Coffee is a prickly subject.
I regularly disagree with one of my friends about where to find the best coffee in central London. She takes a long black and I tend towards a milky brew. I haven’t undertaken research in the strictest sense of the word, but my feeling is that baristas tend to prefer to pump out:
a) Gutsy shots of inky espresso, or,
b) Lush silky milk blends
They rarely look lovingly at long blacks. So for my friend ‘M’, coffee often comes in the form of a lukewarm brownish cup of wetnessness. I almost feel mean confessing that my perfectly brewed caramel cup of joy is as delicious as it is. But then she’ll over-enthuse about a café where the lattes are just a bit ‘meh’. It’s all in the eye of the coffee drinker.
For a latte or cappuccino it’s all about the temperature of the milk. Milk that’s been boiled to Hell’s average ambient temperature will kill off all the sugars in the milk and damage the protein. It will taste foul. Milk should be gently warmed to around 60-65 degrees. And not a centigrade over. It should also be no warmer than about 40 degrees when the barista starts to foam it. It should absolutely, positively, not-on-your-nelly ever be re-heated. So when ‘Barista’ Buckstar shoves the nozzle into a jug where the steam is already billowing into clouds you know you should cancel your order and chastise yourself for being there in the first place.
The other critical element is, of course, the bean. The type, the freshness, the roasting, the grinding. I prefer a gentle caramel, slightly nutty bean but this is too passive for another friend who prefers her daily grind to cleanse her innards at the same time. It’s all personal.
So personally, these are my faves. The five cafes in Soho and Marylebone I go to when I need some serious caffeination. They’re all included in my Soho Food Walk and Marylebone Walking Tour as pointers, so if you can’t find them through the addresses below come along and I’ll point them out.
This is one of my ‘happy places’. It’s where I go when the grind of life gets too much. The staff are delightful and just a bit obsessive about their coffee, so consistency is high. I’m sometimes lured into trying their guest bean, and occasionally I like it, but in general the Square Mile standard suits me well. Some seriously yummy treats will play havoc with your willpower, so don’t go on a 5:2 fasting day.
UPDATE: And their second store which opened early 2015 is here:
15 Eastcastle Street,
The mothership ‘superstore’ is in Clerkenwell (27 Clerkenwell Rd, London EC1M 5RN) but my fave is the Wigmore Street branch in Marylebone, central London. I’m from a small country town and I swear the staff at Workshop know the names of more of their customers than our local butcher did. It’s an endearing anomaly. One block away from the ruthless and chaotic Oxford Street there’s a community where you’ll find café staff asking after poorly relatives and fond customers bringing in food for the staff to sample.
The beans are Cult of Done and other guest beans, as and when they like. They also do a serious line in pour over and aeropress brews. A new branch of the family has just sprouted up at 60A Holborn Viaduct
Holborn, EC1A 2FD, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Marylebone store.
UPDATE: Early in 2015 this store moved to a back corner in St Christopher’s Place. Not altogether successfully. The staff are still very lovely and they still serve excellent coffees, but it’s not nearly as comfortable or commodious a space as Wigmore Street. Hospitality has dropped a little - no more complimentary sparkly water and it’s self-serve so you have to nab a spot on the communal bench then order, then queue to collect your order, then ferry your coffees back to your spot.
Tonic is a relative newbie in the world of Soho’s coffee haunts. Having not yet celebrated its first birthday, it’s definitely a whipper-snapper in the London coffee scene. But do you know who her Mum and Dad are? The clever peeps from the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs (and is there a better name for a café? I don’t think so…) set up Tonic in July 2013 having had good success with the off-Carnaby Street venture ‘Speakeasy Espresso and Brew Bar’. So, yes, good pedigree.
It’s ‘stand and drink’ in the tradition of good Italian coffee bars, so it’s worth noting there are only a handful of stools if you’re thinking of flopping after a trot around Soho. They mix their beans, buying over 100 different types of beans in any one year, so you might notice a change of flavour from one visit to another. I’ve been happy with all my tastings.
This café is down the grungy end of Wardour Street, Soho, often dwarfed by scaffolding and ongoing roadworks, it is worth hunting out for the simple, pared back space and the reliably good coffee. It’s a little tricky to find with it’s Buddhist approach to signage, but if you think you’re near, then just look up! There’s a bicycle attached to the façade so once you’ve spotted that you’re on your way to ‘re-caffeination’.
Again, there are several stores as part of this coffee emporioum, but I like the one at Wardour Street for it’s spaciousness and quirky skylights providing a slither of the sky in downtown London. Coffee-wise they have Hasbean and Square Mile; pour overs, press and the usual milky suspects.
Fernandez and Wells was one of the early advocates of London’s new wave coffee revolution in 2007. Six branches on it’s still pumping out fine ‘stumpys’ and feeding the city’s hipsters lunchtime treats. Together with the Antipodeans of Flat White and Milk Bar fame, Fernandez and Wells set the bar for brewing in a city long known for its insipid grayish cups of over-boiled milk and long-in-the-tooth beans. Quality control is high with geeky baristas taking what they do seriously. Very seriously. And I’m just fine with that.
UPDATE: I can only personally recommend the original Beak Street store now, having had far too many poor coffees at several of their other outlets (Duke Street is awful, Denmark St not much better).
Also try this lot:
Bar Termini - More info and our review here.