Fans of the baddest bean in town have been turning the buzz up to eleven in recent months, as London’s coffee scene has exploded into life. One particular strip, which could be fairly dubbed London’s Coffee Crescent, stretches from Shoreditch in the east, then along Old Street to Clerkenwell and Farringdon in the west. It is a particularly rich seam for caffeine lovers.
The area has been a place of pilgrimage for a while, with the near-legendary Gwilym’s Coffee Cart on Whitecross Street Market pulling in punters from across town. Just up the road, Look Mum No Hands is a bicycle workshop disguised as a top-notch café (or possibly the other way round) that screens big bike races and serves a mean lunch. It’s one of several cycling-themed cafés nearby, with FullCity on Leather Lane offering a more rugged messenger-friendly environment. At the west end of the Cresent include Farm Collective is another fresh offering.
The area is a snapshot of central London, with weekday office workers, a growing crowd of cooler-than-thou scenesters and long-time Londoners going about their business. While it’s not slap-bang on the tourist trail there’s much to recommend in a wander here, from Shoreditch’s fashionable bars and shops to Bunhill Fields – where poet William Blake and writers John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe have their graves – and historic lanes and churches around Smithfields.
It is in Clerkenwell that another relatively recent opening, St Ali (now called Workshop - same fab cafe, just a different name), is to be found. The name will be familiar to fans of Melbourne’s much-heralded coffee scene as the original is found in the suburb of South Melbourne, sandwiched between the West Gate Freeway and Albert Park. The London version has only been open a few months and is an ambitious enterprise. As well as serving eye-popping espresso and a huge variety of filtered coffees, the café also serves a full menu well accompanied by some superb craft beers and has London’s only on-site roaster.
I caught up with St Ali's Director of Coffee Tim Williams who talked about their operation, describing it as bringing together 'a top-class restaurant and a kick-ass coffee shop'. It certainly offers something different, with the roaster whirring away in the background behind chugging coffee machines, managing to feel like a place to eat and drink at the same time. Williams feels that London’s less distinctive coffee culture compared to, say, Melbourne offers 'a clean slate' when it came to the sort of place that might be viable. To prove the point, Tim’s previous London venture, Penny University, was a six-seat coffee bar which did not offer takeaway and only served a changing menu of three different filter coffees.
What to drink when in these places? St Ali import and roast their own beans meaning you’ll find something interesting there. Elsewhere Monmouth beans and those produced by Square Mile Roaster are well regarded for London brewing. Monmouth Coffee has branches on Monmouth Street in Covent Garden and at Borough Market and in Bermondsey. But follow your nose. At the moment it feels that every cross-town journey takes visitors to London past an interesting looking new café. It may be wise to build some slack into your time touring the British capital to check some of them out.
This article was first published in July 2011 and was refreshed in July 2012.