Notes, Trafalgar Square

Filter Coffee from Notes, served in a silver coffee pot, plus a muffin.Notes is one of those places that I have a love-hate relationship with. In theory, I really ought to love Notes. Unlike many modern coffee shops, Notes is decidedly upmarket. As much wine bar as café, with food to boot, the Trafalgar Square branch (although these comments applied equally to the nearby Covent Garden Notes, which is now closed) exudes quality. It has the setting and a certain elegance that would normally have me gushing with praise.

So, why do I sometimes find myself fidgety and ill-at-ease when I’m in Notes? Well, it’s not the coffee, which is excellent, nor is it the decor, which is wonderful. It is, in fact, the noise. Notes can be downright loud at times and sometimes, for me, loud is fine. And sometimes it’s not. I’m very binary like that, and when something crosses that line, it’s time to leave.

Which is a shame, since if I pick my moments, I find that I really like Notes. I like the coffee, there’s food all through the day, it’s open late into the evenings, the list goes on. The only thing that’s missing is wifi.

So, if you can stand the (sometimes) noisy surroundings, I present Notes, Trafalgar Square.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • Notes at 31 St Martin's Lane, fairly unassuming from the outside.
  • Not a bad list...
  • The view from just inside the door. It's starting to look up!
  • There's a small bar by the window...
  • ... and tables opposite the counter.
  • Another view of the tables opposite the counter.
  • The main seating area.
  • Another view, with the central skylight and its interesting chandelier...
  • ... which is worth a closer look!
  • While I'm back here, how about a sneaky glimpse of life behind the counter.
  • The brew bar.
  • The mirror behind the brew bar... Talking of mirrors, Notes was full of them.
  • Notes Through The Looking Glass, Part I
  • Notes Through The Looking Glass, Part II
  • Shelves of coffee and coffee-making kit
  • However, it's not all coffee. There's wine.
  • And wine, and wine, and wine! And more wine! And a TV?
  • Anyway, I came here for the coffee... Nice counter though.
  • Let's see... Sandwiches, salads, cake!
  • Hmmm... Nice pastries!
  • Okay, enough distractions. Coffee!
  • The Las Flores La Paz was only there when I came back to take some pictures.
  • I had the Ndimaini AA through an Aeropress, along with a muffin.
  • The muffin was good, but not Foxcroft & Ginger good!
  • I also had this excellent piccolo.
  • Although I didn't sample the food on this occasion, the breakfast menu looks good.
  • And in closing, Notes does a wide range of food.
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Notes is a legend in London coffee circles, renowned for its quality and attention to detail. There are two Notes cafés and five coffee carts (previously under the name Flat Cap Coffee, not to be confused with Newcastle’s Flat Caps Coffee). Currently serving Square Mile, Notes is opening a café/roasters at King’s Cross this month, so that might change.

As well as the usual espresso-based range, Notes has a brew bar, although while I was there, only the Aeropress was on offer, with a Kenyan Ndimain AA bean. I tried it and was rewarded with a nice, full-bodied cup with a hint of sweetness about it. I also had a piccolo, having proved to myself on multiple occasions that Square Mile’s Red Brick blend is not something I enjoy as a straight espresso.  However, it does go very well with milk and my piccolo, while sweet, was excellent, the coffee coming through very strongly, giving it a slightly bitter hint which I like. I’m curious to see what changes, if any, the new Notes roastery brings.

Notes puts a similar effort into its wine and tea, although I’m not qualified to comment on either. Like the coffee, the tea on offer (from Lalani & Co) varies by season. If wine isn’t your thing, Notes also serves craft beer from small breweries around the UK. As far as I can tell, Notes is predominantly a coffee place during the day, with wine replacing it as the majority drink ordered from about five o’clock onwards.

There’s also a fairly upmarket food selection: pastries, toast and granola in the morning; salads, sandwiches, soups and tarts at lunchtime; cheese & meat boards, along with a selection of regional plates, in the evening. There are, of course, cakes throughout the day.

Notes exudes elegance, and is a million miles away from the current trend of mix-and-match furniture, bare light bulbs and exposed air-conditioning conduits. Long and thin, it extends from the window where there’s a small bar, complete with bar stools. About half the depth is taken up with the counter down the left-hand side, opposite a row of two-person tables up against a bench. Notes then opens out into the main seating area, a roughly square space with various large tables, surrounded by smaller ones against the walls.

