Okay, maybe three coffees, maybe four, or maybe more…
As some of you may know, I really do love my coffee. Always have. Ever since I first started drinking the stuff about fifteen years ago at a drive-through espresso shack in the parking lot of my small town’s big supermarket, I have been hooked.
You see, where I grew up in the US, even truck drivers drank decent espresso 20 years ago, and that’s saying something in a country where in most places the best coffee you could hope for at that time – if it wasn’t instant (pardon me while I blow chunks) – was an archaic version of Boyd’s that hadn’t been scorched by sitting around too long on the burner and where the tea you normally got served was Lipton Yellow Label (yuck!).
As I pressed down on the accelerator of my gray Nissan Pathfinder each morning before high school, racing toward my Mecca which was that espresso shack, anticipating the bitter-sweet attack of my morning Mocha (complete with chocolate malt ball on top of the lid), knowing that it would give me that jolt I needed to see the morning’s classes through, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to give up the stuff. Sure, I’ve tried to wean myself off of coffee (and caffeine) a few times – for punishment, my body gave me worse headaches than most of my friends had when withdrawing from cigarettes – and I even succeeded a few times, once for over a year.
These days, my palate has moved on and prefers something less sweet, namely a simple espresso or the occasional macchiato. I like my coffee the way it comes, no sugar added please, whether it be white sugar, brown or what have you. I have also become pretty finicky over the years when it comes to my morning ritual (occasionally, if really tired, I have an injection after lunch). Having tried what are purportedly the best places for coffee in many of the countries and cities that are meant to have the best coffee, I can honestly say that only the rare occasion have my eyebrows perked up and my taste buds said, “Hey, now this is one of the better coffees I’ve had in a long time.” I would not say that I am elitist about coffee, though, I just know what I like and, even better, what I don’t. For example, when in New York, if in a diner, I might still order coffee, but I just know it will be diner coffee and set my expectations accordingly.
The coffee scene in London has improved dramatically in the 10 years that I’ve been living here. Although a lot of the chains serve very poor coffee and are often inconsistent across their branch network, there are now a number of places dotted around this fair city which serve up a pretty good cuppa joe. Not a lot, but some – hey, such is the march of progress.
But before moving onto the major chains, I would like to focus on two places in particular. Within a 10-minute walking radius of my workplace, there are a couple of very good coffee houses. Unfortunately they don’t happen to fall along the straight line that I walk from tube station to office door, so I don’t frequent them every day, but when I feel the need for caffeine or the burning desire for a good espresso, it is to them that I most often turn. They are my mid-morning or mid-afternoon luxury, my fix, my me-time.
Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden Branch)
The first is probably the most established of the well-respected coffee houses in London, the original Monmouth in Covent Garden. Having tried all of their espresso based drinks and their black coffee (Americano), I have settled on ‘dry cappuccino’ as my beverage of choice, although all their drinks are fantastic and they probably do make the best Americano I’ve had in London. Their house espresso blend has a nice intensity, lots of chocolate on the palate and is very smooth, with an almost velvety mouth feel. To me, it has a lovely rich, round flavor that beautifully balances the sweeter fruity notes with a not-too-harsh streak of acidity. Paired with the dense and luxurious yet butterfly-light foam from Monmouth’s organic milk to balance the just slightly bitter tannic undertones of the espresso, it is a very competent, highly enjoyable espresso drink and does the trick for me every time.
The gist of it: Their drinks are consistently good, and I just like the charm of the place and the impressive knowledge and passion of most of the staff. I mean, they have a wooden bench and table for one person – how quirky and great is that? They also sell a wide range of coffee beans that are painstakingly sourced from around the world and can tell you all about the differences between them. There is normally a long queue if you don’t know what times to go, but I like that it’s on a little street in Covent Garden, that remains slightly funky and has a nice vibe and independent streak about it. I don’t really like the one across from Borough Market as it is too large and too busy.
Caffè Vergnano 1882
The only other place in the area that really sways me away from Monmouth is a rather new and somewhat flashy upstart. Set along the shop-fronts on an unlikely stretch of Charing Cross Road (unlikely in the sense that you don’t expect a serious coffee house here amongst the touristy drek), it is none other than Caffè Vergnano 1882. I have been in a number of times now and haven’t exactly gotten to the bottom of what the 1882 stands for (okay, I haven’t really tried to find out), but that is beside the point. The small chain has been set up by Luciano Franchi, whose family has been working for three generations in the London food industry. They apparently supply coffee and related machinery to the Italian Embassy, for whatever that’s worth.
But the best thing about walking into Caffè Vergnano is seeing their gargantuan silver madame, the holy grail of espresso fabrication, the elegant and maniacal stainless steel workhorse that pumps dark brown blood through its veins, the aortic arch from which the pulse of Verganano’s espresso emanates. Yeah, it’s the big honkin’ shiny espresso machine that you can’t miss from the window. It is the Elektra Belle Epoque, and on its crown is perched a peering eagle.
