Eight years ago, when I told family and friends that I had decided to pack up my Australian life in the midst of the global financial crisis and move to London, the first response was consistently, “But you can’t!! What about the coffee?!”
A restrained and perfectly understandable reaction. And one that did leave me questioning the wisdom of my decision.
Back then, London didn’t have a great reputation when it came to coffee. To many Melbournians, the thought of leaving the home of the flat white for the land of scalding, milky lattes simply didn’t add up.
Sure enough, upon landing on British shores, it quickly became apparent that finding a decent drop was no easy task. Perhaps this was because of the British propensity for tea. Or maybe it was down to their obsession with chains; people seemed perfectly happy getting their daily fix from a sandwich shop (or a certain green-logoed conglomerate that I refuse to name). Whatever the reason, coffee in London tended to be weak and tasteless, or at the other end of the scale, bitter.
It was all very distressing, and did make me wonder whether I could survive here. But over time I found that with perseverance, and a lot of legwork, you could find hidden gems that delivered a coffee reminiscent of home.
As the years have rolled on, it’s been much to my relief that coffee in London has had somewhat of a transformation, which I like to think has been led by the antipodeans. While the sandwich chains are still doing a roaring coffee trade, today there is no shortage of fantastic alternatives. So to all the coffee aficionados out there, you can now safely put London back on your travel list.
Here are the places that saved my sanity over the years, and convinced me that I could stick it out in London after all. This isn’t a ‘Best coffee in London’ list; I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer these days. But if you’re planning a trip to London, or if you already live here and want to understand why the colonials make such a fuss, I promise you won’t go wrong at any of these places.
Eight months into living in London, I moved from a coffee wasteland to Clerkenwell, one of London’s creative hubs. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that wherever there are creatives, there is always good coffee.
It was here that I was introduced to Caravan on Exmouth Market, one of the early leaders of London’s coffee renaissance. It was a revelation – coffee in London could actually be outstanding. Everything about it reminded me of Melbourne (despite it being run by New Zealanders); the contemporary interior, the outstanding brunch, and of course the excellent coffee using beans they roast themselves. Caravan was, and probably always will be, my sentimental London favourite.
Today, Caravan is an expanding empire – the cosy Exmouth Market original (postcode: EC1R 4QD), has been joined by larger additions in Kings Cross (N1C 4AA), Bankside (SE1 0HS) and the City (EC4N 8AR).
Upon discovering that I was living on a gang’s territory in Clerkenwell (ah, London), I promptly moved to Covent Garden. It was here that Monmouth became my staple. Monmouth is not so much a coffee shop, as a London institution – a bastion of quality coffee since 1978.
They have two stores – the original on Monmouth Street, Convent Garden (WC2H 9EU), and also in Borough Market (SE1 9AB). (Both are closed on Sundays.) You can tell they’re good by the extremely long queues, especially at Borough Market. But they’re experts, so the queue moves quickly.
To skip said queues, buy their single-origin coffee beans to take home – it’s a separate, shorter queue, and you can order your flat white at the same time.
The Watch House
These days, I live just off the charming Bermondsey Street, which remarkably manages a village feel despite its proximity to tourist magnets like Tower Bridge. The small strip is also blessed with not one, but FOUR café’s that sell excellent coffee.
The best of these has to be The Watch House (which also happens to be minutes from my front door. Coincidence? Perhaps).
Formerly the night watch house for the graveyard that lay behind it, today the tiny but full-of-character structure serves up strong and flavoursome coffee, and some of the best croissants in London (made by The Little Bread Peddler). The promise of a flat white from The Watch House is literally the only thing that coerces me out of bed on a Monday morning. (And Tuesdays to Fridays.)
The Watch House now has three locations – the original at 199 Bermondsey Street (SE1 3UW), 31 Shad Thames (SE1 2YR) and 92 Fetter Lane (EC4A 1EP).
As good as the coffee on Bermondsey Street is, the area has been bereft of any decent (a.k.a. Aussie-style) brunch places until recently. London Grind on London Bridge was the first to change the tide.
It’s part of Grind & Co, a constantly growing group of cafes – all of which boast excellent coffee, sleek interiors and a solid brunch. And even better, Grind doesn’t close its doors at 5:00pm. It puts its espresso machine to good use and serves up one of London’s best Espresso Martinis.
Today Grind operates 10 cafes and restaurants. You can find the full list on their website.
If you’re a tourist in London, Oxford Street will likely be on your hit list. If you’re a local, you likely avoid it at all costs, except for the occasional lapse in judgement when you forget what hell it actually is.
Either way, when you do find yourself on Oxford Street, wander back a block or two to Mortimor Street or Barrett Street and grab a coffee from Workshop Coffee. The coffee here is outstanding, and provides a welcome escape-in-a-cup from the chaos around the corner.
Workshop is recognized as one of London’s top roasters and has a number of sites – you can find them in Fitzrovia (W1W 7FE), Holborn EC1A 2FD), Marylebone (W1U 1AX) and White Collar Factor (EC1Y 8AF).
Side note: Workshop actually started its London life as St Ali, the second branch of one of my favourite Melbourne coffee shops. Of course I was going to love it! (They’ve since gone separate ways.)
Of course, no London coffee list of mine could leave off a place named after the flat white, perhaps the greatest Australian invention of all time. (Although, like the pavlova, the New Zealanders will try and claim it as their own.)
Flat White in the heart of Soho is another mainstay of London’s coffee revolution. It’s been consistently serving up excellent, artisan coffee for as long as my London memory will allow. The place is tiny, and the hipster baristas a touch aloof, but somehow this manages to add to the appeal of the place.
You can find Flat White on Berwick Street (W1F 0PT), or their sister café Milkbar is around the corner at 3 Bateman Street (W1D 4AG).