Tinderbox, Islington

Tinderbox's entrance on the lower level of the N1 Centre, Islington.Tucked away in the Upper Street entrance to the N1 Centre in Islington, you’ll find Tinderbox. From the street, it’s fairly unassuming: a couple of tables outside and what looks like a short corridor with a counter on the left and a bar at the back. Stand outside, though, and look up; you’ll see a balcony which promises more. Walk past the counter, up three flights of stairs at the back and you’ll find yourself in one of London’s most eclectic coffee spaces.

Second only to the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street, Tinderbox has a long-standing place in my affections. I’ve been going there for almost 10 years and it’s still one of my favourite spots. It has an uncomplicated attitude, with a straightforward coffee and cake offering, along with a quirky attitude and layout that always makes it fun to visit. It’s also one of a growing number of places where you can get decent coffee after six o’clock in the evening.

The cakes are pretty impressive, with cheesecakes and traditional Italian offerings such as cannoli, plus Portuguese favourites pastel de nata and bolo de arroz. Tinderbox also has savouries such as sandwiches and stuffed flat breads.

January 2015: Sadly Tinderbox closed at the end of last year.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • There's not much to give Tinderbox away from the street, just this little fellow high above the pavement.
  • It's worth a closer look: an espresso cup speeding along on a unicycle, perhaps?
  • Wandering towards the N1 Center, you might think that this is all there is to Tinderbox.
  • Hwever, look up. The balcony promises more!
  • The balcony seen from the other side.
  • Time to go in. The barista is giving me his best 'why are you taking photos?' look.
  • Inside there is a counter on the left, but not much else.
  • Just this little bar at the far end, although the hint is in the neon sign...
  • The view from the back.
  • I do like the look of the Elektra espresso machine...
  • However, I prefer the looks of that one. Shame it's not in use.
  • There is also an obligatory scooter...
  • The stairs are fairly unpromising, but keep going!
  • The other way in is via the N1 Centre. Here is the view from the upper level.
  • Once again, the actual entrance is less than promising, but worth the effort!
  • You can always come back here once you've got your coffee.
  • Or you could head out to the balcony.
  • The view from just inside the door. The stairs are the other side of the notice board.
  • In fact, there they are, through that door on the right.
  • There's a plaque here commemorating Tinderbox's founder, David Williamson.
  • This helpful sign on the wall explains Tinderbox's origins.
  • These are the weird steps/shelf seating I was struggling to describe.
  • One of the window bars.
  • The view from the counter, back towards the two entrances.
  • The main seating.
  • The booths, with balcony bar above.
  • The stairs up to the balcony.
  • They look more fearsome from the top!
  • I couldn't get a decent shot of the balcony bar, but I do like the view down through the window...
  • A sentiment we can all agree with!
  • So, to business. There's another Elektra upstairs...
  • Tinderbox doesn't adverstise the source of its coffee. You have to look quite hard!
  • Nice pyramid!
  • There's also cake! Note, however, the subtle re-branding: 'Welcome to der Box'
  • More cake. And waffles!
  • Even more cake!
  • So, to business. A bad photo of a lovely espresso.
  • White chocolate cannoli: crispy, crunchy shell, soft creamy filling, but not too sweet.
  • I also had this lovely pitta bread, although I'd say it's more a flat bread, with a layer of roast veg, warmed up in the oven
  • I went back to take some photos and treated my Keepcup to a flat white to go.
  • I also snuck off with one of my favourites, a Bolo de Arroz.
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I first came across Tinderbox almost 10 years ago while attending a trade show at the Business Design Centre. Back then it was on Upper Street itself, where its trademark quirky atmosphere and great coffee meant it stood out from the crowd. I attended the show every year and looked forward to my annual Tinderbox visits. Then, one year, it wasn’t there!

Heart-broken, I wandered abjectly until, completely by accident, I stumbled across Tinderbox, now relocated to the upper level of the N1 Centre. Relief flooded over me and I positively skipped up the stairs to get my fix.

The trade show moved to Manchester a few years ago and, with no reason to visit, my neglect of Tinderbox began. I remembered it when I started the Coffee Spot, but I allowed my head to be turned by the new and exciting places springing up all over London, most of them not even a twinkle in their owners’ eyes when Tinderbox first appeared.

