AS A TRAVEL AND FOOD WRITER based in London, cafes are my office and espresso is my fuel. There are a million and one places to pay a few quid for mediocre coffee, but I’m after a place to sit, have an impromptu meeting, or score legitimate wifi and get some work done.
Here’s my short list.
1. Ozone Coffee Roasters – Shoreditch
With its many artsy universities, Shoreditch is predictably populated with the city’s tight-jeaned moustachioed crowd, who also happen to be very serious about coffee. Besides an on-site roastery and epic coffee born of New Zealand heritage, Ozone cooks up a fantastic eggs benedict and a variety of hot sandwiches. Down the steel and cable stairs, there are quiet corners (great for mini-meetings) and a full-on conference area to accommodate the space-challenged architects who work in cramped studios nearby.
I usually take a seat at the long, flat bar behind the massive show kitchen to watch the cooks. I often opt for the whole leaf specialty teas (mint is a good one). Strike up a conversation with your neighbour — I’ve met locals here who steered me to unique galleries, live music, or the next café or pub to hit.
Find it: From Old Street, Moorgate, or Liverpool Street Tube stations, wind through the narrow alleys with an eye out for fast-moving fixies in the haphazard green bike lanes. Turn down Leonard Street (one block south of Old Street between City Road and Tabernacle Street) and look for Ozone’s little black sign and a-frame chalkboard. They’re not closed, the door simply requires an unexpected “push.”
2. Vida e Caffé – Soho
Soho is where tourist London and professional London collide. Full of fashion boutiques and tiny art galleries, it’s absolutely rammed with people and an equal number of mom-and-pop cafes. Vida e Caffé stands out as a spot where you can sit indoors or outdoors to make the most of the weather and get a break from the trinket shoppers.
Though technically a chain (there’s one near Oxford street and a grip in South Africa), the place feels very Lisbon / Barcelona, and I’ve never lacked for a seat. The staff serve up purist espresso drinks strong, fast, and with a smile and fist-bump. Don’t leave the counter without picking up a Pasteis de Nata — five bites of flaky pastry full of rich vanilla custard. The passworded wifi works inside and out, and you’ll be in good company whiling away the afternoon in conversation, or staring at a glowing screen to meet deadlines.
Find it: From Oxford Circus or Piccadilly Circus Tube stations, make the trek two blocks off Regents Street to tiny Golden Square — one of London’s many pocket parks that even many locals have never heard of. Look to the northeast corner for the tall windows and bold, red lettering of Vida e Caffé.
3. Brass Mongoose – Blackfriars / The City
I’ve managed to spend entire mornings at Brass Mongoose without feeling crowded or rushed. Despite the strange mascot choice, the joint considers itself Spanish, which means sweet pastries in addition to coffee. The drinks are pricey (this is Zone-1, after all) but well crafted.
I go for the potent café con leche, served in a glass mug. It’s just as strong as in Spain, and about twice the size. Ask the shy counter girl for the wifi password and get comfy at one of the long wooden tables. Grab a wrinkled copy of City A.M. to catch up on mergers and acquisitions news, then fire up your laptop and get busy with a backdrop of doubledecker buses rushing by outside the tall storefront windows. If I get enough done to warrant a happy hour, I stick around for the afternoon tapas and a bottle of cold Estrella Damm lager.
Find it: From Blackfriars Tube station, make your way to the swirling intersection at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge at New Bridge Street and Victoria Embankment. Traffic comes from every direction, so watch how the locals cross and make your way north toward Fleet Street. On the west side of New Bridge Street, between overcrowded chain cafes, you’ll see the chalkboard of Brass Mongoose.
4. Look Mum No Hands – Clerkenwell
If the sun is out, I head to the leafy side garden at Look Mum No Hands. Part bike workshop, part continental café, the walls are adorned with news pages of cycling glory past, and the inventive window displays change monthly. This is the place for a tuneup or Belgian ale with your café.
Tuck into some work or catch up on cycling news with your table mates. The coffee is good, but if the weather’s right, go for a bottle of the house special: Bellerose ale (buy ten bottles and claim your free cycling cap!), or a fresh fruit smoothy. The staff are friendly and efficient, and they’ll tell you to make yourself comfortable while they bring your order to your table (a rarity in a London cafe).
Find it: Look Mum No Hands is situated on the bicycle super highway that is Old Street, and it’s a quick walk from Barbican or Old Street tube station.
5. Horizon – Leytonstone
Horizon is hands-down my favourite place for a cappuccino in East London. If you find yourself at the Olympic Park and can’t bear the crush of the crowds and the mediocre food, skip the massive shopping mall that’s been glammed up for the occasion and dive underground.
Anything you order — a curried chicken sandwich, a slice of epic strawberry cheesecake, or just an inky black espresso — will come at half the price and with twice the friendliness of central London. Thanks to their free wifi and a neighbourhood vibe, you can take your sweet time and enjoy proper village life — watching kids in school uniforms and mothers pushing prams along the sidewalks.
Find it: Two stops east on the Central Line puts you in Leytonstone. From the tube station, head straight out, up Church Lane toward the ancient bell tower flying the red and white St. George’s cross. You’ll pass meze cafes, kebab houses, and fish n’ chip shops. When the road ends at the Primark, turn right, and on your right you’ll see the locals — slicked hair and black jackets, chatting over tiny coffees on the veranda.
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Sage Russell left his job as an architect to travel the world in search of great food culture. He is proud to now call himself a food and travel writer and cookery teacher. His popular Food Pilgrimage Manifesto has created converts all over the world. You can follow his food focused travel adventures and short stories here.