Exploring London’s coffee crescent
The area from Shoreditch in the east along to Farringdon in the west is a particularly rich seam for London’s caffeine lovers. (Neil Setchfield/LPI/Getty)
Fans of the baddest bean in town have been turning up the buzz in recent months as London’s coffee scene has exploded into life. One particular strip, which could be fairly dubbed “London’s coffee crescent”, is a particularly rich seam for caffeine lovers, stretching from Shoreditch in the east, then along Old Street to Clerkenwell and Farringdon in the west.
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 the city. Just up the road, Look Mum No Hands is a bicycle workshop disguised as a top-notch cafe (or possibly the other way round) that screens big bike races and serves a mean lunch. It is one of several cycling-themed cafes nearby, with FullCity on Leather Lane offering a more rugged messenger-friendly environment. At the west end of the crescent in Farringdon, 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 is not slap-bang on the tourist trail, there is much to recommend in a wander here, from Shoreditch’s fashionable bars and shops to Bunhill Fields – where you will find the graves of poet William Blake and writers John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe – and historic lanes and churches around the area of Smithfields.
It is in Clerkenwell that another relatively recent opening, St Ali (now called Workshop – same fabulous cafe, just a different name), is to be found. St Ali 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 cafe also serves a full menu accompanied by some superb craft beers and has London’s only on-site roaster.
St Ali certainly offers something different -- managing to feel like a place to have lunch and drink coffee at the same time. St Ali’s director of coffee, Tim Williams explained that London’s less distinctive coffee culture compared to, say, Melbourne’s, offered “a clean slate” when it came to the sort of place that might be viable. To prove the point, his previous London venture, Penny University, was a six-seat coffee bar that only served a changing menu of three different filter coffees.
What to drink when in these places? St Ali imports and roasts their own beans, meaning you will almost always 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 cafe. It may be wise to build some slack into your visit to the British capital to check some of them out.