Dear Tinderbox, I apologise. You do not deserve such faithlessness.

Then, a couple of months ago, I was visiting Vagabond N7 and Brewsters N7. Going back to the tube at Angel, I passed Tinderbox and made a mental note to visit. And so here I am.

Tinderbox started life in Glasgow (four branches), set up by David Williamson, Managing Director of Glasgow’s Matthew Algie. There’s also another London branch in the Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road. Sadly David passed away in 2008 at the age of 42, but the links to Matthew Algie continue, Tinderbox using its Gama espresso blend. This won’t win any third-wave enthusiasts over: it’s fairly unadventurous, smooth, with a hint of bitterness (ie just how I like it). Served in a classic, white tulip cup, it was commendably short without approaching ristretto levels.

What makes Tinderbox for me (and always has) is the atmosphere and eclectic seating. The shop’s long and thin, not the most promising layout. You enter either up the three flights of steps or via the upper level of the N1 Centre. You can sit outside, with a choice of the tables downstairs, a few more on the upper level, or the balcony hanging over the entrance to the N1 Centre.

Inside the choice is just as wide. The counter’s on the right-hand side, with a series of bars opposite, looking out onto the balcony. Between the counter and the N1 Centre there’s a strange set of what can best be described as stairs/shelves where you can also sit (take a look at the gallery).

The main seating is beyond the counter, where a massive floor-to-ceiling window gives a great view out onto Islington High Street. There are two rows of tables, one to the left and one down the centre, while on the right, there’s a row of booths with another bar in its own little balcony above the booths. Finally, a pair of old airliner seats have pride of place by the window.

Personally, I like sitting in the booths (when I can get one and remember not to bang my head), or failing that, at the bar above it, where there are plenty of power outlets for my laptop. One day I’m going to turn up and find the airliner seats unoccupied…

+44 (0) 20 7354 8929
Monday 06:30 – 22:30 Seating Tables, Booths, Bars, Tables Outside
Tuesday 06:30 – 22:30 Food Sandwiches, Cake
Wednesday 06:30 – 22:30 Service Counter
Thursday 06:30 – 22:30 Cards Amex, Visa, Mastercard
Friday 06:30 – 22:30 Wifi Free (with login)
Saturday 07:30 – 22:30 Power Yes
Sunday 07:30 – 22:30 Mobile 3G, Voice
Chain London & Glasgow Visits 13th November 2013

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11 thoughts on “Tinderbox, Islington

  1. I’ve not been to this Tinderbox, but they were the first proper coffee shop I went to regularly, on Glasgow’s Byres Road. The one in Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road also seems good

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  6. The Islington Tinderbox staff told me today (10 Dec 2014) that this was the last day prior to closure. My guess is that the recently-opened Pret a Manger opposite has some part to play in this (although why anyone would choose to go in there when Tinderbox is so close to hand is completely beyond me !)

    • That’s really disappointing news! Tinderbox has been a feature in Islington for as long as I can remember. I’ll miss that place 🙁

      Fortunately, there’s plenty of great coffee in the vicinity (and yes, you’re right, it’s not to be found in Pret!).

      Thanks for letting me know,

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  8. Reading your post in 2021, came here after remembering the barrista training course at Tinderbox – 2008(?). I was working at Domali Cafe, now Reunion, in Crystal Palace where the co-owners Alison and Dominic decided that their staff needed to know how to make good espresso. Watching a James Hoffman talk I now realise how unusual this was at that time. Also that Domali served Matthew Algie coffee (I hadn’t remembered that until I read the name in your article).
    The education that I received at Tinderbox is still with me today, though I no longer work in coffee shops. There was a couple from the Netherlands on the course, and an older couple who introduced me to the idea of coffee as a passionate hobby – a concept that was new to me then.
    If ever I was in north London Tinderbox was my choice of coffee shop. sorry to hear that the London branches have closed, and hoping that the Scottish ones have survived these extraordinary times.
    Thank you for your article Brian, and for bringing back happy memories!
    All the best!

    • Hi Stuart,

      Sorry for taking so long to reply and thanks for the comment. It’s always nice to hear about the history of places and the role that they have played in coffee culture. To the best of my knowledge, Tinderbox is still going strong in its Glasgow home and actually has six places there (I’ve not been to Glasgow for a long while, but they all seem to be open).

      Thanks again,

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