Posted: February 13, 2013 in Travels

Cafe in Paris

Un Cafe du Paris

Parisians love their cafes. Over this past Christmas we were there. It was December. It was cold. It was damp. It was sometimes raining. And there were the Parisians sitting in their cafes. Outside. We chose the inside seats.

But the last time, some 23 years ago, it was Spring and the weather glorious. We were visiting Johnny. He’d won the “little lotto” and promptly quit his job and moved to Paris to learn French. How could we not visit? There was wine to drink and outdoor cafes to drink it in. Surprisingly, I even remember some of it.

I have always liked cafes. I like the feel of them, their ambiance, their uniqueness and, on the unfortunately all too rare occasions when it’s good, the food. Done well they are warm, friendly, welcoming places that nourish the body and soul. Being a coffee drinker helps.

Although years have passed since I’ve been there, my long time favorite is the Heartland Cafe. It’s located in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. It opened right around the time I moved to my little $145 a month studio apartment on Estes Avenue a couple of years after graduating college and finally landing my first “professional” job on Jackson Boulevard at the south edge of the city’s famous Loop. The Heartland was three blocks from my place. Right on the way to the Morse Street Station for the El train that took me to work each day.

heartland cafe 2

The Heartland

It was born with a 1970s counter-culture vibe that survived, if a bit diminished, at least until a few years ago when I was last there. In those early years it was a place of mis-matched tables and chairs, alternative newspapers, wholesome food, strong coffee and cheerful staff. I might have been the only customer to routinely show up in a suit and tie. It was my frequent on-the-way-to-work morning breakfast stop and, in my office duds, they didn’t quite know what to make of me.

I left Rogers Park in 1979 but, during the rest of the years I lived in Chicago, frequently found my way back to the Heartland . During most visits back to the city since then too. For years I’ve searched for its equal.

The cafe in Pie Town a few miles from my pal Wolfgang’s New Mexico ranch came close.

Pie Town

Pie Town back in the day

cafe Pie Town Cafe

Pie Town Cafe, more recently

But since I’ve been there, maybe five years or so back, it has come under new ownership. Seems it now serves only pie. Next time I’m in Pie Town I’ll certainly give it a try. Mmmm. Pie.

And I guess for a meal (and more pie) I’ll also wander over to the Pie-O-Neer Cafe down the road. I haven’t been there but if these guys…


Hanging at the Pie-O-Neer

..think it’s good enough for them, it’s gonna good enough for me. Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet…

cafe kathy_knapp_and_pies

Kathy Knapp, Proprietress

Looks like a gal worth knowing, I’d say.

But if you want to visit my two current favorites, you’re going to have to get yourself to Cuenca, Ecuador. Trust me. It’ll be worth the trip.

A couple of years back a young woman named Lindsey Burton packed up and left Hawaii for Cuenca by way of Texas. There on the remarkably lovely Plaza de San Sebastian she found a run-down building, signed a long-term lease and began the six-month renovation project that resulted in…

cafe san sebas

Cafe San Sebas

This is what a cafe should be and Lindsey’s efforts put hers right at the top of my short list: Great food, friendly staff (who put up with my wretched Spanish), beautiful design and decorated with local arts and crafts. San Sebas has become a meeting place for expats and Cuencanos alike. The diverse clientel is easy-going and welcoming to strangers. Never in any of my several visits has it failed but that someone would invite me to join them.

If you go be sure to seek out Lindsey, “La Gerente.”  Tell her I sent you and say “hello.” She’s easy to pick out. She’ll be the good-looking blonde.

Next, cross thru Cuenca’s “Old Town” and at Calle Larga 9-40 you’ll find my other favorite:

cafe bananas

Cafe Bananas

Bananas is owned and operated by my pal Alexsondra, a native-born Cuencana, and she’s been at it the last two years or so. This used to be the Kookaburra Cafe, but I’ve only known it in its current form. And in this form it is everything a cafe should be: Great food, warm people, comfortable surroundings. She’s even started serving dinner and the mocha chocolate cake completely sabotaged my weight loss efforts more than once. At breakfast I fancy myself a connoisseur of Huevos Rancheros. I order them almost every time I see them on a menu. Most every time I am disappointed. Not here. I’d make the trip back to Ecuador just for hers.

