Dublin, I love it that I have so many coffee choices now. It makes this city a civilised place.

For all that, I miss Bewleys as it was: a place where you could find a good cup of coffee, sticky buns and several varieties of local eccentrics.  Not every café in Dublin needs to be of the Italian variety, defined by cappuccino and latte.


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