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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Sip of Past Times


It is the end of an era.

My High Street coffee shop has closed for good. Gone, finished, kaput. Never to return.
RIP, Louis Hungarian.

Sob.

This isn’t the first mom-and-pop joint to close down around here. In fact, of late, the lot of them have been falling like bricks with disheartening frequency. Every time I take a walk (which, by the way, is every day, and sometimes several times a day), it seems like there’s another boarded up shop with a sad little sign that says “We are closing down and we thank you for your patronage.” Or words to that nature.

It’s terrible to say the least.
Because these small, charming, local, family-run places are what used to define London’s High Streets not that long ago. You walked into a quaint little space where you were promptly greeted with a smile (a genuine one), and while there were no big banners and labels and you actually had to look around for what you wanted (but that’s part of the joy of shopping, no?), someone was always around to help you find it. Or answer questions. Or exchange pleasantries.

That elusive human touch. Fast vanishing.

These were the places, where you’d often see, way at the back of the store, a grandfatherly person, hunched down, still working away at something or the other as industriously as he did when he was behind the till instead of his grandson (or great grandson!) He’d look up at you and tip his hat proudly. It would be like stepping back in time. 

So, when I see these places closing down, one by one, I feel terrible. And what makes it all even more morose is the fact that their space is always re-occupied by large, impersonal, chain stores with their flashy lights and identical decor and clone-like uniformed salespeople with plastic smiles. All boring and dull. Indistinguishably so. But with more rent money than their delightful predecessors. And so, sadly, my High Street pharmacy has become a Superdrug, my High Street bookstore has become a Waterstones, and now my beloved High Street coffee shop has become – horror of all horrors – a Costa.

Sob.

Louis Hungarian Cafe was run by a father and two-daughter team who knew their clients so well that you only had to walk through the door and the preparations for your “usual” were already underway. If they knew your name, they’d greet you by name, and if they didn’t, they’d made sure they did if you ever came back. Consider this, for instance: The old man once said to me “How nice to see you Ami, your smiling face brightens up my day!”
I mean, really.
Who says things like that anymore?

So, call it clichéd, but if there was ever such a thing as, ‘service with a smile’ they knew how to do it.

And here’s the clincher – not only was the service friendly and personal, the coffee and cakes were excellent; every cup freshly brewed and piping hot, every pastry a scrumptious little homemade treat, crisp and flaky and just how it should be. The inside was bright and cheerful with  comfortable upholstered couches, side tables with curvy, carved legs, pictures on the walls, Hungarian rugs...(and if I’m making it all sound far nicer than the humble furnishings at my own flat – it’s because it was!)

And if that is not enough, get this: How rare is it to hear live music nowadays? Anywhere? Without paying a small fortune, that is? But this little coffee place had it. Every now and then, there'd be a lovely gentleman on his keyboard – an uncle? A brother? A nephew? A willing friend? Who knows? But I’m telling you, it was brilliant! There is no treat quite like a real piano performance accompanied by a steaming cup of coffee on a cold, misty London afternoon.

I’ve lost count of the many quiet hours I spent in Louis cavernous interiors with a perfectly made Joe-Joe and a book, listening to the music, watching the world go by. 

But alas!

Those days are no more and all I have are the memories.
Louis is gone. And in place of this quaint little haven of solitude, there now stands, a Costa.

Sob. Sob. And Sob again.

So just to make myself feel better and for the sake of 1) loyalty and 2) old times and 3) memories (wonderous things, those) I swear to myself that I will Never. Ever. Ever. buy a single cup of “coffee” from that Louis-usurping Costa down the street.

Never. Ever. Ever.

No more of my money (actually it’s Sid’s money, but whatever). No more of my money is going to feed the coffers of the cruel and callous Costas of the world and propagate the demise of the Louis Hungarians.

So there. Three fingers up and read between those lines.

Soooo…all that being said, please fast forward if you will to this morning…

Now, this morning, here I am, walking back from the gym, pleased that I’ve at least attempted to work off some of that irresistible Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cake that my sweet Hungarian friend Nora (no relation to Louis) ordered for her boyfriend’s birthday and insisted that we take home in large quantities. And of course, if there’s cake in the house, guess who eats it. Sigh. Temptation will be the death of me, I tell you.

Anyway, I digress.

So here I am, walking back from the gym, the cool wind blowing on my face, the rare London sun shining down on me in all its splendour, and suddenly I think to myself – hmmmm...a coffee would be nice...

And as the thought creeps into my brain, and slowly (but surely) starts to take control of my senses, the first sneaky signs of a craving begin and before you know it, I can almost taste that coffee – hot, strong, rich, oily… I can’t wait to hold that mug, both my hands around it, the warmth from it radiating lovingly into my cold fingers, while the smell of freshly ground beans waft over me. I take my first sip (in my head, I mean), and lose myself in caffeine heaven. Mmmm.

And then.
Just as my craving has graduated into a full-blown coffee invasion and all I have on my mind is “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee,” – I come face-to-face with IT.

IT is a gigantic maroon board, placed strategically on the side-walk, so I literally have to swerve to keep from walking straight into IT. Either IT is very tall or I am very short, because IT is bigger than me. And IT has – front and center, magnified to human-height, and impossible to miss – an image of? Yeah, you guessed it: An earth-shatteringly-great-looking cup of espresso loveliness!!!

For a person with coffee on their brain, you have no idea how this image messes with you: A sparkling-toothpaste-white mug filled to the brim with coffee lusciousness. All frothy and creamy. Chocolate powder sprinkled on top. They even have steam coming out of it. Little life-size smoke rings.
How on earth do they photograph these things with such perfection?
I mean, I can smell it.
So, of course, now I’ve got to have it.

Except for a small snag.

The owner of IT – the gigantic maroon board (and the picture) (and for that matter, the coffee) is none other than Costa.
Ha.
Life is a bi$$h.

And as I stand there debating what to do, I hear the shrill, metallic, voice of Mr. Costa. In my imagination, he looks 007’s Jaws.

“Mess with her. Suck her in. We’ve GOT HER!” he screams through metal-mantled teeth.

Ahhh. See my dilemma? Give in or get out? This is a problem. A major problem. Because you see, with food (or drink) (especially drink), I always give in. Always.  But this? This is a question of Principle.

And so – most reluctantly, and mostly for the sake of Louis Hungarian (May you Rest in Peace) – I make my decision:

Mr. Jaws Costa  - You shall not: Mess with me. Suck me in. GET ME.

Never. Ever. Ever. Remember?

I’m going home.  To make my very own boutique style coffee experience. With (sob) Illy.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have live music, and I don’t have velvet couches and I don’t have Dobosh Torte.

And it’s not Louis.

But at least it’s coffee.

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