Welcome to your insider’s guide to the best caffeine in the capital…
As a true coffee devotee, Brian Williams has spent the last five years travelling the world in search of the globe’s best coffee shops. His adventures have been documented in thousands of detailed posts on his blog, Brian’s Coffee Spot, and his expertise has earned him tens of thousands of loyal followers on social media.
And now the British Library has published his new book, The Philosophy of Coffee. Described by Brian as “tracing the history of coffee from its humble origins in Ethiopia to its current status as a global phenomenon”, it’s a beautifully illustrated guide to everything we could ever want to know about our morning cup of Joe.
Here, Brian shares his insider’s knowledge on the best under-the-radar coffee spots in the capital. Whether you’re looking for a speciality bean or a seriously stunning location, you’ll want to add these to your must-visit list, pronto.
White Mulberries is one of those hidden gems of the London Coffee Scene that you’re not going to randomly stumble across. Tucked away in the lovely St Katherine Docks, it’s opposite the lock to the Thames. Run by husband and wife team Peyman and Rana, it has a wonderfully warm, friendly and welcoming atmosphere. The coffee is top-notch, but it’s not the biggest of places, so your best bet is to sit outside where, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some great views of the Queen’s Barge, Gloriana.
Directly opposite Putney Bridge Station on the District Line sits a small slice of Italy, as well as a part of London coffee history. Doctor Espresso Caffetteria is an Italian-style café and espresso bar, run by owners Russell and Vanessa. It’s main claim to fame, and one that probably passes most of the customers by, is that it’s home to London’s oldest working espresso machine, a classic Gaggia Tipo America, dating from 1956 and lovingly restored by Russell (aka Doctor Espresso) himself. Not only is the coffee excellent, but there’s some great Italian food on offer: paninis, calzones, pizzas, pastas & salads, along with some delicious cakes and pastries.
Going one better than Doctor Espresso Caffetteria, Coffee Affair is actually in a station: the Queenstown Road on the line into Waterloo. Occupying the old ticket office, it’s a step up (in location terms) for owners Mags and Michael, who have been at Queenstown Road since they first started serving coffee from a little Piaggio Ape van in 2006. While they have their fair share of commuters stopping by for a latte on their way into office, Coffee Affair also rewards those with time on their hands. Grab a seat at one of the two tables and watch as Mags or Michael lovingly make a hand-poured filter coffee just for you. The coffee is excellent, but the spectacle is just as good.
Set in the soaring nave of Christopher Wren’s St Nicholas Cole Abbey, The Wren might have the best location of any coffee shop in London. If you don’t want to sit inside, then the outside seating is just as good, with a large, sun-drenched terrace next to the door, or a small, shady cluster of tables, tucked away around a corner at the bottom of the steps that lead up to the church. The coffee is just as good as the setting, while there are small but interesting breakfast and lunch menus.
Not quite in a church this time, Expresso Base is tucked away in the back of the courtyard of St George’s Church near the British Museum. Essentially an outdoor café, Expresso Base has plenty of seating, and its secluded setting removes it from the hustle and bustle of central London. If it’s raining, various umbrellas can be put up to provide shelter, while on a brighter day, there’s nothing better than sitting on one of the wooden benches and enjoying your coffee in the sun. Alternatively, stand by the counter at the back and chat with the lovely owner, Gennaro.
Wild & Wood is something of a pioneer in London’s speciality coffee scene. It first opened in 2008, when it occupied a small shop on New Oxford Street, fitted out in wood reclaimed from an old church. It was a delightful hodgepodge of panelling, seats and tables, all crammed into a small, awkward space, which helped give it a wonderful charm.
When the building was cleared for redevelopment in 2015, Wild & Wood was left homeless, but reappeared a few months later in its current home on London Wall. There was a fear the move would ruin the establishment, but owners Bozena and Kit pretty much transplanted Wild & Wood lock, stock and barrel, keeping all the original fittings, plus the same atmosphere that has always made it a firm favourite.
Talking of pioneers… just by Ealing Broadway Station, you’ll find the Electric Coffee Company, which has been going since 2008 with husband and wife team Simon and Oksana at the helm. From humble beginnings, it’s slowly grown in size, extending into vacant space behind the shop to cater for ever-growing demand. These days it roasts its own beans from a dedicated roastery down in Sussex, while back in the shop, breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch services have been added to the repertoire, proving to be just as popular as the coffee.
At the other end of the scale from Electric Coffee Co., Lanark Coffee has been serving superb coffee since the summer of 2014 from a tiny space at the western end of Hackney Road. Lanark, and its owners, Greg and Dom, pride themselves on variety, buying in small batches of 3-4 kg of coffee at a time before moving onto something else. This way, you get to try coffee from some of London’s best roasters, as well as those from further afield, without ever having to go any further than Hackney.
Frequency is slightly off the beaten track between King’s Cross and Exmouth Market, tucked away in a little parade of shops. It’s a cosy space, long and thin, with seating at the front and in a little room at the back if you want to escape the comings and goings of the other customers. There’s also a wonderful basement split into a number of small rooms. Perhaps the best feature, though, other than the excellent coffee, is the warm welcome you’ll get from owners Justo and Joey.
Making great coffee is hard enough when you do it indoors, but Mounir, the owner of Lever & Bloom, has the elements to contend with as well. Come rain or shine, you’ll find him serving top-quality coffee from a little van on the corner of Byng Place in Bloomsbury, with the magnificent Church of Christ the King as a backdrop. If you want to linger, there are several tables (provided by the local council) where you can sit and enjoy your coffee and perhaps have one of the excellent cakes, all of which are made by Mounir’s wife.
The Philosophy of Coffee is available to buy here
Images: Brooke Cagle, Alisa Anton