I have hesitating trepidation in revealing my Shangri-la in the city. The influx of anything approaching trending would upset what I have found. Luckily the very nature of my choice negates such an occurrence for you see dear reader… I have selected Garlands as my choice memory of Cardiff, having patronised its loving environ for over ten years and at one point had my own table and regular order. I have occasionally got too busy to regularly attend, but like catholic guilt, I am always drawn back to its pleasure.
Located in Duke Street Arcade opposite the castle, Garlands entices with a tobacco stained, penny university aesthetic, the old world Italian allure familiar from films and holiday brochures; perhaps such a place never existed, but these kind of coffee houses continue to offer a faux decadence of fonts, painted pillars, plastic chandeliers and brass decor which has now become a decadence all of its own.
As coffee shops become more standardised (and Garlands is itself a sort of 80’s standardisation) in low- slung cushioned comfort, it is a pleasure to be forced to sit upright like an adult whilst consuming. Garlands harks back to places where people could think, discuss, and plan within a city, yet away from distractions. One can do this elsewhere but well lit, bright colours; open spaces and urban (not urbane) noise can work against this.
By contrast, Garlands has soft brown hues and hushed voices, a more respectful climate than the abrasive places. Here, you will not hear overweight voices bandy out repulsive terms like ‘skinny’, ‘frappe’ ‘latte-a-chino’, the same voices who only a few years ago would have violently rejected such terms (often with violence). This is a place with coffee machines that don’t look like they are about to rise up against the human race, there is none of the spluttering distain of the modern machinations, instead the very mechanical elements themselves are in harmony with the more reserved eatery nature, and its artificial nurture, in unison.
Consequently as I’ve noted, it is a place to think, and many a song lyric/idea has been formulated or completed within its walls. When I began frequenting, they used to have the Independent newspaper every Friday, making it an ideal place to catch up on the arts supplement over the free coffee refills. The paper has stopped there but the coffee refills continue (for around £1.50 you can have one free refill – sometimes more).
The food is delightful and as simple or complicated as any rival, whilst retaining a delectable character missing from the countless identical test tube paninis the western world over. Ranging from the simple toasted teacake (which you may have to ask for), to the Italian experience jacket potato (capable of summing up an entire country’s cuisine in a potato), via the cream cheese, smoked salon sandwich (alas no capers any more), there is something to sate any visiting town patron. Homemade cakes are proudly displayed in cylinders of sin, next to a fridge containing water, juices and various forgotten carbonated genres of refreshment.
Here is a place to reflect whilst listening to Gershwin, classical excerpts, or themes from motion pictures, and whilst the music may err toward Classic FM, this is no bad thing. Give me this over the nasally forgettable, mid-Atlantic tones of a thousand strumming, anodyne singers called Ryan, Sarah, Ben or Fiona any afternoon.
I suppose its main attraction for this writer is the way it avoids the visitation of the young who seem repelled by its lack of identifiable corporate logo or multi-media advertisement. Garlands is not the community where people jump off loud, high objects whilst making wide eyed hand signals, nor does it display full coloured, sweaty, laminated representations of its wares. It simply has a menu with words like ‘sandwich’, and entrusts the reader with enough intelligence to know what this is. It’s probably too much of a gamble for a youth raised on spoilers and plot revealing trailers. Even when I was young, I wanted to distance myself (when taking my coffee) from the noise of excited bores talking at disbelief over the previous nights substance inspired travail (“man, Ollie was so wasted”). I craved a more ecumenical church, where lecturers, grandmothers, aspiring jobless elitists (like myself), families, crazies and yes even some young people could freely take refreshment in the haven of a reminder of a more homily, intelligent time, where people didn’t ask you if you wanted confectionary on your coffee.
This though is where the contradiction resides. As I’ve noted above, Garlands is also has its own ‘corporate’ identity familiar to anyone growing up in the eighties who was dragged endlessly around town by mothers or family. For me, it is a prompt to being little (and probably slightly bored), eating crisp jacket potatoes with mother whilst playing with a Transformer, asking (and getting) a rare ice cold glass of coke and perhaps a Welsh cake. It is essentially the last outpost of a memory, an Alamo to encroaching American invaders. That’s right… I’m using the confusing yet apt allegory of an America invading itself, replacing our cherished heritage of coca-cola with a skinny-choco-frappe-a-lingo, taking away all we hold dear. I will hold out in my fortress of drawn fireplaces, ginger beer, and cutlery in baskets and take refuge under its gingham moon, shielding myself behind soft paintings until the day is won.
Only please, please please, dear Garlands, bring back capers to the menu and the Independent every Friday and credit my life-partner for the pictures you have of hers on the wall. Then all will be well.
Spencer McGarry is a Swansea born composer living in Cardiff. He is currently halfway through a project to record and perform six albums in six different styles (under the oft misunderstood as arrogance moniker ‘Spencer McGarry Season’) and is a part of Businessman records. He is an avid reader of popular science and religion and inexplicably believes that all pets suit the name Napoleon. He lives with his life-partner near a small Tesco’s outlet. Check Businessman Records on Big Cartel and Spencer’s Soundcloud.
Spencer was photographed in Garlands by Adam Chard
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