In pursuit of the perfect coffee shop, with a little chat on the side

Jennifer O’Connell: ‘The best coffee shops require something all the Starbucks community noticeboards in the world can’t emulate: an actual community’

‘I have never believed those who claim they don’t go to coffee shops to eavesdrop.’ Photograph: Getty

‘I have never believed those who claim they don’t go to coffee shops to eavesdrop.’ Photograph: Getty

 

A good coffee shop requires only good coffee. A great coffee shop requires two things: good coffee and good eavesdropping.

I have never believed those who claim they don’t go to coffee shops to eavesdrop. I don’t even believe the people drinking their coffee with headphones on. I’m convinced they’re merely a decoy for better eavesdropping.

I don’t believe you, sir: even as you get up from your seat and turn to glare at me, before you pointedly set your coffee down on a table on the other side of the room. If you’d just waited, I was getting somewhere with my point about sex and artificial intelligence and the current trend for clown pants.

Much of my adult life has been consumed with the search for the perfect coffee shop. When I lived in Sydney, there were good coffee shops everywhere, but only a few great ones. My favourite was a place called Bloom in Mosman.

Mosman is like Sydney on steroids: the houses are pricier, the ponytails glossier, the picket fences whiter. Bloom, in turn, is Mosman on steroids. Everything in there has an air of faint superiority, from the reclaimed wood surfaces, to the photogenic staff, to the sugar-free carrot cake. But the earwigging is excellent. “I found out he was sleeping with the nanny when I caught them together . . . on the nanny cam,” I heard a woman hiss to her friend one day. (She got rid of the husband but kept the nanny, if you’re wondering.)

Californian struggle

California, the next place I called home, was a struggle on the coffee shop front – thank you, Howard Schultz. I settled on a peeling paint, cracked leather kind of place called the Big Basin Café, whose charms included mediocre coffee and an ambient temperature approximating Death Valley on a summer’s day. Still, it wasn’t Starbucks and, for that, I appreciated it. Unfortunately, so too did a group of the town’s Trump supporters.

“I’m telling you, she’s lying. Those emails were classified!” one would yell from their spot in the only bit of available shade.

“You have haemorrhoids?” another would bellow back. There’s one thing worse than Trump supporters, and that’s hard-of-hearing Trump supporters. I gave up and moved to Starbucks.

When we moved home last summer, I was briefly worried for the future of my pursuit of the perfect coffee shop

When we moved home last summer, I was briefly worried for the future of my pursuit of the perfect coffee shop. My memory of the coffees of my teenage years was of a weak beige liquid requiring heaps of chantilly cream to help choke it down.

Then I found Patrick’s place.

Part of the conversation

Patrick’s has great coffee, but that’s not the best thing about it. Nor is the hearty soup or the excellent bread, or Patrick’s stories, which are first class. In a surprise upset to my theory about great coffee shops, there’s no eavesdropping at all in Patrick’s because, as soon as you walk through the door, you’re part of the conversation.

Great coffee shops require good coffee and good eavesdropping, but it turns out that the best coffee shops require something all the Starbucks community noticeboards in the world can’t emulate: an actual community.

In Patrick’s, there’s the older gentleman who lives on a houseboat on the river. There’s the artist who welcomed me to the family. There’s the French restaurateur, the legal eagles, the intercounty hurlers, the musicians, the tech entrepreneurs, the theatre types. There are the regular meetings held by the local branch of the communist party. There are the American tourists, relieved to have finally discovered the promised Ireland of slagging and soda bread. There’s Patrick himself, whose theory is that he is providing a third space between the office and the home, and who makes sure that everybody is properly introduced.

Of course it was at Patrick’s that I met Mary. She glided along the street in an elegant camel twin set, matching beret and dangly diamond earrings. Way back when, she was an Irish teacher. These days, she’s a dancer. She learned to tango in Buenos Aires, and has been known to throw a tiny leg up on the shelf alongside the sourdoughs to prove the point.

Bus strike

Mary was greatly annoyed by the bus strike because it meant she missed out on a dancing competition in Cork, and the medal she had her eye on. She might be in her 90s – I only say ‘might’ because, as she chided, it is not polite to ask – but she isn’t about to let that hold her back. Her dancing partner and beloved husband has been dead for 29 years, she said with glistening eyes. “But I’m still dancing.”

Mary isn’t one for sitting back, waiting for life to come and pull her to her feet. I doubt she does much eavesdropping. She’s too busy taking part. We could all learn from her. Keep moving. Stay curious. Don’t save the camel twin set for a special occasion. Dance until the buses stop running.

Patrick’s isn’t called Patrick’s. But if you email me, I’ll tell you where to find it. And if you happen to make it there, ask him about the time Michael Jackson tried to buy his family home.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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