Like the tango, born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires, shaped by the blend of local rhythm and the emigrant’s song, several great literary movements have begun in unlikely places. In a king’s court, a lonely cottage by a lake, in muddy trenches, the rational confines of a scientist’s laboratory, and sometimes, in a little-known coffee house.
We have Turkey to thank for this gem of an idea; the first reported public place serving the beverage was opened in Constantinople in 1475, and due to war and trade, the concept spread through Europe, finally reaching America in 1790; 180 years later they gave the world Starbucks.
Like any other metro, Delhi does not suffer from a dearth of coffee ‘shops’; every five-star hotel has a 24-hour one, Baristas and Café Coffee Days continually spring up in malls, petrol stations and colony markets. A coffee ‘house’, however, is increasingly difficult to find. The definition of the latter is simple—like the great writers and philosophers who nursed a strong cappuccino within their walls, or on tables bathed in sunlight, a coffee house must have individuality.
It should not play loud music, ideally the only sound is of the espresso machine, the clinking of stirring teaspoons and cups placed on their saucers, the murmur of conversation, the flipping of pages, the rasp of pen on paper. It should be a place that allows you to think, whether alone—mulling over a steaming mug, with a book or laptop by your side—or in company, where it would initiate an exchange of ideas, whether a discussion on Calvinism or narrating how terrible your day had been. Comfortable chairs, a smoking section, a couple of interesting paintings on the walls and, needless to say, the perfect cup of coffee completes the picture. This is what every retail chain in Delhi, coffee or otherwise, lacks.
But all is not lost for the Capital city. Here you can still find some places where elements of a bygone coffee house culture weave their way in.
Although more dining place than authentic coffee house, Triveni Tea Terrace, tucked away amidst four art galleries at Triveni Kala Sangam, offers peaceful, outdoor seating, perfect for lounging on a Delhi winter afternoon. Your coffee, or you can even opt for sweet, milky chai, accompanies old-world vegetable pulao and stuffed aloo parathas.
The Big Chill is another example of a restaurant that serves a wonderful frothy latté, a mean double espresso and a cappuccino that can be infused with Irish cream, caramel or hazelnut for the more adventurous. Its walls, lined with colourful movie posters—the classic, cult and obscure—make for quirky interiors and useful conversation starters.
The more recently opened Market Café, behind the posh shops of Khan Market, is surprisingly devoid of crowds and noise. Despite the slightly confused décor (bamboo, terracotta and steel), it is a quiet place to catch up with a friend or with your reading over a very good cappuccino.
One of my favourites, however, is Café Turtle at GK 1, N-Block Market, above the fairly well-stocked bookshop, Full Circle. True to its name, life does slow down to a comfortable, lazy pace whether sitting at the tables or on the leafy terrace, lit by pretty fairy lights. It is a clean, well-lit place, one I’m sure Hemingway would approve of, a temporary retreat we all need to protect ourselves from the hurrying rush of modernity outside.
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