To make a long story short, it makes a mean cup of espresso. Their own blend of espresso is composed of seven single-origin beans (including the elusive and expensive Nicaraguan Maragogype) and it is one of the nicer ones I’ve had, certainly one of the top in London. It has a full and broad flavor spectrum and, to me, has a tad more bitterness beneath it than Monmouth’s, though without being cloying. My favorite incarnation of Vergnano’s espresso is a double macchiato, with the little bit of foam providing a tiny cushion of creaminess to offset the fine espresso flavor.
The other thing I like about Vergnano is that it is sort of like an Italian espresso bar. You can order your drink and have it standing up at the counter – or if you want you can sit down or walk out with it. With each coffee they also give you a little Italian biscuit or chocolate (I have never figured out if it’s the drink you order or the luck of the draw that determines which one you get), and I think it’s a great little touch. I would probably describe the service at the Charing Cross Road branch as ‘professional’. It’s not warm, it’s not touchy, it’s not personal, but it’s not rude or mean either. They are just there doing their job and trying to provide you with a good drink.
The gist of it: I haven’t been to their other branches, but I think that this one is great. No-nonsense accomplished espresso drinks and the holy grail of coffee machines staring you in the face. Plus you get a little treat with your coffee and can stand at the bar.
Honorable Mention: Flat White
Although it is really a trek from my office to Flat White, I’ve tried this Soho-based coffee house a number of times and almost think I’ve walked into a funky little American coffee house on a college campus somewhere. There is always rock music on the radio, the staff sort of ignore you (at least me!) and I don’t really like the vibe all that much (it’s a bit up its own backside if you ask me), but the coffee drinks are pretty good. Here, I like the eponymous drink the best.
At the Top of My Wish List: Gwilym Davies Espresso Cart
I really want to taste an espresso drink from Gwilym Davies, recently crowned the World Barista Champion, who runs a few coffee carts in the City, but haven’t tracked him down as yet. Youngandfoodish did a great little write-up on him recently, and reckons that Gwilym just sees himself as “the last [person] in a line that stretches from grower(s) to roaster to barista and determines the quality of the cup.”
So why do I go to Pret?
Well, after focusing on these two gems, here comes the hypocritical bit. In spite of these places being pretty close to my place of work, I still get my morning shot from one of the larger coffee chains that uses a push-button espresso machine. I know, the travesty, the indecency, the illogicality (is that even a word?) of it all. Come on, go ahead and bombard me with comments about what a sell-out I am, I am expecting it. I just want to be honest, though!
Yes, I will admit it. My morning ritual is to stop by a tiny branch of Pret A Manger located directly on my walking route to the office. They make me a single, slightly long macchiato with just a dollop of foam on top. I like the taste and I like the two or three people who serve me each morning. They are always there, they are exceedingly friendly, they know me, they know what I like and we have a little chat from time to time. Oh, and it costs £1.25, so about half of the two places mentioned above. So, out of the chains, my preferred one is Pret. I think their espresso is perfectly good; it is convenient (hell, they are everywhere) and they are in my experience the most consistently professional, cheerful, fun and well-trained staff out of any of the national chains. So here’s my little list of the big boys, in descending order.
The Big Boys
- Pret A Manger – see rationale above.
- Coffee Republic – always liked their coffee, though they don’t seem to have many outlets these days.
- Caffè Nero – I never really had a big affection for Nero, and think their espresso is simply too bitter, but they’re pretty consistent and it’s not all that bad. They really try with their food offerings too, and it is packaged well, but it just never tastes very good in my experience. The places all have the same vibe, and I sort of like it, I just never leave that satisfied in any respect.
- Starbucks – can’t put them as number three, as they are more the Häagen Dazs of coffee than a real coffee house anymore, but if their normal drinks are made well, they are pretty good. Their espresso is actually okay to me, but is a bit bitter for some people. The main problem with Starbucks in the UK is the lack of decent training of the people making the drinks – it’s simply all over the place. They often burn the milk…
- Costa – I have tried this place about once a year for the last 10 years and have always hated it. I may be wrong, but that’s always my conclusion. They are making a big advertising push now saying that they don’t push buttons (a stab at Pret, presumably), they hand craft their coffees, so maybe I should give them another try. Should I? Am I completely wrong?
As a side note, after noticing the huge PR blitz around McDonald’s recently re-launched coffee offerings, I eventually succumbed and used a free coupon from the Metro newspaper to try a cappuccino from my local branch of the golden arches. It was Horr. Ibb. Uhl. Not exactly unexpected, but not exactly drinkable either. Milk severely burned, espresso extremely bitter and unbalanced. Puke.
In fact, they are really annoying me these days with their ad campaigns – they have ripped off the best tune from Disney’s Robin Hood (which was one of my favorite movies when I was a child) and are trying to make people believe they’re all into local farming and are a shiny, happy friend of the farmer. They should get real about what they really do and people should not drink their coffee, because it sucks…big time.
So, that’s my little coffee tale. Let me know what you think. I wrote this all at once without thinking too much, so maybe I’ve missed something (?). Let me know.
Disclaimer: I have yet to make it to a lot of the little artisan coffee shops in London (i.e. Fernandez & Wells and so forth), so would be interested to know your opinions of other establishments and your recommendations.
Over and out for now,