In search of the perfect coffeeshop.


Over the summer I was teaching creative writing at the Scottish Universities International Summer School. All our lovely students were from overseas and most of them had never been to Edinburgh before. The festival was in full swing, they were all finding the course extremely intensive (’cause it really, really is — but in a fun way!), and scrabbling around for a free hour or two each day to write. And they were all asking me the same question: which Edinburgh coffee shops are the best for writing in?
Weirdly, this all coincided with my procurement of a copy of David Mamet’s Make-Believe Town — a collection of essays on everything from what David Mamet thinks of screenwriting to what David Mamet did during the 1995 deer hunting season. Now, (< — classic Mamet start to a sentence right there) I love David Mamet a whole load. Although I have yet to see or even read one of his plays, his non-fiction is just so up my street. And there is one essay in this particular collection that not only spookily amplified my students’ questions… it also made me snort-laugh, and in places, nod furiously.

The essay is called “The Diner”, and in it, Mamet asserts:

“Writing, in my experience, consists of long periods of hanging out, punctuated by the fugue of remorse at the loss of one’s powers and wonder at occasional output in spite of that loss.”

This is my personal writing process in a nutshell, and so I was extremely excited when Mamet not only endorsed the behaviour I shall henceforth refer to as “hanging out” (rather than “dicking around” or “procrastinating”, which were the terms I used to use) — he actually suggests that it is a necessary and perhaps even vital part of being a writer. “We’ve got to write, and to read, and to do so, we get out of the house and get into the coffeeshop. [...] We, readers and writers, must hang out.”

And it has to be the coffeeshop. After all,

“Where else would one go? The Lounge seems to have degenerated into the Sports Bar, that is, a spot one can go to watch television. That is not hanging out; no: we cannot say it. [...] That frantic and forced consumerism of the Sports Bar will not do; neither what has become the muddled and tense obsequiousness of that proclaiming itself the Restaurant. No.”

It has to be the coffeeshop. The coffeeshop, as Mamet points out (and this is one of the parts where I furiously nodded), is more than just an establishment that sells hot, usually-brown-coloured beverages. It is a refuge for those of us who are stupid enough to have decided to dedicate our lives to the creative arts, and who therefore have little money and not much of a plan and who need a safe place to go, where we won’t be judged by normal people or told to get a real job.

“In larger towns we’ve seen the budding writer at his or her table, frowning into a notebook; and in the cities themselves, the actor and actress with their flimsy scripts — outsiders all, at home in the diner, coffeeshop, cafe.”

Having read this essay (three times, enthralled, as I almost always am by Mamet’s ramblings), I started trying to think about coffeeshops of my acquaintance that particularly lend themselves to hanging out, especially writing. I was spectacularly failing to help my students with their questions, telling them that during the Festival most of the city centre coffeeshops are out — too busy and noisy — and that they should wander Stockbridge, Bruntsfield, Morningside, Leith, and find their own preferred spots. I realised that Mamet gives numerous examples of coffeeshops across America that he thinks make perfect “hang outs” (in fact, one very sweet and only-ever-so-slightly creepy blogger made a pilgrimage to one of them)… but he gives very little information on what, exactly, might make a certain coffeeshop more conducive to hanging out than others in the same town. He mentions only that they are places “of reading, writing, gossip, mutual observation”, and that ideally, there should be a “beautiful plastic covered menu,” made all the more beautiful if it includes “that most liberal phrase, ‘Breakfast Served All Day’.” To be honest, that doesn’t give me much to go on. But I think, from the general gist of the essay, that the ideal writing coffeeshop hang-out should provide the following things:

– an atmosphere that somehow wordlessly conveys to you that once you have bought your one cup of coffee, you can sit and read/write there for as long as you like without disturbance/expectation of further purchases
– music that is not going to bug you… but probably not no music at all, as that’s a bit weird
– an unspoken hostility towards yummy mummies and their unsupervised buggy-mewling brats (so pretty much any Costa is immediately ruled out)
– long-serving staff who know your “usual”, and who aren’t hipsters
– a conspicuous absence of wifi or wall-sockets (Mamet does assert, “can we take our computers there? Thankfully not.”)
– a total ban on TV of any kind
– people-watching opportunities

(Personally I’d also add: tables that are the correct darned height for a seated human adult; soya milk at no extra charge; juice, not smoothies; properly late opening hours; dim lighting, and booths. Oh my goodness, booths. But yaknow, that’s just me.)

Based on these criteria, I had a sudden, terrible realisation. There are so few proper, decent hang-out spots in Edinburgh that I am actually a bit embarrassed on Edinburgh’s behalf.

