My secret life

One coffee, please

When the owners of Café Greenwich decided it was time to renovate, people worried that it would never be the same again. Some fretted that the fin-de-siècle toilets would be ripped out. Others were afraid that the chess players would not be allowed back inside. My little worry was that the coffee would no longer be served on a silver tray.

One of the things I like about Belgium is the way they serve coffee. You can complain about the eternal grey skies or the insane car drivers, but you cannot possibly fault the way this country presents a cup of coffee.

Here is how it works. You go into a café. It will probably be old-fashioned even if it just opened last week. The style they like in these parts is 1950s modern with a hint of the middle ages. You sit down, smile at the elderly lady at the next table and take care not to step on her little pampered dog. Then the waiter arrives.

You just have to ask for a coffee, and he will nod, disappear behind the bar, and return with a perfect coffee served on a silver tray with a pot of milk and possibly a little Belgian speculoos biscuit on the side.

This is so civilised. It is as if the Hapsburg Empire had never ended. It only needs a string quartet and you could be in Vienna waiting for a carriage to take you to a ball.

It is different in my own country, which in the art of serving coffee as in so many ways has gone the way of America. When I go into a coffee shop in London, I have to stand in line at the counter, since they do not employ waiters. The various types of coffee are listed on a blackboard, so you have to decide what you want. But it is not easy because there is nothing that is simply coffee. You could ask for an espresso, but then you don’t get milk. You could request a latte, but then you get too much milk. You could have coffee with melted marshmallow, but then that is just insane.

I once made the mistake of asking the person behind the counter for a coffee, just that. As one would do in Le Greenwich in the good old days. She looked puzzled. What sort of coffee? She asked.

I had no idea. I consulted the list. There were about eight different types of coffee. I thought macchiato might do.

“A macchiato,” please.


“What size would you like?” she asked.

I had not considered size. One doesn’t in Belgium. But in Britain, there are normally three different sizes of cup. You can have regular, the smallest size, which looks enormous, or large, the middle size, which is gigantic, or giant, the largest size, which is just ridiculous. Most people order giant, but I just wanted a shot of caffeine, not a bucket of milk. So I said regular, please, and smiled.

Back in Belgium, I read in a local newspaper that Greenwich had reopened so I decided to check it out. The interior had been nicely polished up so the woodwork and brass fittings were shining like new. The old chess players had migrated elsewhere but the toilets at least had been left intact.

The waiter arrived to take my order. This would be the big test.

“Un café, s’il vous plait,” I said tentatively.

The waiter gave a little nod and headed off to the bar.

A couple of minutes passed. Then he returned with the coffee. It came on a silver tray with a pot of milk and a little biscuit.

I almost wept.