Back in September, the BBC reported that the UK is heading towards its coffee shop saturation point. Even in small towns, you’ll find several different coffee chains and some independent cafes within 100 yards of each other. As for London, you can barely move for baristas, but finding independent London cafes is trickier.
We all like a trip to Costa (the UK’s most visible coffee chain) now and again, yet independent cafes are far more fun to explore: the mystery of a new menu, a different blend of coffee or tea, and finding out if there are books, board games or artwork to enjoy. This is definitely the case in London, though I do realise some independents can take the biscuit when it comes to prices and pretentiousness. With this in mind, here are the best unpretentious and independent London cafes you should try.
2 Love Coffee House, St. John’s Road (nearest station: Clapham Junction)
Open Monday-Friday, 06:30-21:00; Saturday-Sunday, 08:30-21:00.
The tea menu is daunting, but the service and atmosphere is much more reassuring. Other drink options include Vietnamese coffee, healthy juices and the lovingly-named ‘sexy latte’ (try saying that with a straight face). Cakes and pastries are a mix of indulgent – the brownies are richer than rich – and diet-conscious.
You can buy packaged coffee or tea to take away and make at home, plus there’s a bizarre selection of jazzy socks for sale. As for seating, the grand piano offers bar stools with a view, or the smaller tables to the rear have plenty of plug sockets for work. At weekends, 2 Love is a laptop-free zone, but weekdays are laptop heaven. I would say the café has great taste in music, but I have heard more than one Michael Bublé song played here, so I’m deducting points.
Absolutely Starving, 51 Tooley Street, Hay’s Galleria (nearest station: London Bridge)
Open Monday-Friday, 07:00-20:00; Saturday-Sunday, 09:00-20:00.
The name really doesn’t prepare you for how good this café is. To me, feeling ‘starving’ suggests you’d settle for pretty much anything, whereas the food here is a cut above the rest: think fresh salads, delicious cakes, and a range of Italian and Polish deli snacks. The Wi-Fi password is ‘weloveabs’, but you might not have abs if you devote yourself to tasting every pastry on the menu – a serious pursuit.
Freelancers are left to their own devices, and the range of different seating areas means you can have a bit more privacy if necessary (I’m a fan of the more antisocial upper level areas, complete with books), or just people-watch to your heart’s content.
Dillon’s Coffee, Waterstones Gower Street (nearest station: Goodge Street)
Open Monday-Friday, 08:30-21:00; Saturday, 08:30-20:00; Sunday, 12:00-18:00.
Any café serving tea by the pint (£2) gets my vote. This is a haven for bibliophiles and writer types, with plenty of laptop users and the odd university student amongst the customers, as a large chunk of the UCL campus is just opposite. Dillon’s is ideal for long study sessions or perhaps carving out your future bestselling novel.
Should you be short of reading material, you’re inside of one of Waterstones’ best-loved branches, and the excellent magazine section is within spitting distance. Otherwise, just sit yourself down amongst the old-school wooden furniture and the dark blue walls, and enjoy.
George Farha Café, Lewis’ Building, 136 Gower Street (nearest station: Warren Street/Euston Square)
Open Monday- Friday, 07:30-20:00.
This is a useful haunt if you’re taking a short course at UCL, or you work nearby. Though it’s aimed at students, George Farha Café is open to everyone, and prices are very reasonable – a medium filter coffee is just £1 – so you’ll see builders, office workers and freelancers popping in.
It’s a relatively calm place to work, though some may find the music too distracting, so bring noise-cancelling headphones just in case. Obviously the earlier you go, the less you’re likely to bump into the student crowd, because we all know students rarely make it to 9am lectures…
Café Le Cordon Bleu, Pied Bull Yard, 15 Bloomsbury Square (nearest station: Holborn/Russell Square)
Open Monday-Friday, 07:30-18:30; Saturday, 08:00-15:00.
One of my very talented friends is taking the prestigious Diplôme de Pâtisserie course at Le Cordon Bleu, and she took me to its excellent café. Naturally, food standards are high, and a courtyard to the rear means you can enjoy your pristine French meal or snack (think sandwiches, salads, croissants from the boulangerie, and some latte art) with the last of the autumn sun.
If you can hit Le Cordon Bleu after the lunchtime rush, you’ll have a better choice of seating and there will still be plenty of classy pastries to decide between. Your very literary post-café pitstop could be the London Review of Books bookshop, on the other side of Pied Bull Yard.
Pomme de Pain, 260 Tottenham Court Road (nearest station: Tottenham Court Road/Goodge Street)
Open Monday-Thursday, 07:00-20:00; Friday-Saturday, 07:00-21:00; Sunday, 08:00-21:00.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but Pomme de Pain really punches above its weight. The name is a giveaway to the French-leaning menu, but there are also comfort food choices, like jacket potatoes, on offer. Everything is dirt-cheap for London, and it’s open late.
Most of the walls are covered in imaginative murals, and – weirdly – the toilets are an arty highlight. For a fuss-free food break just minutes from the hubbub of Oxford Street, you can’t go wrong, and it’s a nice alternative to hotel buffet breakfasts if you’re staying over nearby.
Rapha Cycle Club Café, 85 Brewer Street, Soho (nearest station: Piccadilly)
Open Monday-Friday, 08:00-20:00; Saturday, 08:30-19:30; Sunday, 11:00-18:00.
I interviewed two Australian comedy actors here (makers of the brilliant As Actors web series) for the Everything Theatre website, as it was their favourite London coffee shop. Just moments from the annoyingly busy Piccadilly Circus, Rapha is in its own little world of cycling heaven, with this café sitting seamlessly inside the trendy cycle shop.
The walls are covered with cycling memorabilia, and the tables hold different vintage copies of cycling magazines and tour materials under their glass tops. As my interviewees proved, the coffee is up to Aussie standards (Australians are known for their coffee prowess), and there’s also a varied breakfast menu: November’s range includes sweet potato pancakes with maple syrup, fruit and pistachios. Unfortunately, this is a very small café, so you’ll probably have to share a table, but you don’t need to be a cycling fan to put this place on your radar.
Wellcome Collection Café, Euston Road (nearest station: Euston/Euston Square)
Open Monday-Wednesday, Friday, 08:30-1800; Thursday, 08:30-22:00; Saturday, 09:30-18:00; Sunday, 10:30-18:00.
The Wellcome Collection is one of my ‘home-from-home’ places. I’ve been known to lurk in the Reading Room when I need some quiet time or a sneaky nap; I’ve seen fantastic exhibitions here (up next is Ayurvedic Man, from 16th November 2017 – 8th April 2018), spent far too much money in the shop, and met my Mental Health Mates gang for an evening walk and talk, using the collection as a starting point for conversations.
This ground floor café, handily located just next to the shop, is low-key and minimalist. There’s iced coffee (which I adore), some sadly overpriced but fabulous cake, and salad or quiche-type food to browse. Customers are a mix of culture fanatics, science enthusiasts, students, and those just killing time until their train leaves from Euston.
Do you have a favourite independent café not listed here? Add your recommendations below, or tweet them to me (I’m @misspallen).