Visit certain cafes in the Scottish city of Edinburgh and you’ll find a curious trend. Some claim to be either the birthplace of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (looking at you, The Elephant House) or else a nook in which J. K. Rowling wrote some of its chapters. While Edinburgh can’t claim to be the outright birthplace of Harry Potter—the novel was begun in Porto, Portugal, where Rowling had moved to teach—its many cafes certainly clamor to claim her patron-ship over the years as she wrote the seven amazing, record-breaking, life-changing books that comprise the Harry Potter series.
However, there remains a group of cafes that makes no claim to the Harry Potter legacy because sadly, or perhaps excitingly, they did not yet exist when J. K. Rowling finished the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in January 2007. I like to think that, had there been delicious, delicately roasted specialty coffee at Ms. Rowling’s disposal, perhaps [REDACTED—SPOILER ALERT] wouldn’t have died in the fifth book. Perhaps Severus Snape would have been a nicer guy all around. Or maybe she’d have allowed Remus Lupin to stick around as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, because let’s be honest, he was the best.
But wishful thinking won’t get us anywhere. Maybe J. K. Rowling didn’t get to experience these lovely specialty cafes but you—yes, YOU, budding Edinburgh-based conjurer of words!—can visit them all and revel in their gloriously fresh, well-brewed coffee. Put down that mucky, burnt espresso, inhale the aromas of a single origin pour-over, and perhaps reconsider killing off your beloved cast of characters, because this is a guide for some of Edinburgh’s very best cafes.
First, you have to visit Artisan Roast, who sassily displays a sign reading “J. K. Rowling never wrote here” next to the front door; and yet, upon entering the coffee shop one has the feeling of stepping into Diagon Alley. On one side of the shop the walls are papered with old, green coffee bags and unpolished wooden shelves bearing teapots shaped like houses. It gives a ramshackle but charming backdrop to the subtly impressive three-group Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso. After you order your choice of drink with one of three espresso blends, or perhaps a pour-over from their self-described “fat” single origin filter menu, you can venture further into the shop to find more nooks to settle down in.
In the back room, “The Mooch”, a gloriously cozy atmosphere reigns—after all, it is a room strung with cafetiére and teacup shaded lights with sheets hung from the ceiling. Why? Well, why not? It’s basically a coffee-themed blanket-fort for adults. But don’t be fooled by Artisan Roast’s homey appearance: this is a legit quality-focused specialty cafe. Many baristas from Artisan have done well in the UKBC (which is pretty much the Triwizard Tournament of coffee) so you know they’re no mere coffee muggles.
The front room of Brew Lab follows visual tropes similar to many other specialty shops: subway-tiled walls, copper pendant lamps, a glass countertop laden with baked goods, and a minimal menu, which here is cleverly based on the periodic table. Their counter sports all the latest espresso wizardry in the form of a Nuova Simonellia Mythos grinder and a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle (though sadly it was being repaired when I visited, with a capable La Marzocco Linea Classic in its stead).
Look to your left and you might be surprised to see straight through into the next room, via the rather large holes in the stripped, bare cinderblock wall. This sort of textural detail, found in other small ways throughout the shop, clashes pleasingly with the comfy red leather armchairs and Anglepoise lamps, creating a kind of visual dissonance that pairs nicely with well-extracted espresso.
I contemplated a rainy Edinburgh morning over a tannic, walnut-y, and pear-sweet shot of Has Bean, sitting at a table made from the giant particleboard box that their once contained a Slayer espresso machine. Surrounded by students breaking out the heavy books over brunch, I felt as though I was sitting in some sort of post-apocalyptic, reclaimed Ravenclaw common room. I am very okay with that.
Fortitude Coffee Merchants
Occupying a small, narrow shop space on a busy road above a Thai restaurant, bonnie wee Fortitude has been open for just shy of a year, and looks as clean and new as the day it was born. The white walls contrast gorgeously with the rich, mahogany-stained wood shelving, stocked with coffee from Glaswegian roasters Dear Green and copies of Bristol-based We Hunt & Gather’s Coffee: A Modern Field Guide. You can also find various other coffee paraphernalia and a modest but delicious selection of baked goods, soft drinks, and teas.
The small food menu at Fortitude is fresh, healthy, and on the day I visited, entirely vegetarian. The guiding notion here is a careful kind of minimalism, focusing on small amounts of good products, with quality over quantity as a mantra for all aspects of the shop. This was reflected especially well in the Drop Coffee espresso I received, a Colombian bursting with orange juiciness, subtle almond aromas, and the sweet tartness of lemon candies. Albus Dumbledore might say it was reminiscent of a sherbet lemon.
Cult Espresso is the newest addition to the Edinburgh coffee scene, having opened in late 2014. There’s plenty to like about this newcomer, not least their wry humor. Head straight to the back of this deep-set cafe and find the baristas presiding over Florence, the machine (a custom Kees van der Westen Mirage Duette espresso machine with the Cult logo burnt into spalted beech side panels, to be exceedingly exact). Florence is paired with matching Mahlkönig K30 grinders named Bert and Ernie. This information should give you some context for the wider vibe at Cult.
Cult serve up Roundhill Roastery as their primary espresso option, supplemented by a cadre of guest roasters on espresso and filter such as La Cabra and Horsham Coffee Roasters. Except for the back room, where Florence, Bert, and Ernie reside, the cafe seems a little bare, with exposed brick walls and school-desk-style seating along the wall. This is contrasted by playful, homey touches like a plaid armchair, a stack of mystery novels, and one of those golf tee “eg-no-ra-moose” games from Cracker Barrel—Americans, you know what’s up.
Design quirks aside, the coffee here is genuinely good. My Roundhill “Rika Rika” espresso in milk was so praline-y, caramel-ly, and buttery delicious that I could almost mistake it for butterbeer.
Talk about a coffee shop Prongs would be proud of: this stunning, grade-A listed building is home to the Warburton Gallery, a not-for-profit gallery run “for artists by artists.” As is common knowledge, most artists need caffeine to get the creative juices flowing, so the addition of Stag Espresso in the grandiose front room makes sense.
As you step inside the double-height room, the warm wood paneling, light flooding in from the tall sash windows, powder blue ceilings, and cake-icing molded wainscoting makes you feel as though you’ve entered the Great Hall of coffee shops. Helming the operation is owner and barista Richard Conway, stationed behind a La Marzocco Linea Classic with a small deer skull, complete with antlers, hung in the window. Despite the hushed, hallowed gallery feel of the space, Conway’s service is warm and welcoming, and the coffee (a rotating lineup featuring roasters such as J. Atkinson, Glen Lyon, Extract, and Ozone) is well-made and beautifully poured.
Alongside one wall is a smartly chosen selection of magazines, ranging from travel to design to music to gay lifestyle to film. An afternoon spent here whiling away your hours over a macchiato and a magazine is an afternoon well spent. Catch it quick, though, as the gallery and cafe will close in July to make way for the Fringe Festival.
Kate Beard (@SBinLondon) is a London-based photographer and writer. Read more Kate Beard on Sprudge.