A coffee shop - the place of endless stories, solo or groups. A place that comes into one's mind for first dates or the last minute data entry, brewing a new business or rapidly drafting the pending presentation, or just another random evening where the heart wants some solitude and mind some caffeine punch. Dhaka, Bangladesh's exhausted yet persistent heart, has stepped up its aesthetic coffee shop game over the last decade. Now, it is just as available for the elite as a tong ghor for everyone at every turn of the city.
A cup of coffee can be many things, a 'wake up' call in a cup from fatigue and exhaustion being number one. But from a watcher's eye, a cafe is much more than just a good cup of decorative coffee. The strong fragrance of freshly roasted coffee beans, the sweet aroma of sugary brownies or chocolate chip cookies, or the aesthetic lighting of a gloomy yellow sunset floats in front of the eyes.
Dhaka has its own set of 'beloved' cafes, always filled with people. People, some of whom have made this a lifestyle. To name a few of Dhaka's beloved cafes are North End Coffee Roasters, Nerdy Beans Coffee Haus, Gloria Jeans, Tabaq, AWAKE Coffee Roasters, Crimson Cup BD and many more.
It is common to see a young, freshly graduated with a laptop/Macbook wide open right next to their coffee cup or mug in a peaceful corner of the cafe. A group of friends can be spotted holding their cups, sipping from them or sharing that one piece of brownie no one else wanted except that one friend. Some go alone, with a book in their hands, reading in the sombre music that plays in a low tune.
But how did coffee shops get to be the trendsetters for coolness? From places that serve coffee and some desserts to savoury options, these cafes have become the requisitions to be 'cool' in Dhaka. Like if one hasn't heard their names, are they even a proper Dhakaite?
The cafes mentioned above have one thing in common except their speciality in serving special coffee, which is their ambience. Cafes are designed and decorated in such ways that attract young people to enjoy an almost Western aesthetic in Dhaka. From the selection and spacing of furniture to the decorative or painted walls, the wooden ceiling, and light music playing in the background while a soft light falls over the customers - all contribute to the attractiveness of the cafes. Such ambience will surely make more and more people, especially youngsters and youth, go there.
Today, the measurement scale of coolness is directly proportional to one's ability to maintain one's aesthetics. The coffee shops and their decoratives are designed in such a way that makes them highly photogenic. Customers go there and make reels of TikTok, Instagram or Facebook. Cafes have lately been a place for aesthetic photoshoots as well.
Another interesting thing about these cafes is that, unlike restaurants in general, they will let you stay there as long as you wish unless it's a very busy day. This customer-friendly behaviour builds a strong bond of customer loyalty. They keep going to their favourite cafes for a good time and relaxing. The cafes also offer them special services, reward cards, or other special deals.
Some coffee shops have corners for books and go by the name of 'reading cafe' - another bait for the book nerds who would not want to miss out on the experience of a Parisian-style reading session, sipping coffee and biting into a buttery croissant.
However aesthetic these coffee shops may be, they are still eateries at the core. Sure, the fancy Tuna melt or roast beef sandwich is a delight to bite at, but the price is overwhelming in most cafes. It becomes almost impossible for middle-income people to try to savour the experience every once in a while. The coffee options and other drinks and beverages are also pricey, making it more of a fine dining experience of coffee than food!
Above all this, these coffee shops are overwhelmingly hyped among youngsters. They make it their daily hangout place and set the trend for their elite peers, flaunting to their middle-income peers and an impossible wish for others out of the 'comes from money' list. The cafes have recently become places for content creation more than they are about enjoying a cup of coffee with friends.
The overwhelming hype surrounding elite coffee shops in Dhaka often serves as a means of showboating or status display. Many individuals frequently go there not solely for their appreciation of good coffee but rather to project an image of sophistication, affluence, and modernity to their social circles.
This display is also getting more popular among kids and youngsters from middle-income households. More than most, the objective of frequenting them is not for mere experience but to feel included in the 'coolness' of the generation. It can be driven by a desire to be perceived as part of an exclusive, trendy lifestyle associated with upscale coffee culture, which may include posting photos on social media or flaunting their visits the next day. Ultimately, it becomes about showing off social status rather than the genuine passion and experience for coffee and cafes themselves.
So, while Dhaka's elite coffee shops may continue to buzz with the clinking of cups and the hums of espresso machines, it may be interesting to remember that behind the latte art and artisanal beans, the real brew might just be a shot of social status in disguise. Whether one is sipping a cappuccino or cold brew, the question remains: Is it about the coffee, or is it all for the show? The answer, it seems, lies in the frothy foam of perception.