With neat red bricks, men in suits, creative studios and colourful socialites, Fitzrovia is a pocket of London where British elegance meets bohemian flair. An oasis from the touristy throng of nearby Oxford Street, the neighbourhood has in recent years drawn in a slew of cool coffee houses to set up shop. While their décor and approaches to service couldn’t be more varied, Fitzrovia's bustling landscape of trailblazing cafés that pay homage to their surroundings by injecting tasteful class with hints of edge.
Although the enormous density of quality makes it impossible to mention every go-to place, here are some of the area’s best, and most character-packed, coffee fixtures.
It only seems right to kick-off the list with this, the godfather of Fitzrovia coffee. An Antipodean café, Kaffeine was widely considered the first progressive coffee shop in the neighbourhood when it opened five years ago. It's a compact space, nearly always teeming with trendy clientele. with a bit of exposed brick and lots of wooden slats, it manages to be cool without trying too hard.
Underpinning all of this is a quiet confidence, stemming at least in part from Kaffeine's longstanding relationship with Square Mile Coffee Roasters, whose consistently excellent product has been well-regarded in London for the better part of a decade. Make sure you try the ‘Coffee Tasting Flight,’ a clever tray (or, more accurately, rock slate) topped with a single-shot espresso, a cascara palate cleanser (made from dried coffee cherries, it tastes a bit like refreshing iced tea) and a single-shot cappuccino.
The ‘Flight’ in question has gone through a bit of a boom in recent months, thanks largely to a BuzzFeed article mentioning Kaffeine, and this signature in particular, in its list of the best coffee shops in the world. Ordering this set from Kaffeine allows a sampling of the full spectrum of their caffeinated delights. And if there’s a free spot, carry your tray to the window, pull up a stump, and enjoy the parade of stylish locals wandering past.
The Rathbone Place flagship store of the TAP trinity (the brand's other two cafés are within walking distance) opened just over four years ago, and, in a nod to the owner’s bartending background, has a refined, old-school bar feel. The lively front part includes a long bench and a few stools facing the baristas, hard at work on a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia T3 espresso machine covered in animated handwriting. This is my favourite seat at Tap; it makes for much chatting between customers and the cafe's energetic, knowledgeable young staff.
Alternatively, if you’d rather hunker down for the day, the dimly-lit back area is all dark wood and low-hanging lights, a sort-of rustic gentleman’s study in the heart of London. Not content with mere retail, TAP have recently joined the ranks of the London coffee roasting scene, roasting all their own beans nearby in their light and airy Wardour Street cafe. Coffees are rotated each week based on country of origin, and thus far the new program has been promising.
On the cafe side, you can’t go wrong with a cortado or Hario V60 filter, but their trademark at TAP is an iced latte served in a jam jar with a dash of syrup. For the anti-lactose among us, this specialty drink plays particularly well with soy.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
At just over two months old, the newest outpost from the Workshop Coffee empire is a recent addition to the area, a fact that feels a bit ironic given that the café itself is a grandiose throwback to the Fitzrovia of old (which was home to the likes of Woolf and Bernard Shaw). The space is beautifully opulent–flecked with gold, teal and maroon–and is entirely unlike any other shop in the neighbourhood.
The café's front area is geared towards interaction between customers and the hugely proficient baristas, facilitated by a La Marzocco Linea PB set atop a shiny granite coffee bar. The machine’s low profile enables easy eye contact, making for fine hospitality indeed when paired with Workshop's exquisite (and fairly light) espresso drinks. On a recent visit, I was particularly taken with the cafe's offering of an Ethiopia Hunkute filter coffee, made via Fetco batch brew. You could grab a quick cup of this on the go, but if there's a moment to spare, head out the back to the cafe's communal Victorian parlour, which revisits an era when Londoners were a bit more likely to be up for a chat with stranger. Long cushioned seats face one another and the granite/gold combo makes a reappearance, while the on-trend exposed brick wall reminds you you're in 2014 (if the coffee hasn't already).
You can read more about Workshop's expansion in our interview with Workshop Coffee’s Tim Williams and James Dickson here.
