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Coffeehouse in Damascus
This article is about establishments where coffee is sold and consumed.
For other uses, see Coffeehouse (disambiguation).

A coffeehouse, coffee shop, or café shares some of the characteristics of a bar, and some of the characteristics of a restaurant. As the name suggests, coffeehouses focus on providing coffee and tea as well as light snacks. Other food may range from baked goods to soups and sandwiches, other casual meals, and light desserts. In some countries, cafes may more closely resemble restaurants, offering a range of hot meals, and possibly being licenced to serve alcohol.



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"A Street Cafe, Jerusalem," Henry Fenn (1838- ): steel engraving in Picturesque Palestine, ca 1875

In Persia, since the 16th century, the coffeehouse (qahveh-khaneh) has served as a social gathering place where men assemble to drink coffee or tea, listen to music, play chess and backgammon, perhaps hear a recitation from the Shahnameh. In modern Iran, coffeehouses may attract a male crowd to watch the public TV.

The traditional tale of the beginnings of Viennese coffeehouses from the mysterious sacks of green beans left behind when the Turks failed in their Siege of Vienna in 1683, offered to the Viennese by a knowing Turkish-speaking Pole named Kolschitzky is often retold. It has the ring of apocrypha to skeptics who find the story too pat— and the date too late.

Coffeehouses first became popular in Europe upon the introduction of coffee in the 17th century. The first London coffeehouse opened in 1652. Though Charles II later tried to suppress them as "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers" (a criticism that is still made), the public flocked to them. They quickly became meeting places where business could be carried on, news exchanged and the gazettes read. By 1739 there were 551 coffeehouses in London, including meeting places for Tories and Whigs, people of fashion or the "cits" of the old city center, coffeehouses known as gathering-places for the wits or for stockjobbers, merchants and lawyers, booksellers and authors. According to one French visitor, the Abbé Prévost, coffeehouses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government," were the "seats of English liberty."

Ladies were not permitted in coffeehouses. In a well-known engraving of a Parisian coffeehouse of ca 1700, the gentlemen hang their hats on pegs and sit at long communal tables strewn with papers and writing implements. Coffeepots are ranged at an open fire, with a hanging cauldron of boiling water. The only woman present presides, decently separated in a canopied booth, whence she doles out coffee in tall cups.

In London, coffeehouses preceded the clubs of the mid-18th century, which skimmed away some of the more aristocratic clientele. Lloyd's of London started in a coffeehouse. Auctions in salesrooms attached to coffeehouses provided the start for the great auction houses of Sotheby's and Christie's. In New York the Tontine Coffeehouse at the foot of Wall Street near the docks became a central meeting place. In small cities a coffeehouse functioned as a place where messages might be left and picked up. American coffee shops are also often connected with indie, jazz and acoustic music, and will often have them playing either live or recorded in their shops.

Contemporary Coffeehouses

The current spate of chain coffee shops such as Starbucks, Peet's, Seattle's Best Coffee, The Coffee Bean and Second Cup have a clear lineal descent from the espresso and pastry centered Italian coffeehouses of the Italian-American immigrant communities in the major US cities, notably New York City's Little Italy and Greenwich Village, Boston's North End, and San Francisco's North Beach. Both Greenwich Village and North Beach were major haunts of the Beats, who became highly identified with these coffeehouses. As the youth culture of the 1960s evolved, non-Italians consciously copied these coffeehouses. Before the rise of the Seattle-based Starbucks chain, Seattle (and other parts of the Pacific Northwest) had a thriving, largely countercultural coffeehouse scene; Starbucks cleaned up, standardized, genericized, and "mainstreamed" this model.

The liquor laws in many areas in the United States generally prevent anyone under the age of 21 from entering bars, so coffeehouses in that country can often be important youth gathering places.

Since approximately the Beat era, the term coffeehouse has come to imply the availability of espresso drinks, and while "coffee shop" still could suggest an establishment where one would buy coffee, there has been an evolution so that it now suggests diner more than coffee-drinking hang-out per se.

Starting in the 1980s, a counter clerk in a coffeehouse has come to be known in English as a barista, from the Italian word for bartender.

The contemporary coffeehouse is just the latest example of a drinking establishment—bars, public houses, taverns and soda shops have also served this purpose—as the center for cultural exchange in a particular community, often fomenting social and political change. See, for example, the meetings of the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolution and the abortive Beer Hall Putsch by the German Nazi party in 1923.

