Notes, Trafalgar Square (COVID-19 Update)

A cortado, served in a glass (a rarity during COVID-19) at Notes, Trafalgar Square.On Tuesday, I caught a train to London. I went to visit coffee shops, something I once took or granted, but which, thanks to COVID-19, I hadn’t done for almost exactly four months. Although I didn’t have a firm itinerary (I intended to wander around, see who was open, and take things from there), there was one coffee shop which I planned to visit, heading straight there from Waterloo.

Notes is on St Martin’s Lane, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, which is how it gets its name. Like Attendant, where I ended Tuesday’s short excursion, I first wrote about Notes back in 2013, although, unlike Attendant, which had recently opened, Notes was already well-established by that point. Since then, I’ve visited several other Notes and have always been impressed by the quality and attention to detail.

Notes had reopened just four days before my visit, on Saturday 11th July, but I knew from its social media posts that it was offering a sit-in service, which I was keen to try. More than anything, I wanted to see how the reality of sitting in a coffee shop during the COVID-19 pandemic matched my (perhaps gloomy) musings on the matter.

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Fortitude Bakehouse

My 6oz with milk (aka a flat white), made with an Ethiopian Ana Sora, a naturally-processed coffee from Has Bean, served in a glass at Fortitude Bakehouse, London.Fortitude Bakehouse, tucked away in the heart of Bloomsbury behind Russell Square Tube Station, opened in the summer of last year, an event which largely passed me by, perhaps explaining why I left it until the start of this month to pay it a visit. It is, as the name suggests, a bakery, reminding me, in concept at least, of the original Exploding Bakery in Exeter.

There’s a single counter running the entire width of the shop, behind which the bakery bustles away, turning out sourdough sweets and savouries, all of which you’ll find laden on the counter. Even better, at the far end, a Victoria Arduino White Eagle espresso machine dispenses drinks from a concise espresso menu, using a single-origin from Has Bean. Although aimed mostly at the takeaway trade, there’s a small amount of seating inside, while outside on the quiet street, you’ll find six two-person tables.

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The Gentlemen Baristas Holborn

Some lovely latte art (a rabbit) in my flat white from The Gentlemen Baristas Holborn, made with the Top Hat, a single-origin from Nicaragua.Once upon a time, one of my regular coffee haunts when visiting the British Museum was Wild & Wood on New Oxford Street. Sadly, the building was closed for redevelopment in 2015, necessitating a relocation to London Wall, where it’s still going strong. For a long time, the site stood empty, but now the redevelopment is finally complete, and, occupying roughly the same spot as Wild & Wood, is a new coffee shop.

Opening at the start of last month, the new coffee shop is none other than the ninth branch of south London coffee juggernauts, The Gentlemen Baristas. The coffee offering is very similar to the other Gentlemen Baristas locations, with the Deerstalker blend and a single-origin on espresso, pulled on a Faema E71 espresso machine, joined by a single-origin on batch-brew, with plans for a pour-over option via the Kalita Wave. All the coffee is roasted in-house and available in retail bags. If you’re hungry, there’s soup, sandwiches and a selection of cakes and pastries, all served in an interesting, idiosyncratic space.

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Knockbox Coffee

A single-origin Colombian espresso from Workshop in a classic white cup at Knockbox Coffee.Knockbox Coffee is one of those legends of London’s speciality coffee scene that I’d assumed had been around forever. It was therefore a bit of a surprise when I finally called in one quiet Bank Holiday Monday in May to discover that it had only been around since 2014, although in today’s fast-moving industry, that makes it pretty venerable.

Located at the southern end of Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, there’s not much to Knockbox, a simple, square space offering limited seating around three of the four walls, while two picnic tables and a bench provide outside seating. The coffee is from local roasters, Workshop, with its seasonal single-origin espresso forming the bedrock of the simple coffee menu. This is joined by a wide array of teas and smoothies, plus an equally wide selection of cakes and toasties, which are joined (at weekends only, I believe) by a two-item brunch menu.

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Redemption Roasters, Lamb’s Conduit Street

The Redemption Roasters logo from the front wall of the Lamb's Conduit Street coffee shop.Redemption Roasters has been on my radar since I met the founders at London Coffee Festival way back (or so it now feels) in 2017. Roasting from a facility inside Aylesbury Young Offenders institute, Redemption Roasters offers training in both coffee roasting and barista skills, as well as helping finding ex-offenders find work in the coffee industry. Not long after that meeting, in July 2017, the first (of currently three London-based) Redemption Roasters coffee shop opened on Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, just around the corner from Great Ormond Street Hospital and on the opposite side of the road from old hands, Knockbox Coffee.

The space itself is simple enough, a large, bright, open rectangle with the counter on the right and the bulk of the seating on the left, with some more at the front and outside on the pavement. However, the real draw is the coffee, with the Aylesbury Blend on espresso, pulled through a Slayer Steam espresso machine (one of only a handful in the UK) and four single-origins on pour-over through the V60, one of which is available as batch brew. Naturally all the beans are available for sale in retail bags. There’s also a limited breakfast and lunch offering, with plenty of cakes to tempt you if you’re hungry.

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The Black Penny

The front of The Black Penny on London's Great Queen Street, four small tables sheltering under the black awning.In my head, The Black Penny is one of a new crop of London coffee shops which I am slowly getting around to visiting. The reality is that it has been here for a while, having recently celebrated its third birthday. I guess the emphasis in the first sentence really should be on “slowly”. The Black Penny occupies the site of another London stalwart, Salt, which closed at the end of 2013, which might explain why I still think of it as new, long after it has become an established fixture in London’s coffee scene.

