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David Roth and Lisa Haisfield have created a community gathering spot at Peach's.

Grub & Gab

by Laura Werlin | Photo: Peter Valli | Aspen magazine | May 23, 2013

What does it say that I have a home office and yet choose to write these very words from a cafe within yards of my house? Why is life within my mortgaged walls less inspirational than a cacophonous cafe, where the music drones; cellphones are employed (for talking, not the relative silence of texting); kids bob and weave while their adult onlookers attempt to enjoy their midafternoon cup o’ joe; and the air-conditioning is going full blast on a 50-degree day, rendering me parka-wrapped indoors?

But here I sit, and here I write. It’s all I can do to keep up with my Facebook page, email and this very article. But while social media (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) pervades the lives of each and every one of us, whether we invite it or not, it has also created the definition of modern-day cafe society, where just as with texts, emails and other forms of “socializing,” we communicate without actually speaking to one another. By virtue of our presence in cafes and other community gathering spots, we are saying to the world that we want to be out, to be seen and that we will look for others who look like us to be near, but not necessarily to talk to and rarely to befriend.

Aspen is no different, no less touched by this contemporary cafe paradox. Let’s text, not talk; sit side by side; take in the same aromas; maybe eat the same food; work on our computers; live parallel lives, but not necessarily intersecting ones. One cafe in town, however, more or less defies this idea. Call it the new Aspen idea, where teens prioritize their face-to-face conversations over their cellphone exchanges for at least as long as it takes to sip their smoothies, where it is as much a happening as it is a cafe—a local gathering spot for noshing and mingling, a magnet for farmers market amblers, a business meeting point, a post-hike or -ski way station, and—no escaping it—a Wi-Fi-equipped retreat from the confines of a home office. Peach’s Corner Café (peachscornercafe.com) is unusual, not just because it blends the concept of a coffeehouse with a restaurant, but because it offers something else: community.

To understand cafe culture today, it’s helpful to look back, particularly to the famed coffeehouses of Vienna. Although the first cafes there trace back to the mid 17th century, coffee culture really took hold in the early 19th century, when they became gathering spots for writers, artists and politicians. But those weren’t the only people who frequented the cafes. So, too, did the “regular” people. In this way, the coffeehouses were more or less socially level playing fields. Economic diversity may have differentiated its clientele, but, once inside the cafe, all were seen and treated as equal.

Although many of the Viennese cafes died out over the years (TV is blamed as the culprit), today the coffeehouses are so ingrained in Viennese life and culture (even though iPads have likely supplanted the omnipresent newspapers), that they are on UNESCO’s National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Cafes. World heritage sites (of the intangible variety)?

Paris cafe society was decidedly elitist, even if those who frequented the cafes weren’t necessarily rich. On this side of the Atlantic, early American cafe society was mostly the purview of the wealthy. Cafes were meeting places for celebrities and the upper echelon to entertain. The coffee itself was secondary.

Wander into an American cafe today, and, in some ways, not much has changed, save for the rich person’s cafe-as-entertaining venue and today’s rabid reverence for the bean. Culturally, you’re still likely to see people who look like you and like one another. That’s why you chose that cafe. That’s why everyone else did, too.

Here in Aspen, we are a kind of hybrid of these historic cafe cultures. Diversity may not be one of our hallmarks, but intellectual curiosity is. So, too, is the desire to socialize, to be out and about, to observe and to participate. Old-timers remember many a night around the stammtisch, the gathering table within the beloved but now demolished Wienerstube Restaurant. Today, a glance at the Living Room inside The Little Nell might reflect a local’s spirit, and the oval community table at the Main Street Bakery & Cafe has long been a breakfast station for solo diners, the overflow crowd or both. Rarely can one leave the shoulder-to-shoulder seating without exchanging at least a few words with the others at the table.

Because of this need to communicate, it stands to reason that a cafe would come along that, intentionally or not, would serve to foster social interaction, offering a setting in which to discuss intellectual concepts, philosophies and politics—local and otherwise—and ultimately a place to have a good time. Peach’s answers that call. As with Vienna coffeehouses, it, too, provides a level playing field that attracts the diamond set and outdoorsy type; the young, old and in between; local and tourist; self-employed and civic worker; all of whom are united by the desire to grip a steaming mug of coffee, chew on good chow and, maybe, even talk to one another.

But in a departure from the typical cafe, it is the food itself that helps define Peach’s culture, our attraction to it and the way we experience an otherwise ubiquitous concept. Here, the food not only satisfies us, it defines us; Peach’s is a place where chef and Managing Partner David Roth has figured out what Aspenites want to eat, even before they do. This inherent understanding explains why his eminently healthy bowl of farro and vegetables comes rolling out of the kitchen at about the same rate a NASTAR gate opens and closes in the middle of a competition, or the reason he puts quinoa instead of rice in his tuna sushi. Call Peach’s the place for new American comfort food, but also call it gestalt, a place that is more than the sum of its parts. Spending the day here is rooted in our fundamental desire to eat and live well, while sating our social desires to join in.

In this way, this particular cafe implicitly resists, and yet simultaneously reflects, modern-day cafe society and all of its contradictions, particularly in Aspen, by encouraging social contact. It does so by way of its community table, while still offering free Wi-Fi to facilitate a solo journey; by offering a range of items that bring together a variety of people (calorie-rich stews and butterless breakfasts—save for the pastries); and, a hallmark of any cafe, by serving coffee meticulously selected by owner Lisa Haisfield, for whom coffee is the holy grail (no contradiction here, just a fact).

Taken together, these contradictions may actually be responsible for this particular cafe’s popularity. Despite our reliance on earbuds (and the barrier they create between us and the world around us), our near-addiction to texting, our relentless cellphone use and the ability to work from home, in the end what most of us really crave is community. The need to mingle with others is what drew people to cafes 200 years ago, and, despite the Internet’s ability to suck us into a reclusive journey, this fundamental need is what draws us there now too.

When we can be united by a sunny spot, fresh flowers greeting us at the door (as they do here), enticing aromas and, at the same time, the opportunity to retreat within if we so choose, then that not only explains why we gather at Peach’s, but also who we are as individuals. In the end, we want community together, alone.

Read more by Laura Werlin at laurawerlin.com.