By John McCarthy
The best way to make sure you land with your bum in the butter when looking for good coffee abroad is to connect with a fellow epicurean, preferably one who has already done the leg work for you.
Like any good coffee addict the prospect of experiencing new tastes while scratching the caffeine itch was a large part of the appeal of my recent trip to London. I was only going to be in the City for 5 days and I didn’t want to waste time and money on finding and drinking bad coffee. My start point was the friend whose flat I was staying in. Her thinking is that if you can’t walk to a coffee shop that serves exceptional coffee within 5 minutes from where you are staying then you need to move! To have a host with this attitude, it was not surprising to find I was staying in Coffee Heaven. Within a brisk two minute stroll of her front door were three absolute gems of coffee shops, The Attendant, Kaffeine and Gitane.
The thing about London is that the population density is so intense that three magnificent coffee shops can survive and indeed flourish within spitting distance of each other. I was staying in Great Titchfield Street, between Oxford Circus and Regent Park. On my first morning out and after an early morning run around the Park (spectacular) I was ready for my first coffee of the day. With my seven-year-old son, Guy, as my wingman I went to the closest of the three, The Attendant.
Going deep underground. A refurbished urinal? Only in London.
Blue hair is in!
Winona Ryder naked in the bath among other things.
Stand back Marcel Du Champ you timid soul! Anyone can take a urinal, turn it upside down and rename it ‘The Fountain’, then put it in a gallery and call it art. But who could take a whole public toilet, located below ground and turn it into one of the coolest coffee shops you’ll ever go to, serving a smoky, smooth cappuccino that will bring tears to your eyes and renew youth faith in mankind? I was gob smacked. I returned from inner earth, two takeaways in hand to find my mistress still in bed. By the sound of her purrs after handing over one of the afore-mentioned real works of art I can safely say it was a huge success. As the English would say, in a word, ‘splendid!’
An expedition with delicious results. The Attendant delivered.
On day two it was so hard not to go to The Attendant. The gravitational pull down the stairs back to inner earth nearly got me as I walked past. I literally stood at the top of their staircase and breathed in the aroma of freshly ground and prepared coffee and wondered if I wasn’t making the biggest mistake of my trip. However, resolute in my mission to try as many coffee shops as I could, I steeled myself and walked the extra twenty meters down the road to Kaffeine.
Ah you naughty little temptress you!
I’m not sure if anyone is talking about ‘Indie’ coffee shops yet, but if they aren’t they should be and they would be well placed to start with Kaffeine. The lovers languishing outside the front door, their ephemerons jacked up on caffeine. Skinny jeans and Saville Row. This is a place where rock n roll meets banker, hooker meets client (outside of business hours). Why? Because it is downright naughty and the pressed black they serve is purer than the Iraqi hash freely available outside (if you know who to talk to).
The daughter of Keith Richards, I swear.
The blue haired barista-ress peddling the good stuff looks like the grand daughter of Keith Richards. I’m in love with her before she’s even taken my order. At 8am in London (early) the tunes will have you swinging your hips and the coffee… Oh Lordy, this is THE SHIT! Naughty, wicked, a bit dirty, but fucken delicious! Ochre’s and crushed blacks for the photographer folk, g-chords for the musos, a bottom turn for the surfers, and for the rest of us it is that magical place where the mischief starts.
A very strong French cigarette, usually smoked unfiltered by Russian spies and mysterious seductresses with deep accents and plunging cleavages. How could I possibly venture forth from my modest two bed roomed apartment (read worth more than a house and a beach cottage in SA) and find great coffee three days in a row? This time the walk of temptation was longer. Past my old friend The Attendant, past my new (and very sexy) friend Kaffeine and onwards a mere thirty meters into the London metropolis I found myself bashfully wondering how to approach Gitane.
This is one of those portals into the parallel universe you’ll find hard to spot at first glance. Apart from the modest and customary blackboard signage (which must change daily if not sooner!) you’ll walk right past this place if you are not in the correct frame of mind. Once inside though you’ll know why you are there.
There is some serious art on the walls in this place.
I missed the Blue-Hair-Do memo with ALL baristas in London right now, but forget about the aesthetics, let's get down to the taste. With Guy as my wingman again, I was ordering for me and my minx who remained firmly tucked up under the covers of some very beautiful French linen. Guy was doing likewise for his sister except the currency he was interested in was hot chocolate. I could tell the hot chocolate was a smash hit when on tasting it Guy’s eyes widened and he disappeared into his own smile. I couldn’t hold out on tasting my coffee and did so in front of the very attractive female barista with blue hair who’d made it. They have an awesome system of delivery for non-locals at Gitane. They ask you your name and write it on the take away cup. That way they get to know all of their customers quickly. When she called out my name and looked me in the eyes as she handed me the coffee I actually felt unfaithful to both The Attendant and Kaffeine. When I tasted the coffee I just knew it was the beginning of a smoldering affair. Guy and I returned to the apartment conquering heroes, laden with orange scented and richly flavored real dark chocolate, hot-chocolate and a coffee aroma of nuts and cloves, piqued by a serious explosion of full coffee taste laced with a delicious soft edge of very creamy milk.