Perhaps as well known for its all-day brunch menu as its coffee, The Black Penny occupies a long, thin space, with a magnificent back room providing additional seating. There’s a bespoke house-blend on espresso, plus a single-origin on V60, both roasted for The Black Penny by The Roastery Department, the coffee-roasting arm of the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs.

During the week, there are salads at lunchtime, while there’s cake available through the day, seven days a week. For those that are so inclined, there’s a small selection of wine and beer, as well as an excellent range of soft drinks, plus tea.

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Lundenwic

The lovely latte art in my decaf flat white at Lundenwic, made with Square Mile's seasonal decaf espresso.Lundenwic is one of those places that I’ve been meaning to visit ever since it opened. Back in 2015… In my defence, I’ve been a couple of times, but each time it’s been so busy that it’s been impossible to photograph, so I quietly left, telling myself I’d be back another day. That day eventually came one rainy Saturday evening in May when all the sensible people had gone home…

Located in the heart of the London’s theatre-land, right on Aldwych, at the foot Drury Lane, Lundenwic brings speciality coffee to a very mainstream setting. The shop itself is narrow and weirdly-shaped, with not one, but two (sort of) basements, exactly the sort of place I revel in. I must admonish my previous self for not going back sooner.

When it comes to coffee, Lundenwic keeps things simple but classy. Assembly’s seasonal espresso (currently a washed Colombian) is joined by Square Mile’s seasonal decaf (currently a blend of 80% Colombian and 20% Kenyan), while Assembly and Square Mile take it in turns on the batch-brew filter, the coffee changing roughly every week. A similar approach is taken with the food, a concise all-day brunch menu joined by soup at lunchtime.

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Half Cup

Details of the decoration on the walls of Half Cup in Judd Street, London.Half way down Judd Street, just south of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, Half Cup has been on my radar for a long time now, probably for almost as long as it’s been open, which is three years. I visited on several occasions, but sadly, until now, I’ve never been in a position to write it up, either being in a hurry to move on (like when I had breakfast there before this year’s London Coffee Festival) or else I’ve been meeting someone (the preliminary meetings about The Philosophy of Coffee where held here) and hence not been able to take detailed notes.

Half Cup serves Nude Espresso as its house-blend on espresso which has recently been joined by a guest espresso. This was, during my visit, the Penny Rock seasonal espresso blend from Red Bank Coffee in Cumbria. If you’re dairy-free, there’s an excellent selection of non-dairy milk alternatives, including almond, coconut, soya, oat and hazelnut. If you don’t fancy coffee, then there’s organic loose-leaf tea and a range of alcohol from craft beer to wine. There’s also an excellent brunch menu, which is served until 15.45, plus sandwiches to go and an awesome selection of cake.

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TAP, Russell Square

A beautifully-presented filter coffee at TAP, Russell Square, served on a wooden tray with the coffee in a metal jug and a tulip cup on the side.TAP, or Tapped And Packed, as it used to be known in the early days, was one of the pioneers of London’s speciality coffee scene. From its original shop on Rathbone Place, it rapidly expanded to become a mini-chain of three, adding branches on Tottenham Court Road and Wardour Street, both of which I visited in the Coffee Spot’s first year, although I’ve still never been to the original! TAP was also a pioneer coffee shop/roaster, installing a roaster at the back of No 193 (the Wardour Street branch), which supplies all the shops.

However, after that initial rapid expansion, everything went quiet for five years, TAP happily going about its business, roasting and serving excellent coffee from the three stores. Until the end of the summer, that is, when, on the eastern edge of Russell Square, the fourth TAP appeared, extending the mini-chain beyond its Fitzrovia heartland and into Bloomsbury.

If you’ve been to the other three TAPs, then the new branch will hold no surprises. There’s a beautifully-concise espresso-based menu, plus three single-origins on pour-over through the V60. There’s also a selection of sandwiches and salads, plus a range of excellent cakes, all available until 4.30 each afternoon.

December 2017: TAP has been bought by the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs chain. I don’t know what this will mean for TAP and whether it will retain its own unique character, so watch this space!

September 2018: The TAP on Russell Square has closed and will be re-opening as branch of Bea’s of Bloomsbury, now also owned by the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs.

November 2019: After a year as a branch of Bea’s of Bloomsbury, this location now appears to be permanently closed.

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Coffee Island, St Martin’s Lane

An information card for a micro-lot from the Cerro de Jesus farm in Nicaragua, supplied by Coffee Island in St Martin's Lane.Coffee Island is, unusually for the Coffee Spot, a chain and an international one at that, which started on a Greek island in 1999 and now has over 300 shops throughout Greece, Cyprus and south-east Europe. However, its branch on St Martin’s Lane is (so far) the only UK one. Opening earlier this year with a considerable media push, I was away at the time and so missed all the fuss. I popped in later in the year and I liked what I saw…

A modest exterior hides a surprisingly-large coffee shop with plenty of seating and a mezzanine level at the back. I’d describe Coffee Island as coffee geeks meet the mainstream, so while there’s a house-blend, decaf and five single-origins, there’s also flavoured coffee, which is not something you normally associate with the speciality end of the market. There’s also a large retail section (beans and equipment), tea and food, the latter in the shape of salads, sandwiches and cake.

There’s an excellent range of options for the coffee including espresso, Greek coffee (Ibrik), bulk-brew or pour-over using the V60, Aeropress or Chemex (for one or two). If you want to compare coffee or methods side-by-side, it’s awesome!

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