The Northern cafe culture is legendary, equaling that of Paris, London, and even NYC, and many of the gorgeous outfits featured on this blog come from these cafes. This article is the first in a series of articles that will be posted on this blog to illuminate this culture for everyone!
this article appeared in BA Impressions magazine, April 2005
As a child growing up in pre-Revolutionary Tehran, my favourite aunt would often pick me up from school and take me on an outing to a café in the city. Sitting across the table from my beautiful and cool aunt, then a student at Tehran University, I felt unbelievably sophisticated. Of course at seven years old I wasn’t really sophisticated, and certainly not enough to have a taste for proper coffee so we would each order a café glacé, a cold, tall milky coffee heaped with melting vanilla ice cream.
Back in Tehran 25 years later with the old hankering for the elusive café glacé, I set out in search of cafés capable of recapturing that feeling of sophistication.
While traditional qahvehkhaneh (or literally ‘the house of coffee’) are plentiful in Iran – places where you can sit back on traditional cushions with a small glass of dark tea or a strong Turkish coffee, along with a hubbly bubbly pipe filled with apple tobacco – it was the Western-style café that was the archetypal gathering place for artists and intellectuals, a place where new ideas mixed with the cigarette smoke in the air.
After the revolution of 1979 the Tehran café scene all but disappeared as people’s social lives moved completely into the home. However in the last few years, there has been a steady growth in the number of cafés and crucially, café patrons. With Tehran’s huge army of young people needing places to hang out and with the Islamic ban on alcohol – therefore the absence of bars and nightclubs – the café scene in Tehran is once again thriving, particularly in the leafy northern districts of town. [And the word “leafy” is thriving as the prime descriptor of Northern streets!]
First stop is the towering Mellat Tower opposite Mellat Park, on the northern reaches of Vali Asr Avenue. There are a rash of cafés in the shopping mall in the tower, jostling each other and there seems to be a definite trend here: most are small and cosy with dark wood décor and small windows keeping the interior very private. In a country with limited social freedoms it is understandable that these new public spaces aim to be as private as possible. On the ground floor Coffee Star (tel: 021 201 5757) serves a menu of snacks and sandwiches as well as a variety of coffees and has a French café vibe while upstairs, Abre Sefid (tel: 021 202 3469) looks like a middle European bar, complete with the long wooden bar and beer glasses that you might find in Germany. A favourite in this tower is the tiny, cosy Colbeh, with its warm interior, exposed brick walls and wooden menus. Each café tries hard to differentiate itself from its neighbour, some sport Native American iconography while another is decorated like a South Pacific beach shack. In the evenings, they are all filled with groups of well turned out young people, fiddling with their mobile phones, drinking Nescafé and picking at sandwiches.
The trendy Ghandi shopping centre on Ghandi Avenue is the hangout for even slicker Tehranis. Full of designer shops selling recognised labels at designer prices, there are a host of coffee houses here, all fiercely individualistic and all spilling with a young cool crowd. At night there is quite a party atmosphere, as people weave in and out of the different cafés and even the Japanese restaurant downstairs. The modern Café Duduk (tel: 021 879 2065) is typically styled: the dark interior is themed around traditional musical instruments set in the tables while posters of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Marlon Brando smoulder from the walls, inspiring the clientele to ever-more heights of cool. [You can see such a cafe below with a portrait of none other than Kurt Cobain and some lovely girls in pushed back snoods smiling at ya].
Other cool cafés to check out here include Le Gentil, Café Kaktus and, up the road, Ghandi 35, which serves lasagne as well as the usual snacks. A couple of smartly-dressed teenage boys with slicked back hair and the ubiquitous mobile phones point out that the resurgence of café culture has, at least, given their generation somewhere to hang out. ‘We meet our friends in these cafés,’ they say, ‘and you know, we make new friends…’.
The menus mostly feature a variety of coffees, from French coffee (black) to café latte and cappuccino on offer. Most popular is an Iranian peculiarity: sweet Nescafé with powdered milk, considered by some to be a bit of a luxury, perhaps because of the difficulty of getting the actual branded instant coffee in Iran. Real coffee lovers will certainly be mystified by this and it is interesting to see that even in the supposedly isolated Islamic Republic, the trend for syrupy coffees – as served in Western behemoths such as Starbucks – has inspired many cafés to pour chocolate syrup all over the vanilla ice cream that sits on the modern café glacé.
Beyond these trendy cafés teeming with expertly made-up girls and sharp-dressed guys there is a different scene. Tehran is enjoying a flourishing art scene and many cafés double as exhibition spaces. A case in point is Café Aks (tel: 021 879 1191) in the Eskan Tower in Mirdamad. In the basement of the shopping center, the ‘photography café’ is abuzz with an arty, chatty crowd, the staff run off their feet catering to the capacity crowd. The walls on both floors of the café are hung with framed photos, the work of several photographers. Downstairs there were CDs for sale as well as a bunch of art magazines on the counter. Often in one corner a young man sits and sketches furiously, only pausing to drag on the obligatory cigarette. [N.B. Smoking was officially banned in Tehran cafes in 2006. I am sure some cafes still ignore the ban. The photo below, showing the girl in the white Bohemian skirt smoking in a cafe, was taken in 2006 just before the ban took place.].
A little north, along Shariati Avenue, nestles And You and Me… And the Left Hand Cook (tel: 021 261 6830), a tiny café with a huge yellow sign and possibly the best coffee in Tehran. Inside hang signed photos of Iranian film stars and the atmosphere is extremely friendly. The partnership behind this place includes a cook who is a painter and potter and the creativity comes through in the menu, not to mention the nine different kinds of coffees and twelve fruit flavored teas on offer. The café’s special Parham Coffee is made of three different kinds of espressos with milk – a boon for coffee lovers whose tastes can be neglected in other Tehrani cafés.
The coffee is also excellent at Café 78 (tel: 021 891 9862), situated in the centre of town rather than the affluent north, in Aban Street off Karimkhan Zand Avenue. Unusually the space is not small or dark but instead the interior is open and flooded with light from the wide front window. Magazines and newspapers are available to leaf through while on the walls are exhibited photographic works of Iran’s artists. The whole atmosphere here is warm and informal with lots of table hopping and lively conversation, led by the owner – a photographer who spent years living in Europe and the US and wanted a space where her peers could gather. Unusual Iranian drinks can be found on the menu along with food seldom seen in Tehran, such as crepes and a variety of salads, alongside the carefully selected coffee – no Nescafé here. This is that rare place, a café where great coffee, good food and stimulating company are always on the menu.
Twenty-five years after the Revolution, Tehran’s café society is thriving again. From the hip hangouts in the north of town to clusters of artistic communities and haunts of coffee lovers, sophistication is definitely back in vogue in Tehran.