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Fifty years ago, Josephina Yangcras walked down Bow Street and spotted a four-story house with a small patio.
She knew at first sight it was perfect for the cafe she was planning to start.
Now 85 years old, Yangcras still opens Cafe Pamplona’s doors each day at 11 a.m.
Little has changed at the austere, low-ceilinged cafe since its opening in 1959. But there have been a few concessions to the passage of time—Yangcras agreed to ban smoking in 1998, the first female waiter was hired one year later and, two months ago, Yangcras expanded her one-sandwich menu to include a full tapas offering.
Still, waiters and patrons tell stories of memorable customers, many of them students from Adams House—“when it was still artsy,” as one regular puts it—who return after thirty years and marvel at how little the cafe has changed.
“They always are surprised. They go, ‘It’s still here, nothing else is the same, but this is still here,’” says David H. Brennan, who has been coming to Pamplona since the 1970s.
During his visits to the cafe, he reads and writes poetry over a concoction he invented involving coffee, milk, crushed ice and chocolate syrup.
He even wrote a poem titled “Ode to the Cafe Pamplona.”
The poem includes the lines, “When your steam machine roars/I hear bulls thunder through holy Pamplona/Your caffeine music kindles my veins.”
An Intricate History
It is 11 a.m., opening time at the cafe. Yangcras navigates her way through the kitchen and 12 cramped tables with surprising agility given her slightly stooped frame, settling down to do what is done best at Cafe Pamplona—sit and chat.
Yangcras came to America from Pamplona, Spain in 1950 leaving a country ravaged by the Spanish Civil War.
Her father’s third cousin was in Harvard’s Romance Languages Department, she says. Yangcras came to live with the distant relatives in Cambridge until she made enough money from her job at an upscale Boston clothing store to get her own place.
Starting up a new life was difficult, she says.
“I was so lonely,” she laughs. “There was no place to go. In Spain, we have places you can go and meet your friends.”
Unhappy with the lack of cafes in the Square—Yangcras says Pamplona was the only one until Cafe Algiers opened in 1971—she decided to start her own.
Her intention, she says, was to capture something of her home in Pamplona, the Basque town where she grew up.
With the help of friends who lent her money for the purchase, Yangcras bought the 12 Bow St. spot when it came on the market.
“It was immediately successful,” Yangcras says with pride. “It was a very good place because it was for everybody. You can stay there from noon till night.”
Coffee And Philosophy
Throughout the years, Cafe Pamplona has attracted a loyal cast of characters who often spend hours in the black-and-white cave-like cafe.
Lee K. Riethmiller has come to the cafe nearly every night for the past thirty years at 11 p.m. to read, reflect, and write poetry.
He first visited the cafe when his business offered classes in conversational French, Italian or Spanish that took place at Pamplona.
Riethmiller wears his long black hair loose and likes to philosophize on the history of the cafe over a coffee and hot chocolate—taken simultaneously.
“The cafe is the future,” he says. “The cafe is the one marker of a truly urbane society."
“Coffee houses are the one place in our culture where you get an advanced perspective on your life,” he says. “If you sit in a pizza shop, you’re not going to feel the same way.”
Aside from the time Al Gore ’69 came to the cafe with his family, Riethmiller says his fondest memory of Pamplona is the day after the cafe stopped allowing smoking in 1998.
Customers and waiters can still smoke on the patio.
“The ones it was really fun to see were the ones who went off in a huff,” says Riethmiller, who is adamantly anti-smoking.
The More Things Change
The smoking ban is one of a few changes the cafe has seen in the past fifty years.
The cafe apparently had a sound system once—a painted-over speaker is still visible in one of the walls—but, according to Brennan, legend goes that Yangcras dismissed the idea of music in the cafe after playing just one side of a record.
Perhaps the most notable change was the first female waiter was hired in February 1999.
The waitstaff had, until then, followed the Spanish model—which Yangcras says does not hire women to work in high-end restaurants. At Pamplona, the waiters still wear a black-and-white uniform with a tie that is typical in Spain.
Jennifer A. Follen, the first woman hired, said she “shrugged it off” when her boss warned her that people might be taken aback by her presence.
“I didn’t think anyone would notice that it was a girl and not a guy,” she said.
But Follen had underestimated the strength of tradition.
“Everybody noticed,” she says, relaxing with a cigarette on the patio after her shift. While other women have been hired since, Follen is currently Pamplona’s only female waiter.
“Some people’s reactions were through the roof. But some of the women were cool. They’d say, ‘Oh, I tried to get a job [at Pamplona] before,’” she said.
However, it is the cafe’s most recent change that makes Yangcras proud.
During the summer, she introduced a tapas menu—considerably expanding the food options available. Previously, hungry patrons had a choice of only one ham, cheese and pickle sandwich, the media noche.
“I wanted to have tapas from the begining,” Yangcras says.
Her initial attempts to expand the menu were unsuccessful, however, because her desire to serve sangria was stopped. The cafe is located too close to a church to be granted a liquor license.
Now, instead of alcohol, she will offer Sanbitter, a typical Spanish soft drink that is extremely bitter, as the name implies.
“I’m 85-years-old, and I am going to have my dream of having tapas,” Yangcras says with a smile.
—Staff writer Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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