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But First, Coffee: An Ode To The Coffee Shop

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Photographed by Ali Inay
Wake up and smell the convenient tie in – it’s UK Coffee Week! Which, before you scoff macchiato up your nose, is a charity initiative raising money to bring clean water to coffee-growing communities in Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

But even without the goodwill incentive, it’s an easy sell. Because we’re all coffee connoisseurs these days, aren’t we? New figures this week show Brits now consume two and a half cups of joe for every one of tea. We’re blowing our beans over cold-brew and single origin roasts and instead spending all the cash we should be filtering into our Help to Buy ISAs on cups of coffee, to carry 30 steps to an office that already has coffee in it.

This is because, I think, more than even the drink itself, we bloody love coffee shops. They’re 21st-century temples and we are their jittery disciples.

I am sitting in a coffee shop as I write this, naturally. Only I’ve moved onto herbal tea because too much caffeine tends to make me feel as though my brain has turned into popping candy. Things About Coffee Shops no.1: they’re not really about the coffee.

Of course the coffee comes into it; if it wasn’t for that complex, fruity java you might not keep going back to the same place with the rude barista and the wooden benches that splinter your tights when there’s a perfectly sanitary Starbucks two doors down. But it’s more about the vibe. The glamour. The promise that somehow coffee shops equal creativity and introspection, like we’re all suddenly Jean-Paul Sartre because we’ve had a flat white with a swan on top.

Back home for the Easter weekend, I spotted a hipster coffee shop on the local parade of bookies, charity shops and launderettes near my parents’ house and did a double-take in the car. “THERE’S AN ACTUALLY TRENDY COFFEE SHOP,” I gasped. “WITH HESSIAN SACKS STAPLED IN THE WINDOW. IN WORTHING.” The next day I walked in expecting it to be a cruel mirage to trick Down-From-Londons into a new branch of Gregg’s. But reader, it was real.

Back in the city, coffee shops are a barometer for gentrification. We like to curse the bitter-breathed bean-counters for ruining our neighbourhoods and driving up property prices at the same time we’re handing over £4.50 for a thimbleful of cortado. But while it might be true that we’re being priced out, bit by bit, every time some twat installs a Gaggia in the corner of their bike shop, the truth is that coffee shops have long been places of aspiration.

In the 17th and 18th century, London’s coffee houses were the hubs of debate for intellectuals, writers and politicians like Samuel Pepys, the young urban creatives of their day, while the swinging Italian coffee bars of Soho in the 1950s and '60s were haunts for hip teens. Swap the jukebox for Macbooks and suddenly it doesn’t look so different.

Maybe it’s just caffeine-addled pop philosophy, but I think we love coffee shops because they offer Somewhere Else To Be. Not home, not work, just a port in the storm. That used to be what pubs were for, but more of us than ever are shying away from looking for solace at the bottom of a bottle or pint glass. Clean-living millennials are drinking less than previous generations, clubbing has been thrown out of the Office for National Statistics’ basket of goods in favour of Nespresso pods, and recent research predicts that coffee shops will outnumber pubs in the UK by 2016 – and so coffee shops are overtaking the traditional boozer as our favoured place of escape.

You can be alone in a coffee shop, without anybody casting you as a tragic figure in their mental screenplay.

Besides, pubs demand a certain mood: you’re either supposed to be celebrating or drowning your sorrows, and not on your own unless you’re over 60 and wearing a flat cap. Coffee shops, on the other hand, are a place just to sit and exist for an hour or five. You can be alone in a coffee shop, without anybody casting you as a tragic figure in their mental screenplay. You can find company in solitude. Plus, they smell bloody delicious.

Right now I’m warm and cosy in a coffee shop about 500m from my house, which I walked to through the pissing rain because I knew I’d be more productive here. In lieu of an office to call my own, I can rent a table for the price of a hot, strong beverage and eavesdrop on the couple arguing next to me. It might not make me the next Samuel Pepys, but some days it’s all you need.

Here are some of the best London coffee shops for lingering in. Please don’t hog all the plug sockets.

Best for working: Timberyard, EC1
A caffeine-fuelled ‘creative workspace’, Timberyard’s three branches in Soho, Covent Garden and Old Street were all designed with the Macbook mafia in mind. The brownies are luscious, the wifi is fast, the plug sockets are abundant and nobody gives you side-eye if you sit there all day on one latte.

Best for coffee nerds: Vagabond, N4
The most local of all my locals, Vagabond is a proper hippie coffee shop with community spirit. Their coffee is some of the best in London, brewed with painstaking care, and as there are no plug sockets, people have even been known to use it for conversation. Enjoy the poetry and riddles on the wall in the loo; after two flat whites you’ll be there a while.

Best for quirk: Attendant, W1
Speaking of loos – you can skip the middleman and drink your drip-brew in a converted urinal at Fitzrovia’s converted Victorian public toilet. A cafe in a lavvy! Bevvies in a bog! Go for the novelty factor, stay for the excellent Caravan espresso and thoroughly Instagrammable interior.

Best for taking pals: Parissi, SW9
This cosy Brixton brunch spot is a relative newcomer, but has earned a devoted local following. with cheery staff, oodles of charm and buckets of good strong coffee. A good antidote to the more po-faced London roasters.

Best for waifs and strays: Ziferblat, EC1
Ideal for serious time-killing and long-term lingering, Ziferblat is the only coffee shop in London where you never need feel guilty about staying all day – because they charge you per hour, not per drink. Have a coffee or five, play a board game or curl up in an old armchair and listen to the person inevitably tinkling their way through the Amelie soundtrack on the communal piano. It’s a ‘social experiment’, but don’t let that put you off.

Best for escaping tourists: Half Cup, WC1
A beacon of light in the mostly dismal streets off Euston Road, Half Cup is excellent to have tucked up your sleeve for anytime you need a pitstop in King’s Cross and all the big players (Caravan, Granger & Co, Notes) are full. The walls are covered in a beautiful floral mural, it’s spacious enough to set up camp for the afternoon and there’s Nude espresso to fuel you through. In keeping with the colourful surroundings, they also do a nice matcha latte.

Best for nostalgia: Bar Italia, W1
When you tire of the Shoreditch upstarts with their identikit feature lightbulbs, retreat to Bar Italia for coffee that tastes of real history – because they’ve been making it the same way since 1949. Park yourself on a stool at this Soho institution, sip espresso like the old school and pretend you’re in a Fellini film. Helpfully it’s also open till 5am, for an entirely different kind of morning pick-me-up.

Best for eavesdropping: Park Theatre, N4
Almost all theatre bars are excellent for people watching, but I particularly love the two-floor coffee shop at Finsbury Park’s local theatre because it’s light and sunny, calm during the day and you can nearly always listen in on artsy thesps having exciting meetings. I once sat next to Damien Lewis here for a full hour, which is basically all the pumpkin spice a gal needs.

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