Greeting and chatting with total strangers is part and parcel of cafe culture across Europe. Tables, like the houses, are often pretty close together, and it's possible to look into someone's eyes, smile at them and say: "Hello. Where are you from?" as a conversation appetizer.
I've met many fascinating people this way, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner John Hume. A similar culture exists at Milton's Cafe, 920 Mass. It's how I met Sandra Gautt, doctoral studies coordinator for the special education department at Kansas University.
She and her husband of 33 years, Prentice Gautt, ate breakfast at Milton's every Sunday for four years until his sudden death in 2005. He was assistant commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, the first black football player at the University of Oklahoma, an Academic All-American in 1958, the most valuable player in Oklahoma's 1959 Orange Bowl victory over Syracuse, and then played in the NFL. The OU academic center for student-athletes is named after him.
"When Prentice died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, I was devastated," Gautt recalled. "I didn't want to eat at Milton's without him, but a friend gently coaxed me."
When she arrived, owner David Lewis, the staff and customers rallied around. They embraced and cried with her.
"They've supported me like I was family."
That's what she's become - a member of Milton's Cafe family. When Lewis' child was born last year he named him Milton Prentice and asked her to be an honorary grandmother.
"What a great honor for me," Gautt said, smiling. "The sense of diverse community and acceptance that Prentice tried to create throughout his life is reflected here at Milton's. I call it my second office because I meet colleagues and doctoral students here."
Community building is important to Lewis, the cafe's owner. After attending KU in the 1980s, he spent time in California, where he discovered some great coffee shops.
"People conversed and connected with one another over great coffee and food. I thought it would be neat to have something similar in Kansas," he explained.
The perfect opportunity arrived in 1997, when Terra Nova, a bookstore with a tiny coffee shop, closed its doors. Lewis refurbished the property to create a "cool cafe style" where conversation and community could flourish over first-class beverages and cuisine. He named the place after his father, Milton, a federal mediator, and part-time musician.
"He was an amazing guy who instilled the importance of community integration and involvement into me," Lewis said.
The friendly rapport the servers have with customers goes a long way to create a welcoming atmosphere. Nick Ray, an American studies student at KU and part-time disc jockey, has served there for six months and is already an integral part of the place.
"Serving is a great profession," he said. "I love working here. The customers are the friendliest I've ever met."
He instinctively understands the importance of refilling my cup so conversation can continue uninterrupted.
There's a wide selection of loose-leaf teas to choose from: black, herbal, green, red and white. They're served in glass mugs with a mesh strainer. Coffee comes from the Thanksgiving Company and boasts such flavors as Nutty, Zebra and Polar Bear mocha. A steady stream of regular to-go customers testifies to the coffee quality and the standard of service provided.
Breakfast is served daily until 2 p.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The place is especially popular on weekends. You can wait 35 minutes before being seated at the larger circular tables, at the two-person booths, the outdoor seating, or the bar stools if you're more agile. You can help yourself to coffee as you wait, sit on one of the Van Go or street benches and strike up fun conversations with new people.
The food is excellent and cooked on the premises. It includes pizzas, calzones, soups, cakes and cookies. It's also reasonably priced. I've discovered that if I arrive around 2 p.m. on weekdays, I can enjoy a great cup of tea and a day-old scone for under $2.50.
I'm one for a quality bargain, and this is one of the best in town. Check it out.