Cardiff is the UK’s forgotten capital, overlooked in favor of London, Edinburgh, and even Belfast. That doesn’t make much sense to me, mainly because it’s cheaper than London, flatter than Edinburgh, and less-of-a-plane-ride-away than Belfast. Visit on match day—Wales is a country which loves rugby above all else—and the streets thrum with activity, blow-up daffodils sprout from the carts of temporary vendors, and red dragon flags flutter in the breeze. Visit any other time and attune yourself to the melodic rhythm of the Welsh accent, while picnicking in Bute Park, exploring the grounds of the city center’s medieval Castle, or strolling the Victorian arcades, which wend their way against the grain of the city, connecting disparate streets.
At its core, Cardiff is a city that welcomes, not overwhelms, and that’s an attitude that filters through to several of the city’s specialty coffee shops, bars, and roasteries. Over the last half decade or so, Cardiff has seen several specialty coffee shops sprout up in and around the city center, from within the traditional trappings of the Victorian arcades to the confines of the Cardiff Market. Wander down residential backstreets and you might even find yourself at a fine coffee shop too; meanwhile, even the main shopping street has superior coffee hidden in plain sight.
Once a coffee shop-cum-record-store, Hard Lines launched a Kickstarter to fund its move to a bigger and better space until running into unforeseen problems with the building. All things considered, the team’s continued dedication to the Cardiff coffee scene—and other local businesses—is impressive. “It’s a city we love being in and a city we feel we can really help shape the coffee and independent scene,” one of the owners, Sophie Smith tells me. Now, this favorite coffee spot operates from a small but perfectly formed hole-in-the-wall stall within Cardiff Central Market and roasts in Abercynon (the new space will allow them to do both onsite).
Within the market, a pink neon sign beckons you away from grilled-cheese-makers and Welsh cake-bakers, as does the gorgeous La Marzocco Linea Classic pastel pink espresso machine. (She’s called Barb.) There are a couple of stools available if you want to hang out and chat to one of the owners—or simply sample a vegan cake or pastry, which are locally sourced from Angel Bakery. If you’re really taken with one of the Hard Lines rotating roasts, take-home bags of whatever’s on the menu are always available for purchase; although, you can’t go wrong with the super smooth, slightly sweet Colombian House Party.
With one expansive windowfront looking into the High Street Arcade and the other looking onto the High Street itself, the former pop-up Corner Coffee has, well, cornered the best of both worlds. “We love the feel of the arcades and the heritage of them. We feel privileged to be part of the arcade community, surrounded by other independent business,” owner Chris Corner tells me. Because, yes, this understated cafe, which opened in September 2017, is named for Corner himself, not its opportune (and coincidental) corner location.
Stepping inside, the décor is minimal—all bare wood tables and benches, plus a ubiquitous string of Edison bulbs dangling above the counter—and the coffee is presented in a similarly low-key way: my latte arrived in a simple glass tumbler. But the depth of flavor in Corner Coffee’s house beans (sourced from The Missing Bean in Oxford, England) belies the simplicity of their final-form presentation and the signature brownies are just the right side of gooey. Aside from the four-bean house blend, it offers a weekly-rotation of guest beans from other UK roasters, which the team of baristas are only too happy to explain. And their espresso machine? A Faema E71, perhaps “the only one of its kind in Wales,” according to Corner.
Make your way up the High Street from Corner Coffee before ducking into the Royal Arcade for Uncommon Ground Coffee Roastery, a low-lit hub of students tapping on laptops and dates exchanging anecdotes over coffee. Owned by brothers Ian and Paul Hayman, Uncommon Ground—opened in March 2015—is both coffee bar and roastery, and has a dedicated Head of Coffee and Roastery, Dominik Hurthe. “We buy and roast specialty coffee beans… from different importers, such as Falcon Specialty and Nordic Approach,” he tells me.
The décor—curated by Cardiff-based designer Tim Rice—is hodgepodge but inviting, tailored to cultivating a vibe of coworking-slash-socializing, as expansive tables with mismatched chairs, alongside squishy sofas, and coveted window bar seats dominate the ground floor. Upstairs—when open—is lighter and brighter but the quirky furniture continues; choose from vintage chairs or sit beneath a hooded hairdryer. Meanwhile, neon lettering, often obscured by an ever-present queue of customers, fronts the counter, while the three-group La Spaziale S5 espresso machine takes pride of place alongside a selection of pastries. As Hurthe says, “I imagine customers who are used to their coffee chains will see it as an uncommon cafe.”
It’s worth searching through the backstreets of Cardiff to find Lufkin Coffee Roasters, which opened in September 2015 down a discreet, cobbled alleyway in the residential Pontcanna neighborhood. The bricks-and-mortar breezeblock exterior looks unassuming from the outside, but the two rooms within offer a cozy, fresh-feeling spot to enjoy a single-origin coffee, whether you prefer a pour-over or an espresso offering served from the sleek chrome La Marzocco Linea PB. Lufkin's stylish ceramics are designed by Micki Schloessingk of Bridge Pottery in Gower.
Yellow highlights—from the coffee shop's lemon-themed branding—offer splashes of color to the interior, while a selection of pies to the right of the counter, including a decadent-looking—and appropriate—lemon meringue, immediately catches the eye. “A friend we met through the local farmers market bakes them and brings them in,” says owner Frances Lukins. Frances and husband Dan paid homage to their original Latvian surname when it came to branding their coffee shop and roastery, Lukins being a down-the-line Americanization of Lufkins. When they discovered Lufkin meant “love”, they thought it the perfect name for their cafe. If you stop by on a Saturday, do browse the surrounding selection of stalls selling locally produced samosas, soaps, and beer in Kings Road Yard.
If you don’t have the time to head to Pontcanna, 200 Degrees Coffee Bar and Barista School, situated on Queen Street, the city’s main commercial drag, has you covered. Roped-off tables and chairs dare you to brace the Cardiff cold by sitting outside; however, going indoors is the infinitely better option, especially as this surprisingly long and skinny coffee shop has plenty of room to sit, as well as a mammoth Victoria Arduino Black Eagle espresso machine dominating the counter. Towards the back, there’s comfier armchair seating where you can sip a creamy soy milk cappuccino, made with the Brazilian Love Affair blend, alongside a functional Toper roasting machine. (Its slightly lower roasting temperature used inspired the 200 Degrees name.)
Unlike the lighter fare offered at other third waves across Cardiff, 200 Degrees is one of the few which includes substantial lunch options, including freshly-made sandwich and soup combos, as well as the obligatory repertoire of sweet treats. However, if 200 Degrees seems like a slicker operation than the other Cardiff coffee spots, that’s because it is. First founded by Tom Vincent and Rob Darby in Nottingham, there are now eight branches across the UK. Regardless, the coffee speaks for itself.
Lauren Cocking is a freelance journalist who splits time between the UK and Mexico. Her work has been featured in CNN, BBC Travel, NatGeo, Lonely Planet, Broadly. This is Lauren Cocking's first feature for Sprudge.
Top photo by Stephen Davies/Adobe Stock