Bewley's cafe on Grafton Street is a weird mixture of the past and the present. Antique oak mouldings on the walls, carved with Chinese dragons, are juxtaposed with wire pictures, mirrors, elegantly modern circular lampshades, and a glowing stained glass collage of red and blue which hangs near the exit sign. A large recess in the stairwell holds shelves full of old books, ranging from Principia Mathematica to instructions dating from the 1890's on how to birth a calf properly. You can reach the books at the upstairs end, but the other end is impossibly high, the books doomed to be unread and unhandled, turned from information to decoration in a weird stroke of interior design.
The first Bewleys cafe was opened in South Great George's Street, Dublin, in 1894, by the Bewley family. Charles Bewley was the first to import tea directly to Ireland from China, and therefore probably had an effect on the future culture of that country almost as great as that of Saint Patrick. Irish people acquired a taste for tea in the 1800's that is only now beginning to be overwhelmed by global coffee culture, that black hole for disposable incomes everywhere.
Two years later another Bewley's cafe opened in Westmoreland Street, and then the Grafton Street branch was opened. Apparently it was around this time that Ernest Bewley declared his personal motto to be the ringing "I want the best of everything, and that's not good enough!" The Bewleys were a Quaker family, and the firm was one of the first in the country to offer workers a share in the profits and ownership. The decor focused on oak panelling, wood fires, and warm yellow light, a formula that is still followed today (with some minor additions depending on the individual taste of whoever happens to be managing at the time. The current Grafton Street manager seems to have a penchant for paintings of nude or semi-nude women).
Well-known Dublin intellectuals and artists now shun Bewleys, which used to be a popular spot to sit for hours with coffee or tea, writing poetry or memoirs or philosophy, or conversing about life with anyone who would listen. In the 1950's Flann O'Brien, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh were regular customers, and from then on young artists began to flock to the place to make their plans to take over the world. You still see people sitting there writing today, but they are the unrecognised, the struggling and the strange, and therefore far more real and interesting. All those who frequented the place before they reached some level of success now prefer the trendier and more expensive coffee places that have been springing up all over Dublin like a grande latte plague. (It's still a mystery to me why there is still no Starbucks in Dublin. I can't comment on the quality of Bewley's coffee, which ryano seems to detest so much - it seems fine to me, but I'm not a conoisseur). Despite earning a reputation as a tourist trap, Bewleys still hosts regular poetry recitals, jazz gigs, plays by local authors, and various cultural events which, in a city supposedly renowned for its vibrant artistic culture, are unfortunately thin on the ground.
I have spent quite a lot of time in the Grafton Street outlet over the last couple of months, and far from having a touristy feel to it, it's one of my favourite places in Dublin to relax. You can stay for hours in comfortable, warm surroundings that don't blind you with shiny metal and glass, and the staff are incredibly warm and pleasant (probably because almost none of them are Irish any more - the Irish hospitality cliche dates from an earlier time). You don't have to buy a coffee every half hour to stay there, if you don't want to. And even though the artists are mostly gone, it's still full of interesting people - people who don't go to a cafe because of what someone else said about it, but because they like to be there, for whatever reason. So you get drunks, raconteurs, students, amateur poets, housewives and househusbands, tourists from various countries, madmen who wave at the walls, and quiet men and women who settle down in the plush red seats and read for two hours over a stone cold mug of black coffee.
The food is pretty crap, and most the desserts are overpriced. But the carrot cake is amazing, and the people even more so, and if you ask them nicely they'll give you a large tea for the price of a small one. Some people practically live there (myself included). Far from being touristy, it's a lot more real than most of the places that pass for cafes in Dublin. Bewleys is a lot like some of its regular customers - if someone is interesting and unique, you'll forgive them a lot of their bullshit just so you can spend time around them.
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