Antipodean know-how and joviality invigorate the landscape for the top 10 coffee shops in London. Baristas from New Zealand and Australia transform waves of rich espresso and smoothly textured steamed milk into lattes so velvety you can barely see a bubble. Two Kiwi imports, Ozone Coffee and Allpress Espresso, have recently opened roasteries and coffee shops in London.
Yet it’s home-grown talent that represents the cream of the crema: Two of the last four World Barista Champions are British and work in London: 2007 winner James Hoffmann is co-owner of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, an artisan roaster supplying beans to half of the top 10 London coffee shops. 2009 champion Gwilym Davies co-operates the Prufrock Coffee Shop on Leather Lane, now the best coffee shop in London, as well as the “Prufrock” coffee trolley he and partner Jeremy Challender rolled into the menswear boutique Present. And Monmouth Coffee maintains world-class standards for sourcing, roasting and brewing beans while supporting small-batch indie roasters just getting into the act.
When this list was first posted in April 2009 I cautioned that the British capital wouldn’t be a coffee capital until the taste for excessively milky coffees receded and the best coffee shops looked beyond espresso to filter coffees. Those conditions have been met. In the months ahead we can expect to see more and more London coffee shops and even restaurants following the example of wonderful Caravan and roasting their own beans. More roasters and with it, a greater diversity of roasting styles, can only benefit an already thriving coffee scene.
London’s top 10 coffee shops (see map) nurture a close-knit community of cafenatics who circulate around East London and the West End and cheer on each other. That fluidity can extend to the baristas. Their restlessness speeds staff turnover, making it problematic to position any one coffee shop atop another on this top 10 list. Barista skills are a main consideration in choosing the top 10, ahead of shop atmosphere and behind only coffee quality and consistency. To qualify as a coffee shop, coffee must be its primary focus. This eliminates from consideration cafés where food takes priority over coffee, however good their coffee service may be.
The top 10 coffee shops in London
The first bricks-and-mortar coffee shop operated by Gwilym Davies. Previously the 2009 World Barista Champion was pulling shots at two street carts and, more recently, an espresso trolley rolled into the menswear boutique Present. That trolley remains, but at the Prufrock coffee shop there is room to follow the action drip by drip at the brew bar or sit at tables and chat, read, work or pretend to work as Davies, partner Jeremy Challender and their accomplished baristas fuss over the details, small and smaller, that go into producing a truly great coffee with featured and seasonal beans from Square Mile. The lower level is home to the London Barista Resource & Training school, which may be reserved for barista training, cafe consultancy and hen nights.
Prufrock Coffee Shop – 23 Leather Lane, EC1
Prufrock at Present – 140 Shoreditch High Street, E1
Notes does not compel you to compare espressos brewed from the beans of the Square Mile and world-class guest roasters. You’re not required to analyse the results of pressure profiling enabled by its La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. You’re not forced to sit at its brew bar, an homage to the tasting counter at the May-July 2010 pop-up Penny University, and try three filter coffees meticulously brewed by the syphon, V60 and drip pot (woodneck) methods. You don’t have to shop for CDs and DVDs, or sit comfortably for hours listening to them. You don’t even have to tie your visit to cultural attractions around nearby Trafalgar and Leicester Squares and, with the beautiful new location, Covent Garden. All you need to do is go.
31 St Martin’s Lane, WC2
36 Wellington Street, WC2
The great pioneer of pour-over filter coffee is so central to the Convent Garden area it almost seems as if the sundial pillar at Seven Dials is points north down the street that lent the coffee shop its name. Its velvety lattes are made with organic Jersey milk from Jeff Bowles in Somerset, making it one of the few coffee shops anywhere that takes its milk as seriously as its coffee. The best and maybe also the worst that can be said about London’s long-running, highest-quality roaster is that it hasn’t been influenced much by recent trends. Snug tables hidden in the rear must often be shared, when two knees can already seem two too many. The larger Monmouth outside Borough Market, with its pour-through cone filter bar, communal table and improvisational street theatre (otherwise known as a queue), is a must stop before, after and midway through visits to the food market. Monmouth’s Saturday annex has moved further east along the Bermondsey rail arches from its Maltby Street roastery to Spa Terminus.
