To start at the beginning, Exeter’s Exploding Bakery was always one of my favourite places and made a very early appearance on the Coffee Spot, being just the 20th place that I wrote about after I visited in 2012. Back then it was definitely a bakery that served coffee, with a couple of tables and an espresso machine tucked into a busy, thriving bakery, baristas and bakers sharing the space.
When I ran into the guys from the Exploding Bakery at the Caffè Culture Show in 2015, they excitedly told me about all the changes that they had made, leaving me itching for a return. However, Exeter isn’t somewhere that you casually pass by (not if you live in Guildford, anyway), so it wasn’t until January of this year, when I was on my way down to Torquay, that I had the opportunity to pop in and say hello the new-look Exploding Bakery.
Café at 36 was the last stop on my mini coffee-tour of Exeter. It’s somewhere I’ve been aware of for a long while and have long wanted to visit. The other side of the River Ex from the city centre, and a stone’s throw away from Exeter St Thomas station (first stop south of Exeter St David’s on the line to Plymouth), it’s an easy, if not particularly pretty, 15 minute walk from the centre.
However, it’s definitely worth the walk (or the short train ride). Best described as a neighbourhood greasy spoon with excellent coffee, Café at 36 is worth a visit for the food, the cake or for the coffee (or any combination of the three). The menu is typical café fare: cooked breakfasts, panini, sandwiches, jacket potatoes, plus flans and various platters. One of the things that helps Café at 36 stand out from the crowd is a commitment to local sourcing wherever possible. The other, is, of course, the speciality coffee, which comes from Cornish roasters, Origin.
It’s a friendly, down-to-earth sort of place. You’re not going to find the latest single-origin pour-over filters on the menu, but that doesn’t stop it being an excellent spot.
Darkhorse Espresso is the brainchild of husband and wife team Neil and Sarah. It opened in the summer of 2013 and is a little off the beaten track on Exeter’s Magdalen Road. I say “off the beaten track” but it’s all of a 20 minute stroll from the centre. However, Exeter is sufficiently small that it feels a completely different world from the first two stops on my Exeter coffee tour: Devon Coffee and Artigiano Espresso.
However, it’s definitely worth the walk. It’s also worth your perseverance as you go past the local shops and a few cafés before they peter out, leaving you to wonder if Darkhorse is down here after all. Then, just as you are questioning your faith in Googlemaps, there it is!
There are many excellent reasons for taking this stroll. For a start, Darkhorse gets its coffee from London’s Ozone, which makes a change from Origin, the roaster, which, with the odd exception, seems to dominate Exeter. There is also tea from Tea Nation and cakes from another of my Exeter favourites, The Exploding Bakery. Add to that a quirky interior and a wonderfully warm welcome from my host, Sarah, and you’re onto a winner.
June 2016: heard the sad news that Darkhorse Espresso has had to close.
Ironically the first time I came across Artigiano was on twitter when it opened its first store in London near St Paul’s Cathedral. A second branch (now sadly closed) followed towards the end of 2013 on New Oxford Street, but I still didn’t get a chance to visit (since rectified). Then, when I was planning my trip to Exeter, up popped a tweet from Artigiano’s third branch. It was, I decided, fate.
In a further irony, despite setting up their first two cafes in London, Artigiano’s owners are actually from the Exeter area and, having established the concept, they opened their third branch closer to home just before Christmas.
The contrast between Artigiano and the first port of call on my Exeter trip, Devon Coffee, couldn’t be greater. While Devon Coffee is small and intimate, Artigiano is like a barn in comparison (albeit a very nice barn). A cathedral to coffee as customer put it (and I can see what he meant). You could easily fit most of Devon Coffee behind one of the two counters in Artigiano. The similarities don’t end there since both serve the same coffee from Cornwall roasters, Origin, although Artigiano has a much wider range of food, cake and alcohol.
August 2016: Artigiano has now added branches in Cardiff and Reading.
On Exeter’s Queen Street, next to Caffe Nero and just five doors down from the Boston Tea Party, you’ll find the delightful Devon Coffee. I’m not quite sure why I took so long to find it, other than the obvious excuse that it’s in Exeter and I live in Guildford. Even the Exeter excuse wears a bit thin when you consider that I’d previously made it as far as the Exploding Bakery (just up the street at Exeter Central Station) and the aforementioned Boston Tea Party. In my defence, when I was last in Exeter, Devon Coffee had only been open in its current guise for a month, but it’s not much of an excuse.
However, find it I did and it was the starting point of a day-long tour of some lovely coffee shops in Exeter which I’ll publish over the next few weeks. I have to say that I’d heard a lot about Devon Coffee and it more than lived up to expectations: it’s a lovely place and although it’s small, it doesn’t feel cramped. There’s excellent coffee and very fine pastries/cakes, all served by excellent staff. The only I things I didn’t sample were toasted sandwiches.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. One my recent South West tour, I went from the Exploding Bakery to the Exeter branch of the Boston Tea Party, just two minutes’ walk down Queens Street. From the outside, it’s not much to look at (although the building is stunning) and when you get in, it doesn’t improve much. The ground floor is cramped, narrow and crowded, especially when the lunchtime queue is almost out of the door. But walk upstairs and you’re into a whole new realm of space and light. In a matter of minutes, I’d gone from somewhere with five chairs and two tables to, well, I’d hate to have to count them, so let’s say somewhere that could seat 100 easily…
I was there to try out the new food menu, having been prompted (ordered?) by the Boston Tea Party’s head of food, Anita Popham, and I wasn’t disappointed. As for the Tea Party itself, it’s like all the branches I’ve been to; each is recognisably a Boston Tea Party, but each is its own unique place. It’ll never surpass Park Street in my affections, but if I lived in Exeter, I’d spend a lot of time there.
You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.
Exeter’s Exploding Bakery ticks so many boxes. For starters, it’s just outside Exeter Central Station, so it’s excellent when waiting for your train. As the name suggests (“Bakery”, rather than “Exploding”) it’s a bakery, so there’s always fresh, baked-on-the-premises cakes. If you’re after lunch, there’s focaccia, frittata and soup. The range isn’t huge, but the ethos is quality over quantity. Then there’s the coffee, along with tea and hot chocolate (regular and white). Best of all, it’s a real, working bakery which shares the premises with the coffee shop, so you can watch the staff baking their wonderful bread as you drink their coffee and eat their cake.
The Exploding Bakery has come a long way since I first visited it in October 2012. Back then it was definitely a bakery that served coffee, a couple of tables and an espresso machine tucked into a busy, thriving bakery, baristas and bakers sharing the space. These days, it looks and feels much more like a coffee shop, offering a house espresso from Monmouth, with regular guests on the second grinder, plus filter coffee through the V60, again using a range of guest roasters. And, of course, the bakery is still there.