In 2014, cries of dismay were heard throughout the London coffee scene when it was announced that Alex MacIntyre’s eponymous cafe was going to be leaving its lovable, well-designed, yet rough-around-the-edges space on a side street in Hoxton. They, and the community coworking space that they were attached to, were both being kicked out to make way for yet another Foxtons Estate Agents location in the capital.
It’s a trend that epitomizes the struggle of London’s indie shops in recent years, in which cafe after cafe has been suddenly—dare I say, insidiously—replaced with a sleek estate agent office: all white linoleum floors, Muzak, and mini refrigerators full of both still and sparkling water. These dens are home to besuited foxes, the kind who smile sincerely while telling you that it’s ok to spend £3,000 per month (plus agency fees) on a shoddy studio apartment.
But I digress.
In times of great stress come great innovation, and truth be told, MacIntyre has done pretty well for himself in the wake of his cafe’s closure earlier this year. He had known about the opportunity for his new cafe since December 2014, and found that the closing of his Hoxton cafe turned out to be an odd stroke of luck.
“When MacIntyre’s closed,” Macintyre tells me, “it meant I could put more resources into Relax, It’s Only. It meant I wouldn’t have to spread my time or energy, and I could just keep all my staff and move them to the new cafe.”
The Magic Roundabout (in addition to being a cute/weird British kid’s TV show and movie) is the name given to the temporary collection of pop-ups currently taking residence in the center of the Old Street roundabout. It’s a rather odd place to find any sort of venue: the massive roundabout, sitting at the crossing of two huge main roads, is home to Old Street Underground station; as far as I know, the aboveground part has been a forlorn patch of concrete never used for much of anything. However, Old Street is undergoing massive changes. The vision for Old Street has been to turn it into London’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. Demolition and development has already begun nearby, and soon the roundabout itself will be renovated. But in the meantime this magical place is allowed to exist, hidden away above the tube station and smack in the middle of East London traffic.
Initially, MacIntyre was asked to do a coffee and whisky bar, which piqued his interest. But he struggled with the fact that he himself was not what he would consider a “whisky nerd.” It’s best to know one’s limitations, after all. “Whisky people tend to be just as nerdy as coffee people,” he says with a cheeky grin. “I thought I could live up to the coffee side of things, but couldn’t do the whisky side justice.” Instead, he imagined a coffee shop and bar that focused on great cocktails. In this he saw a certain poetry: “Cocktails are easier to handle because there is more crossover with coffee in how things are done. You’re assembling different ingredients into a final product.” In realizing his limitations, he sought out the expertise of his friends and favorite cocktail haunt, White Lyan.
In creating a menu, the team at Relax didn’t want to do what was expected. There are no espresso martinis here. Coffee and pop culture offer inspiration in equal measure, drawing on cult classics like Twin Peaks to create their Damn Fine Fizz (gin, filter coffee, sour cherry, pine, almond, soda), or old school cartoons like Beavis and Butthead for the Cornholio (rum, falernum, tannins, bitters). Two of the most nerdtastically referential—and also, consequently, most unique tasting—drinks on the menu come in the form of the Korova Milk Bar Upper and Korova Milk Bar Downer. Both based on tequila, spiced clarified milk, and bee pollen, the drinks differ by one ingredient only: grapefruit in the downer, coffee in the upper. A lot of thought went into the drink, which MacIntyre enjoys explaining. “The spices used in the clarified milk, like nutmeg, were also typically used for hallucinogenic experiences,” he tells me, and I have no reason to doubt him. “Even tequila has been attributed to drug experiences. And of course, in the movie, the milk is also a drug.”
But if nerdy references and alcohol aren’t for you, fear not. Relax, It’s Only is also a damn fine coffee shop. Its retro-futuristic design, with a bar top that resembles a riveted steel airplane wing, also boasts the UK’s first Modbar in a functioning cafe. A Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder and a bevy of Acaia scales rounds out the stable of sexy coffee equipment, and the coffee itself has enough oomph to back up these visual promises.
To supply all of the coffee for his new venture, MacIntyre teamed up with new roaster Modern Standard, run by Q grader and veteran of many coffee competitions, Lynsey Harley. Modern Standard has begun to quietly make appearances in more and more cafes around London; at Relax, it not only provides a delicious, high-quality basis for espresso drinks and coffee cocktails, but the freedom for MacIntyre and his team to have more control over the coffees they get in.
“Lynsey gives us flexibility—she orders specific green coffees for us, so it is like having a roastery without actually having a roastery,” he explains. It’s a big step, from Macintyre’s proud multi-roaster status at his previous cafe to a single-roaster reality here at Relax, but a bit of commitment and quality control suits the project well.
I wish I could end this article on a note of permanence, or say something that could celebrate Relax as a new fixture in this city for years to come, but that’s not London. Like so much in the capital, it too will eventually be subsumed by the advancing tide of renovation. This time, though, Alex MacIntyre is ready for what comes next. In addition to Relax, Macintyre is currently working on a new shop in London’s Angel neighborhood, where he will not only be serving specialty coffee, but also taking a stab at American submarine sandwiches. He sees my cocked eyebrow and laughs, reassuring me that it really will work. And perhaps it will—after all, if someone had told me their plans for a coffee and cocktail bar on an airplane wing inside a disused concrete roundabout, I probably would have cocked an eyebrow then too.
Yet, as if by magic in the Magic Roundabout, Relax is here, pushing the envelope of what we consider a specialty coffee shop in London to be. If the next iteration contains cheesy, chewy, meaty subs, then all the better. I await with an open mind…and a quietly grumbling stomach.
Kate Beard is a Sprudge staff writer based in London. Read more Kate Beard on Sprudge.