The Elements of a Perfect Cafe

I’ve been café sitting for a long time.

I’ve sat in some great cafés and a few mediocre ones and even in a couple of pretty decent chain cafés (yeah, I’m looking at you, Starbucks across from my apartment in Beijing, you surprising devil, you).

A good café can give birth to anything, from the Harry Potter series to the French Revolution to your next hot date. It can turn a bad day into a “geez, what was all that fuss about?” day, as you relax with your feet up – metaphorically, because few public places actually allow you to put your feet up on the tables – and a cup of coffee.

This is all to say that I’ve discovered along the way that not all cafés are created equal. First of all, good coffee is not everything. Really, truly, despite what all the coffee evangelists say. I can live with sub-par coffee if the café is great. If the place is terrible, however, no amount of heavenly angels-are-dancing-on-my-tongue coffee can make up for it.

So what are the elements of a perfect café?

There are the obvious fixtures – decent coffee, free wifi, cute barista and so on. But here’s the thing: a really great café, one that you can call home, transcends all these obvious elements to possess that one characteristic that makes you call it yours. Samuel Johnson once said, “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” To appropriate Mr. Johnson’s sentiments for my own purposes, I’d like to state that we who would find the perfect café must first carry the elements of a perfect café with us.

So you see, it’s not about the blackness of the brew or the speed of the free wifi or even, the cuteness of the baristas.

It’s the slow turning ceiling fans, the warm wood paneling lit by iron sconces, the magazines and books left behind by past patrons, the smell of coffee in the air. It’s hurrying home from the library after dark, hands full of books, and stopping for a quick espresso, thinking about the long subway ride home. It’s Saturday mornings with a latte and a three-egg omelet and the weekend stretching out deceptively in front of you.

The ones you remember, the ones you carry around inside with you, are the cafés that have embedded themselves into your personal history. That café next to your college where you first felt like a real citizen of the world, arguing after class about politics and partying. The quiet alleyway café where you wrote your first short story and thought it was brilliant even though it really wasn’t.

The bright Starbucks in your hometown where your best friend told you he was in love with you.

These are all incarnations of the perfect cafes that have existed in my life narrative so far. They highlight the journey like diamonds studded into a silver necklace, signifying all that I have ever searched for in my life.

Because wherever I go, a café is what I look for to keep me grounded and balanced and sane. I seek them out to remind me that no matter how far I go or how much I change or which city currently surrounds me, there is a café somewhere out there which will smell like coffee and feel like a warm embrace at the end of a long day.

By Lylim

Lylim is a writer, reader and generally confused twenty-something living in Beijing. She writes about social media, reading, writing and the general travails of being a human being at her blog, Flyleaf (

3 replies on “The Elements of a Perfect Cafe”

Good grief, I can’t believe it took me this long to reply to your lovely comments! @thesciencegirl and @Millie, yes, a home away from home kind of cafe is exactly what I constantly search for — that perfect intersection between being in the world and being at home! I always find it sad when a favorite cafe closes down or relocates — it’s never quite the same again.


I love this piece. I can tell that you share my enthusiasm for a perfect home-away-from-home cafe. Given that I’ve been in school for eons, and don’t like to study at home or in a library, I’ve found that a good cafe is essential to my happiness. My perfect cafe used to be my local Starbucks, and there were a couple of years when I studied there… oh… 20 hrs. per week. But it was ruined for me forever when it became over-run with bed bugs. Yeah, really. As for other chains, I’ve become a fan of Panera for marathon study sessions because the coffee refills are free and the food is good. As for local places, 2 I like in Chicago are Noble Tree and The Borgeois Pig, both in Lincoln Park. Noble Tree is awesome because it’s got 3 floors, one of which is usually quieter, and there are dozens and dozens of outlets, and the chairs at each table are cushioned and comfy. It’s also open until midnight. The Pig is great because it’s very unique and homey. And the food is SO GOOD. But I prefer to go there for casual reading or hanging with friends because the lighting is too dim, and it’s often too crowded to get the ideal study spots.

My main requirements for a perfect cafe are good coffee, good food that isn’t overpriced, clean bathroom that you don’t need a key for, free wifi, NOT COLD! (no amped up A/C in summer and tables away from the doors in the winter) plenty of outlets for my computer, just enough busyness to provide background chatter without being overwhelming, proximity to my apartment, and no loud music. Some cafes blare music as though it’s a club. Bonus points for cute baristas, cute regulars, and good people-watching. I’ve recently moved to a new neighborhood and have yet to find my new favorite cafe. I have found a perfect neighborhood diner though, which is another life essential.

Even though the ceiling fan runs quickly here, I’m lucky to have one of those perfect cafes two streets down from my apartment; I’m actually there right now. There’s something about the music, the worn chairs, and the ochre walls that just feels lovely — though the fact that the staff don’t bat an eye when I stay there all day and bash away at my work, make the best hot chocolate and a mean quesadilla, and are uniformly pleasant people certainly helps. It’s quickly become my office away from my office, and I <3 it very much.

There's a place in Interrobang City (all the Interrobangs went to university together) which was like this for us (and quite a few of our mutual friends). It was our home away from home, and regardless of whether news was good or bad, news meant cake at this place. I have books of memories from that place, and I miss it (and having all the Interrobangs, honorary or not, nearby) dearly.

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