Virtual feasts

Food - Bee Wilson surfs the Internet cafes

Back in the dark days of the mid-1990s, before Hotmail and even existed, most computer illiterates had only experienced getting online by visiting an Internet cafe. Cyberia was the British pioneer, founded in September 1994 by Eva Pascoe and Gene Teare. I visited in 1995 in a state of great anticipation, expecting cyber-snacks, futuristic sushi rolls and powdered space drinks in shiny silver wrapping. Instead there were anguished American girls e-mailing imaginary friends in Utah and drinking misery-inducing quantities of extra-caffeinated Jolt cola. I tried to find a Courtney Love site, but the connection crashed. A few nerds were eating chocolate and sticky shortbready cakes to help keep their eyes open. There may have been some soup. Later I went to an Internet award ceremony there, attended by Mr C of the Shamen (that dates it) and Carol Vorderman. They were promoting Lipton's fizzy iced tea - which tastes as disgusting as it sounds.

These days, the Whitfield Street, London W1, branch of Cyberia says that its menu is less "extensive" than it once was. "Basically, the food we do is snacky, really, toasties and a range of natural cakes." Smoothies are popular in the summer. The coffee is the real focus - "cappuccino, mocha, expressos and double expressos [sic]". Plated food just didn't fit in with the mood. It takes too long to eat and gets in the way of the tap-tap-tapping at the glowing screens. A spokeswoman tells me that "toasties are perfect because they encase a filling, if you know what I mean". But at the Manila branch of Cyberia in the Philippines there is a restaurant seating up to 100 people. The Manchester branch has "more of a clubby bar".

CB2 is an Internet cafe and bookshop in Cambridge that attempts to combine brasserie food with "the fastest Internet connection in Europe". But here, too, it seems to be the "encased" food that most net-heads go for. You see them march in wearing car coats, carrying a record bag. They make straight for the nearest i-Mac and order a plain croissant or a toothsome toasted ciabatta with feta, aubergine, baked tomato and spinach (very encased). Their only problem is how to deal with the inconvenient cucumber and dill on the side. Best leave it. Wouldn't want to get the keyboard greasy. The only customers eating cooked food (frittata, creme brulee and so on) are not using the computers. By and large, the less "encased" the food is, the less successful. We once went in the evening and ate "duck confit" that hadn't been confit'd and crab mousse with little bits of plastic in it. We didn't use the computers.

Internet cafes are really daytime or late-night places. Evening, the best bit of the day in real life, seems to get submerged on the net. In daylight, exotic foreign language students slither upstairs at CB2 to smoke Marlboros and drink fresh juices (carrot and celery). Nexus-style think-tankers with bicycle clips nurse cappuccinos through earnest meetings with colleagues. Everyone is "encased" in their own little package, like the food they order.

In Douglas Coupland's Microserfs (1995), Microsoft programmers eat instant noodles and microwave popcorn, Campbell's soup and Skittles, and "sandpaper" their mouths with too many bowls of Cap'n Crunch cereal (an American favourite that has the texture of Grape Nuts and the sugar content of Frosties). If anything is guaranteed to kill the appetite, it's too many hours "encased" in a virtual world. Perhaps the strongest drawback to the growth of the net is that it destroys sociable dining - much more so than television. Long ago, in the 1980s, we ate meals a la russe, one course at a time. Now we eat them a la Gates, out of a big cereal box by the side of our modem.