Contemporary Cafés

In the United States, café (from the French word for coffee) is a small restaurant. Styles of cafés vary; some concentrate upon many styles of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, with possibly a selection of baked goods and sandwiches, while others offer full menus. American cafés may or may not serve alcoholic beverages, and the serving of coffee may be incidental to the serving of food.

In France, a "café" certainly serves alcoholic beverages. French cafés also often serve simple snacks (sandwiches etc...). They may or may not have a restaurant section. A brasserie is a café that serves meals, generally single dishes, in a more relaxed setting than a restaurant. A "bistro" is a café / restaurant, especially in Paris. Bistro food is supposed to be cheap, but in recent years bistros, especially in Paris, have become increasingly expensive.

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A coffee shop in Ireland. There is no outside seating due to unsuitable weather.

Cafés developed from the coffeehouses that became popular in Europe upon the introduction of coffee. Those also spawned another, completely different type of restaurant, the cafeteria.

There are two types of cafés: those that specialize in coffee and hot beverages, and those with a full menu, the most famous examples of which are the "French cafés," especially those in Paris.

Cafés, in warmer days, may have an outdoor part (terrace, pavement or sidewalk café) with seats, tables and parasols. This is especially the case with European cafés. See also public space.

Cafés offer a more open public space to many of the traditional pubs they have replaced, which were more male dominated, with a focus on drinking alcohol. Many people complain that traditional, local venues are being pushed out by cloned, characterless cafes controlled by big business.

The original uses of the cafe, as a place for information exchange and communication was reintroduced in the 1990s with the Internet cafe. The spread of modern style cafes to many places, urban and rural, went hand in hand with computers. Computers and Internet access in contemporary-styled venue is a youthful, modern, outward-looking place, compared to the traditional pubs, or old-fashioned diners that they replaced. In the mid 2000s, of course, many mainstream cafes offer Internet access, just as they offer telephones and newspapers.

Cannabis coffee shops

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A coffee shop in Amsterdam, selling coffee and cannabis.

Some coffee shops, however, especially in the Netherlands, are places where selling of cannabis for personal consumption by the public is tolerated by the local authorities. Any establishment advertising itself as a "coffeeshop" (as opposed to a café) in the Netherlands is likely primarily in the business of selling cannabis products and possibly other substances which are tolerated under the drug policy of the Netherlands.

The selling of cannabis is tolerated (Dutch: wordt gedoogd, that is: the law is not enforced) under the nationwide general rules:

  • No alcohol
  • No minors
  • No hard drugs
  • No advertisement
  • No weapons

They are called coffee shops because since they do not have an alcohol serving licence, most do actually serve coffee. Coffeeshops are strongly controlled by the government, and any shop selling soft drugs to minors, or selling hard drugs at all, is immediately closed. These institutions provide non-contaminated (and hence relatively safe) cannabis products, which may not be true of dealers acting illegally. Cannabis and any food products containing cannabis are generally clearly identified to prevent accidental consumption.

(In the Netherlands, an outlet called a "koffiehuis", spelt with a k (literally "coffee house") is more similar to what is called a coffee shop in the U.S., whilst a "café" or a "coffeehuis," spelt with a C, is the equivalent of a bar.) Dutch coffee shops often fly red-yeallow-green Ethiopian flags or otehr simbols of rastafarianism to indicate that they sell cannabis, as direct advertising of cannabis sale is illegal. This aesthetics attacked many public artists who get commissions to create a murals in the coffee shops and use the Rastafarianism and reggae related imagery to provoke public discussion about racial and multicultural issues Many municipalities have a coffee shop policy. For some this is a "zero policy", i.e. they do not allow any. Most of such municipalities are either controlled by strict Protestant parties, or are bordering Belgium and Germany and simply do not wish to receive "drug tourism" from those countries. A March 19, 2005 article in the Observer noted that the number of Dutch cannabis coffeehouses had dropped from 1,500 to 750 over the previous five years, largely due to pressure from the conservative coalition government[1] ( and market forces.

In nearby Denmark it seems that the coffee shops in the Freetown Christiania will be abolished in 2005 or 2006, as part of the wider issues involved with Free Christiania.

See also

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