Samui Wining & Dining
Café Culture

Forget the pub – today it’s more likely we’ll be popping out for a quiet coffee!

Forget the pub – today it’s more likely we’ll be popping out for a quiet coffee!Things have been changing. A couple of years ago it was all about the local pub. In smaller towns and villages there wasn’t so much choice. In the cities, pubs were everywhere. But, whatever the case, several times a week, just for an hour or so at night, you’d pop out to the pub. It wasn’t about the alcohol; that was incidental. It was because this was your community centre. It was the place to nod at people, look out for folks you needed a word with, catch up with the local gossip and generally feel a part of what was going on locally. But things have been changing, particularly in the cities.

Pub culture is declining – and coffee-shop-culture is on the up. Certainly there are a lot of quite complex social reasons for this, not the least being the unpredictable and shifting nature of city-based communities, particularly when it’s linked to the increase in aggression and violence at night – people want to have a an enjoyable time as far away as possible from belligerent drunks.

But, whatever the reason, an average of 20 pubs a week are closing in Britain at the moment. And, at the same time, coffee shops have not only grown ten-fold in number since 1996, but last year increased by a further 8.5%. There are now 16,000 coffee shops in the UK, and these represent a €10 billion industry. But this is really nothing new; rather it’s a resurgence of a gentler era, and way of life that’s been dormant for a long while.

Although ‘the café’ had been very much a part of European society for hundreds of years (and effectively served the same function as ‘pubs’ came to do much later), the ‘coffee shop’ was something different. It emerged in America in the era of Prohibition, as a sneaky way of sidestepping this with shots of liquor under the table. But these in turn evolved, eventually taking on such personas as Starbucks, and thus giving rise a whole new generation of American coffee drinkers.

Britain had never absorbed the café culture of its neighbours in France. But with the upsurge in popularity of, firstly Starbucks, then a whole host of other names, the nation gave way, albeit to a different kind of ethos. And although there are those establishments which cater to the urban ‘grab-it-and-go’ crowd on their way to work, there are also other cafes where people congregate at leisure, or even retreat to work. Only today, it’s far more likely to be someone like J. K. Rowling in Edinburgh’s ‘The Elephant House’ (where she wrote the first Harry Potter book) asking for the internet password, than it would be Ernest Hemmingway in Paris’s ‘Les Deux Magots’, inquiring about a refill for his fountain pen.

However, most people come to Samui to get away from work, not so they can bury themselves in it! Thus the ethos of Samui’s café culture is undeniably laid-back and island-style. There are now quite a few such cafes and, following the trend elsewhere, their numbers are increasing noticeably. As you’d probably expect in such a multi-cultural society, they vary in décor, purpose and ethos quite dramatically. Although it has to be said that, on Samui, there are a number of established restaurants which seem to serve the same kind of function. But when it comes to the new breed of cafes, there are several worthy of mention.

One of the best pedigrees comes with The Coffee Club, sitting prominently in the main entrance to Central Festival shopping centre, right in the midst of Chaweng. This is part of an Australian-based chain with more than 200 outlets. They blend their own coffee and there’s a great daytime menu, but the evening dining is special, with imported Australian Angus beef and New Zealand lamb chops – there’s even an Angus beef burger (with bacon and cheese). Plus a wide choice of veggie dishes, and even a kiddies’ menu.

Not so far away, across the beach road you’ll see Cream Café Samui. Capturing (quite deservedly) a big slice of the tourist trade, this is very much one of the new generation of coffee shops, ‘boutique’ in style and enticingly light and bright in feel. Although they offer snacks and breakfasts, this place is sweet-tooth-heaven, with a large and mouth-watering range of pastries and homemade cakes; macaroons, tiramisu, mango cheesecake, brownies, and ice-creams.

It’s significant that all these privately-owned coffee shops are appearing: they’re filling a social niche, I think. This is certainly true of June’s Art Café, in Samui Town Center on the ring-road in Chaweng, close to Makro and Big C. This is very much a magnet for the local residents, having not only a fully vegetarian menu, but also offering a range of healthy smoothies and shakes. It’s all very laid-back and friendly, and with the name coming from the décor; the walls are covered with arts, crafts, posters and paintings of all sorts.

Another enticing and quirky shop – La Fabrique – actually started life as a French bakery in Lamai in 2001, but has now opened another branch in Chaweng, on the ring-road at the traffic lights just a little bit south of Tesco Lotus. There’s an interesting menu here; it’s all been printed on retro-style sheets and is not only covering each of the tables but it’s also been used as wallpaper, too! Within the warm and friendly atmosphere, you can enjoy an intriguing range of their own pastries and breads – but people send postcards home about their amazing breakfasts. And there’s also a range of pizzas, sandwiches and mueslis.

And moving on to one of the most-visited spots on Samui, we come to Bar Baguette (at The Wharf in Fisherman’s Village) which has actually become a firm favourite with the residents as well as the passing tourists. The visitors love the beachside ambiance; all very Mediterranean in feel. And the locals keep coming back because the food is varied, exotic and superb – ‘Poached Pear in Red Wine, Granola and Fresh Berries’ for breakfast? There’s a super menu and a wide range of cakes, pastries and snacks. Oh – and they also sell coffee . . . and the word on the street is that it’s probably some of the best around!


Rob De Wet


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