There are a few contenders. Word of Mouth, just off Leith Walk, is pretty fabulous, though small. They’d make my list. The Cameo Bar might, too, but it depends on the time, the day and whether or not a big movie is opening. The new Forest Cafe on Tollcross Junction ticks the box for their one-cup-of-tea-and-you-can-stay-all-day vibe… that’s rare these days, so props, Forest. Unfortunately, they do lose out on the music front. Sometimes it’s super-chilled, one-man-and-his-uke stuff, which is perfect… then other times it’s an actual member of staff actually banging his actual fists on an actual piano two feet from your actual head while you’re trying to write. Just no.
Then there’s Black Medicine. There are three in Edinburgh. The biggest, on Nicolson Street, instantly loses out because of its pot-luck weird-ass music, and its UBERHIPSTER counter staff (anyone else remember the days of Kyle and Kyle? I had such a crush on the dreadlocked Kyle. It was WAY more of a hang-out in those days). The Marchmont one has been found by the yummy mummies and the laptop wankers. The newest one, Tollcross, is definitely the most promising (one of the veteran BM staff still works there! Hello, twin mohawk guy!) and may actually make my hang-out list. Soya milk’s extra, though. Boo!
Where else? City Cafe on Blair Street is technically a bar, but they have booths and dim lighting and candles and some of the staff are hot, friendly chubby tattooed girls. Unfortunately, there are TVs. Schoolboy error, City Cafe. Remember before you decided to go for a revamp and become a pseudo fifties diner? YOU WERE WAY MORE AWESOME THEN. (Also, since when did fifties diners have huge-ass TVs almost always showing the BBC News 24 channel? Illogical, Captain.)
And then I kind of run out of options. Cafe Class, also on Tollcross Junction, is cool, but you feel like you have to order more stuff if you sit there a long time. At Kilimanjaro on South Clerk Street once, one of the waiters actually demanded that my friend and I order more drinks after less than an hour, so screw you, Kilimanjaro. Favorit used to be freaking amazing (open til 3am on weekends!), but then it changed hands and now seems to be trying to imitate a Caffe Nero. And the Filmhouse Cafe-Bar is cool, but EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK there are TV screens showing mesmerising trailers for artsy movies, meaning concentration on what you’re doing (reading, writing, conversing, eating their delicious chickpea curry) is pretty darned tricky. And… that’s it. Only two (maybe three. Maybe) real proper definite hang-outs in the whole of Edinburgh.

Given that David Mamet has informed me that hanging out is, in fact, a legitimate — nay, important — activity for the budding writer, it is now really rather important that I find suitable venues in which to partake of it. Therefore, I want to hear about your hang-out spot. I don’t mind where you live — I might be coming to your town someday, and this is vital information I will need to know. I already know of one or two good international hang-out spots… the Bean Around The World in Victoria, BC, for example, might well be the best hang-out in all of Canada. But I am hungry for more! Particularly if you know of hang-outs in Glasgow, London, Portland OR, Barcelona, Krakow, San Francisco, Oslo or Vancouver (these are all places I either really love and want to go back to or am visiting sometime soon). You can also totally please yes do tell me what characteristics your ultimate writing hang-out needs to have. As Edinburgh is so surprisingly poor on the hang-out front, I may need to start my own coffeeshop just to meet demand…

Get thee to the comments box!


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6 Responses to “In search of the perfect coffeeshop.”

  1. Russell Jones Says:

    99% of the time I write at home because I need silence, but I think The Waverley Bar (St Mary’s Street) would be a good place to write in the evening because it’s usually pretty quiet, dimly lit and quite atmospheric with its olde posters and furnishings

  2. FWM Says:

    Hmm, in Baltimore there’s the Bohemian Cafe, which gets my votes for ambiance and stay-there-all-day. Good waffles too, but the coffee’s a little pricy.

    I have yet to find an ideal coffee shop in my hometown of Milwaukee, but if anyone happens to be visiting there, try Rochambo or Anodyne. The upstairs of Rochambo is great (the building apparently used to be a firehouse) and you can get lots of kinds of loose teas. Just avoid the guy there mixing music on his laptop.

  3. Chris Says:

    We’ve been on the search for the Perfect cafe for a while. Most places do suffer from either yummymummyitis, lack of sockets, lack of wifi, lack of space or lack of opening hours.

    Tea Tree Tea was pretty much the one but then it bloody closed. The Roxy was a good option because, while a bar, it fitted most of the requirements and was open very very late. So of course it closed. The old Forest wasn’t really suited to Working and I’m totally with you on avoiding the first two BMs!

    This might be useful:

    Pulp Fiction was a contender but is a weirdo magnet so sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done.
    Lovecrumbs is always too steamy and full of some odd hipster/hippie crossbreed.
    Looking Glass Books is not bad, depending on the time of day, and is at least close to the Uni.
    Freeman’s is across from the Marchmont BM and while often too full of yah students isn’t bad; serious shortage of sockets though.
    The Institute ( ) on Roseneath Street is pretty good for coffee and cafe and internet and sockets although at the moment you need to sit under a lot of naked photographs…

  4. Claire Says:

    Thanks for your comments, folks! Chris — I had totally forgotten about Tea Tree Tea. It was awesome, and very close to my house. I think it was probably killed by being so near to a Starbucks, sadly :(

    Aaand I will check out your recommendations — those that I haven’t already tried. Pulp Fiction is all too often either way too quiet (like, creepy quiet) or too loud, but I may persevere. Funny what you say about Lovecrumbs, as Kat McMahon just gave them a glowing review on my Fb! Have never been, so may try them out to see who I agree with! The others I’ve never been to (although I keep meaning to go into the shiny new Looking Glass Books), but will recify this asap. Thanks! :)

  5. Alison Summers Says:

    I like the Starbucks in Stockbridge or Costa Cafe in same place. Cafe Nero is a bit noisy.

  6. Ever Says:

    I’m completely in love with Looking Glass Books. Lovely surroundings, good atmosphere, friendly staff and owner. I can sit there and write, edit, and read for hours. And their chai tea is delicious.
    I was just going to go check out Love Crumbs today…