Coffee, when it was just regular


Destination: NYC, SE Asia and Europe

Mode of Transport: Coffee, regular

Coffee in Europe

The culture that surrounds drinking coffee in a European country, especially Italy, is a daily event worth taking part. In a town such as Rome, every cafe uses excellent roasted coffee beans and the end product, always exquisite. With it also comes protocol. For example, there are certain coffees only appropriate to order before or after a certain time of day. This ritual is taken very seriously.

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Café at Camparina at the Galleria Emmanuelle II

Coffee in Southeast Asia

By contrast, Southeast Asia’s affinity and use of what is widely considered an inferior product in instant coffee are nothing short of playful. With combinations that are closer to a dessert than a beverage and no real rules in which to follow, the purpose of coffee is based less on tradition and more on passing the time.

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Sweet iced instant coffee in Kuala Lumpur, SB korner

America, the melting pot that it is, has taken a bit from both cultures, if not every culture, which, in turn, has led to very complicated ways of ordering coffee. This is often exemplified in any of the coffee houses in my New York City neighborhood where Little Italy and Chinatown intersect.

Coffee house confusion in NYC

These days, upon entering one of these coffee houses, I become a bit confused and almost intimidated when I look up at the coffee menu board. I’m not a linguist by any means, but I think my confusion stems from when an establishment calls the same offering by two different names. For example, a cortado (in Spanish) and a macchiato (in Italian) are, for all intents and purposes, the same. I know that there is technically a difference when it comes to the espresso/steamed milk ratio, but it’s so minute that it is impossible to tell. Let’s just say that I have never been to a cafe in Italy or Spain, in which both are offered. Why? Because it is their country’s version of the same drink.

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Café Créme at La Palette in Paris

After ascertaining what I want to order, there is that further quandary of which size I’d like my beverage to be, which furthers my anxiety.

Though this post may have read as such initially, it is not meant to be a tantrum about the coffee culture in the United States. Instead, it’s purpose is to pay homage toward a simpler time in America. I am in my late 40’s and remember when there were no specific roasts or applications from which to choose when ordering coffee. Though the final product did not taste nearly as good as it does now, it was equally satisfying.

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Coffee in a bowl with chocolate at La Pain Quotidien in NYC.

In those more innocent times, there were only two sizes from which to choose- small or large; and your choices were limited to the amount of sugar, milk or both in your black coffee. No foam, no cinnamon, etc.

To expedite things, there was what we New Yorkers called the “regular”, which was made with whole cow’s milk and 2 sugars. Remember cow’s milk? Every diner or street coffee cart knew what this meant when you ordered it. Doesn’t that sound easier than some of the tongue twisters that are ordered now?  #Coffee, when it was just regular via @DishOurTown #travel

Few establishments know what the “regular” is anymore, except for old New York diners, which are also starting to become an anachronism. Moreover, it seems that the more I pay for my coffee these days, the more I have to do. I can’t remember the last time someone poured milk and sugar into a cup of coffee and stirred it for me.

Coffee, regular 

In truth, even in those days, the “regular” was a New York idiom, not known anywhere else. I always thought it funny when I asked for a large “regular” elsewhere, I usually got a black coffee in a big cup or given that quizzical look which was always followed by,  “So, you want a medium or a large?”.

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Coffee at Frederic Blondeel in Brussels, Belgium

These days, in spite of myself, I often play a game and go to one of those coffee chains or any cafe for that matter, and ask for a large “regular”. I would, of course, get that same quizzical look I got in the past. I usually end up getting a very big cup of black coffee.

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Cappucino at Farmacy in Manila

I miss being able to order a “regular”. It was a playful morning ritual enjoyed by many. One that any European or Southeast Asian cultures would have appreciated.

Hampstead Community Market

I have befriended an Englishman named, Bill, who owns a sandwich stand in the Hampstead Community Market (U.K.) who along with making the best breakfast sandwiches in London, also makes a coffee that very much resembles those “regulars” of yore. I told him of the term and the backstory, and since then has referred to it as such when I order coffee with him.

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Bill’s stand in Hampstead, London, where we can still get a coffee, regular…

“Long live the regular”, he’d say in his cockney accent as he serves it to me. While I sip, I can’t help but dream that it may be the new rage here in London.

Do you remember the regular coffee? Let me know! Share this with anyone old enough or New York enough to remember.

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0 Replies to “Coffee, when it was just regular”

  1. Who’d have thought coffee could be the most complicated thing on a menu but you’re so right!
    In Australia, regular always refers to the size – nothing to do with what’s in the cup.
    I still have figured out how to order the coffee I’d like in France. Now I ask for for a café creme and take whatever I get!

