WHEN Phil Stubbs, someone I know here in Sydney’s coastal Eastern Suburbs asked on Facebook whether anyone knows of a quiet cafe with good coffee, wifi, gentle music and “maybe even simple, healthy food”, he was asking for a place to write, work, think and “come up with big ideas”. He was also asking for something is such short supply in this city that he suggested ” …one day someone will invent a quiet cafe”.

Phil is a community-oriented person who has been involved in local placemaking projects, and I sympathise with his wishes in cafes for I too value some of the qualities he wants.

Let’s thing about volume and quiet cafes. Quiet cafes are a near-extinct species. I first noticed how rowdy cafes could be when I became aware of the high level of noise in a little corner cafe I frequented in Manly, the beachside suburb at the southern end of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Their coffee was good as was the cafe’s situation on the corner there on the edge of Manly’s business district. What finally discouraged me from going there was the incredible racket inside the place.

I wasn’t aware of that when I first started enjoying a coffee there. Maybe I came at less-busy times. Although I had become habituated to the noise of the city I remember sitting there one day and having it dawn on me that this really was a noisy environment. I remember what it was that brought that home to me. It was loud banging as the cook moved pots and pans around in the kitchen. It was the sound of food preparation.

Like so many modern cafes this one had solid walls that were really good at reflecting noise. The conversational noise of the morning’s coffee drinkers bouncing around might have been tolerable. What was less tolerable was that racket coming from the kitchen — loud clangs, bangs, scrapings, shuffling, droppings and assorted other grating and machinery sounds. Like so many modern cafes, this place had an open kitchen, one open to the counter and, thus, the cafe’s pubic area. Let me say that the Manly cafe was far from alone in the level and source of its noise.

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Sound meter reading in a Sydney cafe measured in decibels.

The problem with cafes like this is that as more people come in they add to the existing hum of conversation, the racket coming from the kitchen, the hissing of the coffee machine, the background music and the discordant and intrusive banging of the barista bashing the coffee receptacle to empty it of used coffee grounds. Forced to speak louder simply to be heard by others at the table, the ambient noise increases until hearing becomes difficult. The idea of having a quiet cup of coffee and watching the world go by disappears in the cacophony.

There’s another contributor to cafe noise too. I hadn’t paid it much notice though I was certainly aware of it, until Rosemary, a friend, brought it to my attention as we went down the road for a coffee. “I don’t go to cafes very often”, she told me, “because you have to listed to music you would rather not hear”.

Cafe music is the modern hospitality industry’s Muzak. My local cafe is staffed by a Japanese woman and some Japanese girls, all classical music enthusiasts as you might guess by the piano against one wall. You do get background music there but it is classical music played softly. Quite tolerable and not intrusive of conversation with friends. Not so many other cafes where the background music seems to be chosen for the benefit of the staff rather than customers or to create a desired ambiance for the place, an ambiance that might be inviting enough to encourage people to stay for that second cup. Sometimes the music is simply too loud and that’s not an encouragement to stay or to return. Has anyone experimented with a music-free cafe?

A form of visual Musak that seems to be less frequent in cafes now are the big TV screens that were popular some years ago. There is only one Sydney cafe among those I frequent that retains its visually-distracting screen with its text scrolling across the bottom or some singer silently singing, and that’s the one on the lower level of Town Hall Square. I was disappointed when, at the time I was living in Manly, my favourite pasta restaurant installed one of these things. I could see how the colour and movement on the screen would distract diners from their conversations. A big negative, those screens, and I’m happy to see them disappear to return restaurants and cafes to the people-centric places they traditionally are.

Phil, the guy I mentioned at the start, seeks a cafe with “little talking”. I think he won’t find one as one of the reasons people go to cafes is to socialise. Meeting with friends implies noise, so the murmur of voices is an inherent property of cafes. This social aspect of cafes was described by Australian social scientist Hugh Mackey who said that cafes are for socialising as well as for solitude, for being alone-among-many.

Phil sought a cafe that was like a library — quiet. I appreciate what he is saying, however I find libraries to be institutionalised places with a matching ambiance. Sure, you can read or use your mobile device to write and use the library’s wifi. They’re a good institution but I think they are due for a little organisational reconfiguration, without destroying their core values. I think this might be happening in some places. I’m not keen on a cafe with enforced silence.

On wifi, Phil wants that in his searched-for cafe too. People working on computers and mobile devices in cafes can become establishing presences, according to Brisbane-based placemaking consultant, David Engwicht. David says that the sight of people working at their devices, or simply the presence of people in a cafe, suggests to passersby that the cafe is a good one as it is populated. Cafes today are ephemeral workplaces. Just be sure to encrypt your transmissions as the security of public wifi is variable.

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Another sound meter reading in a Sydney cafe.

Phil wants “great coffee” in his ideal cafe. So do I. It’s true — you do sometimes find it but in most cafes the coffee is average (that’s a mathematical proposition, of course). Which is to say it is good, not exceptional although but not bad either. What it can come down to is finding a cafe that serves coffee you like. Kertush, a cafe within walking distance at The Spot in Randwick, not far from where I live, served a strong, nutty but bitter coffee that I didn’t like at first. Maybe they changed the brew or maybe I’ve become used to it because it doesn’t taste so bitter now. Shorty’s is nearby and its coffee is of the ‘average good’ variety. What draws me back there is the free wifi for when I feel like working out of the house, the good food, friendly staff, background music kept to background level and their leaving you to sit and work in the outdoor area as long as you like.

I’ve found a few cafes that approach Phil’s demands. One, now closed I think, I visited when I lived in Manly. It was opposite the park and was a long, narrow place with bookshelves along one wall and artwork along the other. Magazines were haphazard on the tables. I would see people reading something that had attracted them on the shelves, steaming coffee beside them. Coffee: average. Service: unobtrusive, good.

Another place in Sydney is the cafe on the mezzanine level of Dymock’s bookshop. Dymock’s is a long-established bookshop and their cafe has that ambience too. You look down on the browsers and buyers below yet up there on the gallery you feel separated from the hubbub of the sales floor. There is no background music at all, the staff, mainly young women, are courteous and pleasant, the prices average, the coffee good, the ambiance relaxed. It’s a pleasant environment and a bit of a refuge where you can sit and think or just sit and blob out.

Bookshops started installing coffee spaces back in the nineties, I think it was, and it has been a good move for, there, it is often quieter than those rowdy cafes with their hard, sound-reflective walls, noisy kitchens and raucous and inappropriate background music. There’s something about bookshops that invoke quietness, even in their cafes.

Dymock’s gallery level cafe reminds me of the coffee shop corner at Avid Reader in Brisbane’s West End, Mary Ryan’s bookstore in Red Hill, Brisbane (unsure if it is still there) and Sapho’s in Glebe in Sydney. In Sydney, too, there is a cafe in Kinukuyina bookshop in the city. It’s okay though the scale of the surrounding bookshop and the openness of the cafe make it less intimate than others I mention. Perhaps I should also mention Afterwords cafe in Fullars Bookshiop in Hobart. Nothing outstanding, Just pleasant.

In one way I think Phil’s search for the ideal cafe is doomed, yet the existence of some that approximate what he is looking for gives grounds for hope. Meantime, some days I’m to be found typing away at Shorty’s or sitting people-watching up there on the mezzanine level at Dymocks.

So… what about you? Do you like your cafes brash and loud or relaxing and quiet? And, which and where are they? Let’s know.

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