One more cup of coffee

Caf life began in London, not Paris. Now, reports Charlotte Packer, it's here again
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The Independent Culture
cafe life is back, and so it should be. London was where it all began. The combined efforts of chains such as Aroma and Caf Nero, one- off establishments like the Monmouth Coffee House, the much hyped Cyberia and grand old lady of them all, Bar Italia, have done much to resuscitate caf society.

Add to this the increased awareness of bean variety, and we are witnessing the awakening of a national obsession. Let's face it, the smell alone is enough to make an addict, and then there is all that glorious gadgetry - far sexier than any tea-bag.

This obsession with coffee is nothing new: In 1652, some 20 years before the first Frenchman ordered a caf au lait, Pasqua Rosee opened his Coffee House in Michael's Alley, Cornhill. For the next century the coffee houses boomed.

The public loved the associated activity as much as the drink: the roasting beans and bawdy conversation. The crush made service so erratic that tipping became the norm - a box bearing the words "To Insure Promptness" sat on the counter. Much of London's history is bound to Rosee's establishment. It set a trend which changed the way business was conducted, with businessmen adopting coffee houses as unofficial meeting places.

Little did Edward Lloyd realise, as marine insurers flocked to his Tower Street shop, that his name would live on through the centuries to become the most famous shipping insurance institution in the world.

Coffee houses became such a rich source of gossip, and a powerful means of spreading information, that in 1675 Charles II tried to ban them. The public fury this provoked shocked the King into a swift U-turn. Debates were common and, in some, so furious that a means of settling them without recourse to violence was needed - enter the ballot box.

The last coffee boom was in the 1950s, when the bean bounced back from nearly a century of neglect, re-born in gleaming chrome and bright Formica. An enterprising Italian dental salesman, so horrified by the appalling coffee on offer, decided the English needed Gaggia... The Espresso bar hit town.

Its success was based on novelty, and a love affair with all things Italian, rather than a taste for coffee. Such passions are fickle, and soon real coffee was eclipsed by the convenience of the instant fix.

However a renaissance is now under way: at the forefront is a Swiss academic who, like the Italian before him, found his working life in London blighted by the lack of decent coffee.

Michael Zur-Szpiro saw the gap in the market, found a sympathetic backer and in January 1991, as the recession peaked, the first Aroma coffee bar opened its doors. The electric yellow interiors are now a familiar sight across the West End.

The philosophy, says Zur-Szpiro, is to "offer people a 15-minute holiday in the sun. The caf is the new pub, an unpretentious and unpressured plac:e to meet. Cafs are a natural part of society in Europe. Why not here?"

In another corner of London the spirit of the 17th century lives on. The Jerusalem Coffee House, just two months old, feels as if it's been here for ever. At first glance it looks like a private house. A closer inspection reveals trays of cakes and sacks of coffee. Curiosity and greed unite and you step inside to be greeted by a sleepy spaniel, a glowing fire and delicious coffee.

Julian Humphries is the owner-chef and stage manager of the whole affair. He defines the character of the place through its lack of choice. "People don't seem to like choice, it just confuses them. We had eight different types of coffee, but we quickly whittled it down to three." The customers stream in, happy in the knowledge that Mr Humphries has made all the difficult decisions.

While none of the current crop of coffee havens offer the ambience of their 17th-century counterparts, one thing is certain: the coffee is better. The choices are endless. You can specify beans, roasts, grinds, even the type of froth and temperature of the milk. So whether you like that one- cup kick in the morning or a steady jangling of nerves throughout the day, there are now plenty of places to accommodate your addiction.

Aroma: Dean St; Martins Lane; Bishopsgate; Piccadilly. Mon-Sun

Jerusalem Coffee House, 55 Britton St, EC1; 8am-6pm Mon-Fri (071-253 3490)