Large mirrors, coupled with a skylight and innovative chandelier (made up of sixteen angle-poise lamps), make the main area a bright space, while the counter area is similarly well-lit. High ceilings add to a feeling of space, but even on a sunny day, the quality of the light has a distinctly artificial feel.

I’ve left the negative to last. I find Notes consistently loud when busy (and it usually is). In the early afternoon, when I was chatting with a friend, it wasn’t too bad, but coming up to five o’clock, the noise was unpleasant and annoyingly loud: I could hear individual voices from practically every part of the room. It didn’t help that the music was being played in such a manner that I could only hear the bass; the opposite problem of the headphone-wearer on the train. The final discordant note was the large TV at the back showing a film with the sound muted, something I found rather jarring, distracting and utterly pointless.


Update: Notes now roasts all its own coffee (except decaf) and only uses single-origins. The Covent Garden branch has now closed, but new branches have opened at King’s Cross, Moorgate, Canary Wharf and Crossrail Place (also at Canary Wharf). The carts are down to just two: Victoria and Borough Market.

31 ST MARTIN’S LANE • LONDON • WC2N 4ER
http://notes-uk.co.uk +44 (0) 207 240 0424
Monday 07:30 – 21:00 Roaster Notes (espresso + filter)
Tuesday 07:30 – 21:00 Seating Tables, Bench Outside
Wednesday 07:30 – 21:00 Food Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Cake
Thursday 07:30 – 22:00 Service Order at Counter
Friday 07:30 – 22:00 Cards Visa, Mastercard
Saturday 09:00 – 22:00 Wifi No
Sunday 10:00 – 18:00 Power No
Chain Local Visits 16th August 2013

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28 thoughts on “Notes, Trafalgar Square

  1. Nice looking place. I can’t tell exactly what you mean by noisy though though you list some of the possible contributors.

    I don’t know what you mean by “Two cafés and five coffee carts”.

    • It’s not the noise, it’s the volume that’s the problem. Once the volume hits a certain level, for me it’s a binary switch and it’s time to go. I think that there’s probably a real phenomenon going on behind this: once the volume of the background noise reaches a certain level, people can no longer hear normal conversation, so they speak up to be heard. This in turn raises the volume of the background noise, which in turn causes people to raise their voices. A classic feedback loop.

      I think that Notes is particularly prone to this. Lots of people were there in pairs or groups,hence there were many conversations. As a space, Notes seems rather echoey amplifying rather than dampening the volume. At the point where I called it quits, the background noise, which was mainly people talking, had reached such a volume that the music was entirely drowned out save for the extremely annoying base elements. Since people were talking loudly, it wasn’t just that there was a uniform hum, which I probably could have coped with, but I was actually hearing snatches of individual voices from all over the cafe.

      I’ve slightly edited the “two cafes and five coffee carts” line: hopefully this now makes it clear that the Notes chain compromises of two cafes and five coffee carts (plus the new cafe/roastery).

  2. I know what you mean about the noise here. The other Notes shops aren’t as bad. Maybe something to do with the acoustics?

    Also, what’s worth bearing in mind is that this is ‘Notes Coffee and Music’, which is why the ‘pointless’ TV is up there (usually they have ballet on). I think they do events where the AV parts of the shop have more of a role. Also they have a great selection of vinyl if you’re into that kind of thing.

    • It isn’t the itself TV that’s pointless, it’s playing a movie (which definitely wasn’t ballet) with the sound turned down that I don’t get.

      Having a TV on in the background is one of my pet hates anyway. It’s usually showing a sports channel (in the US) or rolling news. However, in this instance, I really can’t see the point of playing a movie. It’s unlikely that I am going to spend an entire two hours, for example, in the cafe, watching the movie, even had I arrived before it started. Therefore it seems to me to be just a distraction.

      If anyone does like movies playing in the background in a cafe with the sound turned down, please let me know since I’d love to see an alternative viewpoint.

  3. I’ve not been in here for a while – I always thought the DVDs and jazz cds a bit odd for what is predominantly a coffee shop. Strangely wasn’t aware of the other branch in Covent Garden, despite probably having walked past it plenty of times.

    • Neither of the branches stand out particularly from the street. I knew of the one on St Martin’s Lane, but only found out about the Covent Garden one when a friend started working there!

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