When I was a kid, the cars changed every fall, but the restaurants were on a longer cycle. Lately, it's the other way around. All the Szechuan restaurants turned into Thai restaurants, and then all the French restaurants went Italian. Now every Tom, Dick, and Giuseppe is switching to the espresso-bar format.
Next on the cutting edge is coffee and the Internet. The combination makes a lot of sense. After all, a coffeehouse is a meeting place, and so is an electronic bulletin board. Coffee fires up your nervous system, and computer networks are like a fired-up nervous system. You can be "wired" by using either. Or both.
Both are very much on the table at London's modish Cyberia cafÃ‰, where you can sign up for Internet lessons or just rent access on the latest Pentium computers. Tables at the window feature Mosaic, the red-hot graphical Internet browser. Cyberia will expand to Australia this year and plans to franchise the computer setup to other coffeehouses, the way video games are placed in bars.
In Boston, where I review restaurants, there is a considerable menu, if only one computer, at the Wire House, at the edge of the Theater District. The best food is in the morning, when coffee and selected pastries make it an ideal spot from which to watch the tourists and catch up on your E-mail. By lunchtime, the catered-in food often has that bland "virtual" taste -- boiled-tasting pastrami and pasty pasta salads that taste as if a computer made them and other computers should eat them. But there is a first-class magazine rack, CNN on the overhead monitors, and old London tabloids in the rest rooms. You certainly have a feeling of being in a "media cafÃ‰."
More in the style is the CafÃ‰ Liberty, in Cambridge's world-beat Central Square. This is a basement done up in imitations of aboriginal cave art by a young staff with a real sense of postmodern style and its paradoxes. The computers are Power Macs, with all the latest programs, and almost every table has connections to a high-speed phone line. The food began simply, with just muffins and espresso, but both were superb. The servers are into the technology of espresso as much as the technology of computers, and they warn you if the espresso machine is making the coffee "too long" (weak) today.
In many ways, computer coffeehouses are a revival of energies that gathered in the European and American coffeehouses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Restoration England, for example, coffeehouses were gathering places for an emerging class of information entrepreneurs, including the first newspaper publishers. Station counted less than wit as poets, merchants, and artisans exchanged views.
The London coffeehouses had many Internet-like functions. Patrons paid a penny cover charge to read newspapers stocked by the host, and people used the coffeehouses to collect messages. Several enterprises ran a penny post system that was a precursor to the Victorian postal service. Lloyd's coffeehouse was a hangout for investors and for folks exchanging shipping news; from it evolved the Lloyds of London insurance syndicate. And a coffee club of Oxford scientists became the Royal Society. (Remember that our Internet began as the off-topic chatter of government-funded scientists.)
Later, specific tables were devoted to specific topics. Samuel Pepys liked a political table called the Rota Club, whose members discussed rotating the members of Parliament after a limited term of office. Coffeehouses served as marriage bureaus and began settling disputes by secret ballot. It was all as contemporary as Rush Limbaugh's meeting his current wife on CompuServe and the Clinton White House's unveiling its own page on the World Wide Web.
The London coffeehouses had game rooms and so, essentially, do modern on-line services. So it is entirely in the tradition when someone drops into a cyber-coffee shop today and spends a lunch hour shooting down P-38s in a game of "Air Warrior."
The leading Parisian revolutionaries, too, worked from cafÃ‰s, and some historians trace the storming of the Bastille to a coffee- house flame war. The Boston Tea Party almost certainly was planned at a coffeehouse-tavern called the Green Dragon.
If you don't believe me, just check out alt.coffee or alt.drugs.caffeine. -- by Robert Nadeau
Robert Nadeau (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the restaurant critic for the Boston Phoenix.