If you go be sure to seek out Alexsondra. Tell her I sent you and say “hello.” She’s easy to pick out. She’ll be the good-looking brunette. Mmmm. Maybe not so easy: Picking out a specific good looking brunette in Ecuador can be a challenge. But I’m sure you’ll manage.

Finally, life’s not only about where we’ve been but where we’re going. If only to prove I don’t just hang around cafes run by good-looking women, the next time I’m in England I’m going to The Filling Station Cafe:

cafe filling station

As you can see above, my fellow Triumph-riding pal Lake has made the big time; and after only a year of operation. So even if the chance to hang out with him and maybe cage a ride on one of his bikes (he also runs Lakes Escape a motorbike touring company in the Lakes District) weren’t enough, it sounds like the place and its food are officially certified: Outstanding.

It’s enough to have me looking at airfares. (Not that looking at airfares takes all that much with me.)

What you don’t see is that getting this place up and running was no easy task. The local bureaucracy mounted constant hurdles and, as you can read in the announcement above, those were only part of it. But Lake persevered. Now the complainypants have an award winning cafe in their midst. Lucky sods. I can’t wait to get there!

OK. Those are a few of mine. Tell me in the comments: What are some of yours?

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  1. They all look wonderful, but I love Cafe San Sebas’s review the best! I love places that are chill like that and put up with foreigners trying to learn a new language. I don’t want anyone to baby me out of using their native language, but it’s certainly nice when people are patient with you!

  2. Mad Fientist says:

    I have to agree with 101 Centavos that Italian bars are pretty amazing. My most memorable cafe experience was being taken to an espresso bar in Rome by an Italian colleague of mine. It was after midnight but the place was packed and everyone was drinking coffee and having a great time. I have no idea how the Italians can sleep after drinking coffee so late because I definitely wasn’t able to.

  3. gumpt1oo says:

    I can highly recommend the Filling Station. I call in every time I am in the Keswick area. The food is superb and the service excellent. I have an expanding waistline to prove the food is top notch!

  4. Oorah-Eric says:

    Not so many cafes where I grew up. But one amazing stop on the road that I never fail to hit is Flo’s Diner. I remember when this place was nothing more than a double-wide and had its character from the truckers always seated at the old fashioned food bar, the smell of strong coffee, and we always joked the spiders nesting in all the windows. In the past 20 years the place has cleaned up a lot but you can still get some killer strong coffee and the food is still served with a chance of cartiac arrest (try the open faced beef of turkey sandwhiches). I had the luck to know the proprieter and all her daughters and what an amazing place they have created, complete with many fond memories.

    • jlcollinsnh says:

      just clicked on their website. Wow! Great prices!

      I’ve always liked Upstate NY, but the sky high state taxes would keep me from ever moving there. The Finger Lakes are a beautiful place to visit, though.

  5. Mr. 1500 says:

    We lived in the Uptown area of Chicago for a while, so know the Heartland well. Small world!

  6. Paul says:

    Boynton-Mckay in Camden, Maine.

  7. On a road trip home from North Carolina to Minnesota last spring, we stopped at a place called Hometown Pizza in Shelbyville, KY. From Google, it looks as though it’s a small chain in that area, but either way, it was a pleasing experience and the pizza was great. It was just a little Southern place, but it had a great feel and came to mind when I read this post. They even gave us refills for the road (even if we didn’t order anything to drink in the first place). That kind of thing sticks with you.

  8. 101 Centavos says:

    I’ll put in a plug for Italian “bars”. Not bars at all as North Americans would think. Yes, Bars in Italy do sell alcohol, but they also and primarily serve coffee… and pastries, and sandwiches and whatnot. Great places to sit and visit with friends and watch the scenery.

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