So I feel I’ve been a bit unfair recently, especially with my posts in London. They have been well-researched and planned out before I’ve left the house to ensure I get the best coffee. Well, frequently, this isn’t how we enjoy coffee. Coffee is about the stumble upons, the descend upons and the all round despairathons. So, I set off from Pimlico with no idea where I was going to get coffee, and only a vague idea of where my final destination would be.
I gave the shoulder to many places in Victoria. There are lots of coffee places to choose from, especially along the market, where you get floods of commuters desperate for their next caffeine fix. However, despite these looking attractive, I felt that they all looked too busy and whilst that can be good, I felt there was nothing to distinguish one coffee house from another. The only thing to do in a situation like that is to go for the only thing that shows any individuality. That place was ‘flat cap’ (see pic 1). I’ve been looking into a recent fashion in London of street food, and so this stood out to me as street coffee. The prices were quite good, though the cup was quite small (I did order a small, but in the days where a starbucks ‘tall’ contains enough liquid to clean a car, sometimes I foolishly forget to look at actual sizes). The guy behind the machine was really friendly, and it felt personalised, despite being a merely ‘to go’ place. The coffee itself was good (the best cup I was to have that day), and starting to develop the higher tones that make a really superb cup. It was hand-crafted and well made, and I daresay better than most of the coffee served in the coffee shops around there. Impressed, I trekked on.
Something that I struggle to find in central London is a good cup of coffee. If you’re looking for a half-decent cup, you will usually just run into one of the many thousands of Starbucks, Caffe Neros or Costas that line the country’s biggest shopping streets. This has always seemed a shame to me, though I fall prey to it as much as anyone. Today, I vowed to find an independent place to finally break this pattern. What I came across was ‘Spreads‘ on the Mall, near Piccadilly and Leicester Square. A lesson that the Intrepid Explorer must learn fast is that, even now, the independence of a coffee shop does not guarantee its quality. I have learnt this before, but was mercilessly retaught with my first and last visit to Spreads. The food was actually not that bad, but as its a deli, you would hope not. I ate the Tagiatelli with ham and chorizo, and it was fine, and relatively cheap for a hot dish. The interior was decorated nicely at the bar, but in the back where customers ate it was reminiscent of a school cafeteria. And then there was the coffee… Spreads uses ‘bonito’ coffee from Italy. I can only imagine someone at the warehouse put actual bonito in the bags, because there was something very fishy about my latte (see pic 2). It was not very well made (other than ale, no drink should be served with an inch of head). The coffee itself tasted bad. Not just poor quality, but I was very close to not drinking it because it had such a strange and unappealing aftertaste. Go to Nero or Starbucks before you go here. On the plus side, the staff were very friendly and just the right amount of attentive, but it was not enough to be a saving grace.
Disappointed, disillusioned and with the clouds circling like vultures I continued to my last coffee place of the day. I had been looking for a place to read my book, and so I though Waterstones on Piccadilly would be a good place to start. After having looked around the shop and deciding it’s not as fun as buying from an Oxfam/Second hand bookshop, I took the lift up to ‘5th View’ the bar/restaurant, which has been described by the guardian as one of the best places to read in London (okay, so maybe after the Spreads debacle, I decided to do some research before just stumbling around London). The view is really very nice (see pic 3), and it is a great place to read. People seem to have maintained the quiet etiquette that dominates the rest of the shop because it was busy, and yet I was still able to concentrate quite well. Food and alcohol is served, but I was simply looking for a quiet place to enjoy my coffee (see pic 4). I found it, though the coffee was Illy, and so rather mediocre and listless, it was a really nice place to relax, and I would recommend it on those grounds alone. It is ‘an oasis’ (to quote the guardian article) in the desert of hustle and bustle that is central London.
My advice is a sort of hybrid strategy to exploring. If you’re in a big city, by all means wander until you find somewhere that looks acceptable. But don’t just walk in. What the big chains rely on is their consistency: you’ll never have a coffee that you’ll push away through flawed taste. But independent places yield the extremes of the spectrum, so arm yourself with a tool that lets you distinguish. It used to be guidebooks, now its iPhones. Whatever it is, don’t be a hero, check a place’s rep before you go in guns blazing.