    1. Melinda: Glad to know I am not alone. I honestly thought it was me… On the flip side, coffee is pretty great these days. If it weren’t for the nostalgia, I think most would think that the “regular” was something other than coffee. Ha ha. Thanks again for the read, and speak soon. – Andrew

  2. I LOVE the story behind “The regular”! I

    1. Thanks Vanessa. Glad you like the story.

  3. Perfect piece for my husband who has to have several cups of coffee a day! He looks for regular from time to time, too!

    1. A man after my own heart. One day, if we ever meet, we will have a regular together.

  4. Coffee is always so complicated to order these days. I like a cappuchino with soya milk myself! My husband takes it black and why are the sizes different everywhere? Whats wrong with small, medium and large?

    1. Mellissa: From your comment. I think you would have loved growing up in those days in New York. – Andrew

  5. So funny because this is exactly what my husband struggles with when we travel! He never quite knows what to order to ensure he gets his coffee strong enough. In NYC, he sticks with the cafes he knows for this very reason. Going some place else means deciphering the menu! He does even worse when I (a non-coffee drinker..shock & horror I know) try to run in and order for him!

    1. Jackie: That’s great! Coffee doesn’t need to be so complicated. With that said, I will admit that the grade these days are much higher than those in the past. – Andrew

  6. I LOOOVE me a good coffee! I remember thinking it so funny the “protocol” of when and what types of coffee you could drink in Italy, love a good iced coffee in Thailand and enjoy kicking back with a cappucino at any European outdoor cafe. But the best I’ve ever had is in Cambodia. I have no idea why, but it was like they were all slightly “chocolately” although I could never figure out the secret!

    1. LeAnna: Yes, coffee culture is great, whether complicated or simple. As for the coffee in Cambodia, I think I heard once that it has a bit of chicory in the blend. I’ve also been told that there is a bit of bat droppings in it as well (no kidding!) but as long as it tastes good, I guess it doesn’t matter. – Andrew

  7. I definitely noticed the different coffee cultures as we traveled around the last two years. My husband and I had a really funny conversation with some Australian friends, they were horrified to find out that Americans can order 24oz of coffee at a time (Dunkin’ Donuts, etc). They assumed it took us all day to drink. 😉

    1. Alana: Yes, those Aussies love their coffee, but in moderation. Leave it to us to offer enough coffee for a village to a single person. Thanks for giving us a read. – Andrew

  8. For better or worse I enjoy the way coffee culture has changed in the US. I have access to a variety of great coffees without the trip to Europe or Latin America.

    1. Brianna: I agree, coffee is much better these days. Hence the reason why the coffee had to be prepared the “regular” way. That stuff was hard to drink black. Thanks for giving us a read. – Andrew

  9. Although being British I don’t remember ‘regulars’ I can fully relate to the confusion that can arise in some coffee shops! I love a good coffee and I love small, independent coffee shops that make a proper brew but I also like a simple coffee menu 🙂

    1. Katja: I agree. Nothing like good and simple. – Andrew

  10. I love coffee but am definitely not a coffee connoisseur! I had no idea that a cortado and a macchiato were essentially the same thing! I love the tradition of ordering a regular–I had never heard of a coffee ordered by that term, but there is definitely something refreshing and nostalgic about it for sure! I’m usually boring when it comes to coffee–I usually get just black coffee, but I love a fancy one every once in awhile. Glad you found a spot where you can still get a regular 🙂

    1. Jenna: I am a black coffee drinker myself these days. The reason why we had “regulars” in those days was because the quality of the coffee was so inferior, that it was tough to have it straight. – Andrew

  11. I LOVE this post. Both Tom and I are addicted to a good cup of coffee so this is a super fun post to read. Learned lots of interesting things too about coffee that I didn’t even know about.

    1. Anna: Yes, coffee is something we can’t live without. A good cup is easy to get these days, which didn’t really exist in the old days, hence the reason for the “regular” I guess. It would have been tough to have the coffee in those days, black. Thanks for finding the post a fun read. – Andrew

  12. That is cool that you went around trying and ordering different coffees. I don’t drink it, but I like to try tea.

    1. Holly: I’ve become a tea lover as of late. Lots of it due to having spent time in Southeast Asia and London during our travels. Great Tea cultures. Thanks for giving the post a read. – Andrew

  13. Nice!! I am in my late forties and I can’t remember not being a coffee drinker….By 17 I had the “regular” formula that would endure…Truthfully, when I go to any coffee shop I am looking for the cup of coffee that tastes like a version of “2 creams, no sugar”…..For that reason I love a latte and enjoyed the £2 lattes the hotel served on my last trip to London…Enjoyed the article….

    1. Thank you for your kind words, James. We will need to call the 2 cream, no sugar coffee, Borders; after you.


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