Curators Coffee Gallery
Opened just one week prior to Workshop, Curators is an achingly modern yin to Workshop’s Dickensian yang. In a refreshing change from the cookie-cutter ‘grungy’ café, and as its name indicates, this place is reminiscent of an impeccably curated art gallery. In fact, it actually sort of is an art gallery, with a raft of paintings adorning the walls. This space is all about clean lines, with polished white surfaces jazzed up by a unique hexagonal design, a signature purple scattered throughout, and attention to detail evident in everything from the succulents behind the baristas’ heads to the ceramic bath filled with cold drinks.
A similar and laudable degree of intent has also been applied to the coffee. Espresso-based drinks use a custom ‘Exhibition’ blend from Nude Roasters, but the headline acts are the Chemex filter coffees made on Curators' handsome copper brew bar. They also offer a flavour-intense cold drip and an iced cascara and espresso punch; both are refreshing, but the punch in particular puts a distinctive, intellectual spin on coffee and the fruit from which it’s borne.
In no time at all (ten months if we’re talking specifics), Mother’s Milk has become the darling of the Fitzrovia specialty coffee landscape, if not all of London. It's currently the top dog on the London’s Best Coffee app, and when I quizzed baristas in other places on this list for recommendations, “Mother’s Milk” came back with metronomic consistency. This is a remarkable achievement, all the more so given that the tiny coffee bar is the definition of no-frills.
Run by James Wise and Will Hilliard, a couple of friendly lads with formidable coffee pedigrees (between them they count Prufrock, Rapha and The Espresso Room as former employers), this wee tucked-beneath-a-staircase cafe, has a truly local feel. The combination of beans from respected German roaster JB Kaffee and some old-school equipment (a Victoria Arduino lever espresso machine and Anfim grinder) enables the talented guys to produce outstanding coffees with an edge, and espressos that profile slightly fruity, even “a bit boozy tasting” (in James’ words).
The menu couldn’t be simpler: espresso, milk or filter coffee drinks, all for a flat £3. Yes, it’s a bit makeshift (don’t be misled by the ‘Rosalind’s Kitchen’ sign out the front), but this place has loads of charm. And with no shiny countertops to hide behind, you can rest assured they’ll deliver you a first-class coffee, straight up.
Located in a converted public bathroom dating back to 1890, The Attendant scores top marks for authenticity and quirk. Although eateries in renovated loos are not unprecedented, this buzzy haunt (which first opened in café form last year and was given a second makeover a few months ago) plays up–rather than tries to hide–the features peculiar to its former use. I gulped down a tasty flat white (made with beans roasted by King's Cross standouts Caravan) from the comfort of a booth which clearly used to be an ornate urinal. Next to me, a gilded cistern was sitting pretty as the main wall feature, and all around, faintly-cracked white tiles and exposed light bulbs added to the unique appeal.
Make no mistake, though: while you’re gently reminded of what once was, the place is now pristine. What’s more, The Attendant doesn’t rest on the laurels of its admittedly impressive novelty card. In addition to their wide selection of espresso drinks, they make their own cold brew, offer a quality batch filter, and serve an array of tempting sandwiches and sweet treats. You will eat and drink delicious things in a former public toilet, and you will like it.
It’s fitting to wrap things up with this coffee bar, which opens out onto a barbershop, because Sharps is a quintessentially Fitzrovian café: slick décor is effortlessly combined with something a little offbeat.
The space is classily understated, all blonde wood, Colgate-white tiles and natural light, with a long street-facing bar that offers top drawer people watching. The retro barber, while not at all intrusive, infuses the whole place with a slightly edgy and masculine energy, and provides a distant whir of activity which prevents the café from feeling too sleepy.
On the coffee front, the respected coffee duo of Dunne/Frankowski created the service at Sharps. They've recently departed the project, leaving the cafe in the very capable hands of David Robson, formerly of Association Coffee and Prufrock. Rotating beans come from the likes of Notes, Square Mile, Workshop, and others, and Robson uses the shop's sleek Kees van der Westen ‘Spirit’ espresso machine to craft deliciously creamy espresso drinks (for the dairy-averse, soy, coconut and almond milk are also offered). Here's another shop serving delicious filter coffee, by the way; my visit afforded me another taste of Workshop's Ethiopia Hunkute, which is offered on batch brew or via AeroPress, and comes highly recommended.