Monmouth Covent Garden – 26 Monmouth Street, WC2
Monmouth Borough Market – 2 Park Street, SE1
Monmouth Bermondsey – 148 Spa Road, SE16
4. Milk Bar/Flat White
Milk Bar may share the same coffee and New Zealand lineage as Flat White, its older Soho sibling, but that doesn’t stop its devotees from insisting the spinoff is superior to – and cooler than – the original. While I can fault neither the espresso drinks nor the top baristas at either shop I fully understand such loyalties. Personally I’d rather the Milk Bar’s Matt not know when I am at Flat White, just as I’d prefer Flat White’s Cameron be kept in the dark about my visits to Milk Bar. Rest assured, at both shops the outstanding macchiato is made from the same custom espresso blend by roaster Square Mile, marked with the same three-swirl signature and delivered with the same Antipodean good cheer.
Milk Bar – 3 Bateman Street, W1
Flat White – 17 Berwick Street, W1
Identified only by the “No. 26″ and “No. 114″ on its shopfronts, Tapped & Packed fills its grinders with two custom espresso blends from the West Midlands roaster Has Bean, a more nuanced one for espressos and americanos and a punchier one to cut through the milk in flat whites and lattes. Filter coffee, though less prominent than it the past, is brewed with great, drip-by-drip care. The best option of may relate to the length and quality of your coffee break: T&P’s finicky baristas are fine with quickies, sending you away with a takeaway cup inside a minute, yet encourage you to overstay your welcome at inviting tables, quiet corners and, at No. 114, glorious picture windows.
26 Rathbone Place, W1
114 Tottenham Court Rd, W1
Nude was launched as a calming retreat from the outrageousness – and outrageously bad coffee – of Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Its new location, tucked into a quiet corner of leafy Soho Square, provides sanctuary from the insanity – and insanely bad coffee – of Oxford Street. The beans are roasted at Nude’s Brick Lane roastery, while the warm hospitality and milk-texturing techniques are exported from New Zealand and Australia. If you want the naked truth, Nude’s standing offer of a complimentary coffee with every 250-gram bag of coffee beans purchased is a no-brainer from both directions: If you’re buying beans you might as well have a coffee. If you’re having a coffee you might as well buy some beans.
Nude Espresso Spitalfields, 26 Hanbury Street, E1
Nude Espresso Soho, 19 Soho Square, W1
Workshop may have started life in London as the Melboune import ST ALi, both in name and inspiration, but its coffee beans are transformed from green to brown in a roaster positioned some 10 metres behind the handsome Slayer espresso machine that fronts this brick-walled Clerkenwell duplex. With a choice ringside seat you can hear the roaster with one ear and the espresso machine with the other. The very good quality of the espresso drinks and filter coffees is on an upward trajectory, both here and at the satellite coffee bar formerly known as Sensory Lab in Marylebone, just north of the Oxford Street department stores.
27 Clerkenwell Road, EC1
75 Wigmore Street, W1U
Owner/barista James Phillips has moved his curvy red La Marzocco FB-80 espresso machine one door down on Long Lane into larger quarters split diagonally in a sharp design by Velorose. But it is the increase from 18 to 25 square metres that is most impressive to regulars thrilled to have a place to actually sit with coffees meticulously prepared with Square Mile beans. So will Phillips now change the name of his coffee shop to Doubledose? “Um”, he replies, “no”.
70 Long Lane, EC1
The overworked perfectionist behind this truly indie coffee shop offers proof you don’t need to have Antipodean ancestry to be an unflappably affable London barista. We’ll ignore the fact that British owner/operator Ben Townsend spent 8 years in Melbourne, acquiring Australian citizenship along the way. In his narrow shop, Ben fastidiously pulls every shot of Square Mile espresso as if it were lifesaving: Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital would be wise to prescribe 3 per day to their patients.
31-35 Great Ormond Street, WC1
Kaffeine charges £2.50 for a latte, which, given the high rents for office space in Fitzrovia, has to be regarded as one of the great values in London. It’s a great spot to take a kaffeinated meeting or respite, with Square Mile beans extracted from Synesso Cyncra espresso machine. No, caffeine is not spelled with a K in Australia and New Zealand, from whence the owners and baristas came.
66 Great Titchfield Street, W1
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