London speciality coffee started in the east—except, it didn’t. While many would pick the opening of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in Cambridge Heath 2008 as the most pivotal moment in the city’s coffee history, it is the arrival of Monmouth Coffee’s in 1978, 30 years earlier, that serves as the foundation of London's coffee myth. And that was in Covent Garden. Central London.
But in those three decades, east London did become a kind of nexus for the development of London coffee—carts on the famous Columbia Road, cafe-roaster Climpson & Sons on Broadway Market and Pitch 42 at Whitecross Market were all proving grounds for some of the best baristas in the city who would become owners or managers of some of the best cafes. Before Prufrock in Clerkenwell, there was Prufrock at Present, in Hackney; before the cafes that grace this guide, there were names that are totems to coffee drinkers of the early 2000s: Taste of Bitter Love; Coming Soon Coffee; Silhouette; Tina We Salute You. (The latter lives on in E20.)
With saturation comes homogeneity, and it’s true that the pendant-light-potted-plant-please-don’t-ask-for-sugar stereotype of beardy east London baristas didn’t happen of its own accord. There were times when, as a great song tells it, Being a Dickhead was indeed Cool. But all of these cafes look forward in their own ways, while fostering the best spirit of the area that truly propelled London coffee forward. Except, it didn’t; not by itself, anyway.
Greg Boyce and Dom Sherington’s cafe on Hackney Road is named for Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s labyrinthine depiction of Glasgow’s streets; the cafe itself is about 20 feet wide with floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s at least one layer of irony to everything else in the place, too. It began as a guest roaster affair, with beans according to vibes and a heavy lean on south west London roaster Alchemy, but it’s now strictly a Dark Arts joint, whose roastery is also based in Hackney.
It’s always been pound for pound some of the best espresso in the city, always pulled on a lever machine called Vicky—that’s maker Victoria Arduino to you—but the duo have developed a pleasing habit of brewing Geshas or other rare varieties for batch brew in an act of whimsy consistent enough for repeat visits.
Zain Kara-Bernou and Katherine Miskulin are stalwarts of the London coffee scene, having worked in just about every shop worth its beans and having created the latte art dice, a familiar sight on bars around the globe. Their first shop together, a glass-fronted unit at London Fields’ hypey Netil Market, draws on all of that experience, with a rotating cast of outstanding roasters from the U.K. and Europe. This is normally a two-batch operation, with coffees picked for diverging characteristics, but there are often four or five options available for a quick by-the-cup brew, and some nifty signature lattes, perhaps featuring rose. Visitors later into 2021 and beyond might even get to roll the dice on their flat white.
When Yared Markos arrived in London in 1999, he was confused. He saw Starbucks, and he saw Costa—this was before speciality blossomed in the city, folks—but he saw nothing that represented everything he knew of coffee: Ethiopia, his home country. In 2021, he has a double-fronted cafe on Dalston’s Gillett Square, serving coffee grown on his own land in the country’s Kaffa Zone, which he roasts weekly. Phrases like “community cafe” can be overused, but this is one of few genuine public spaces in the city, with Kaffa and other small food businesses sentinels at the perimeter. That double front has come from necessity and the threat of redevelopment that so often looms over cafes built this way, but for now, it offers more space to enjoy his company, and an Ethiopian espresso pulled long on a Gaggia machine as old as the shop.
Tomoko Furikado’s beautiful cafe on Kingsland Road is inconspicuous, both in design and in its reception on the London ~coffee scene~. It steers away from some of the more tropey elements of coffee culture to focus on quality in every department, with elegantly speckled Japanese ceramics the vessels for expertly made, unshowy drinks. Coffee comes from Vagabond, a slightly under-heralded roaster in north London, and there’s a sprightly range of Japanese pan, cakes, and savory dishes like a pork katsu sandwich or udon noodle salad.
Naming a cafe I WILL KILL AGAIN, naming coffees things like PAGAN FEARS, RAISE THE DEAD, or SHAKE ME LUCIFER, and taking it all online with videos like KALITA BREWING WITH A GIANT SCARED BABY is risky, because if any of those things are even remotely off-base you look like absolute chumps. Dark Arts co-founders Jamie Strachan and Brad Morrison? They’re not chumps. Though I WILL KILL AGAIN was one of many London cafes that couldn’t outlast COVID-19, there’s now a Dark Arts coffee bar at its new roastery in Homerton, and the quality of the brews, whether espresso or filter, is still enough to make heaven shake.
Ah, Shoreditch. Given it’s one of the epicenters of naive perceptions about Coffee and Hipsters, it’s perhaps ironic that there are surprisingly few outstanding coffee shops. With Lyle’s’s peerless coffee bar currently on indefinite hiatus, this Build-Out of Summer from 2015 is top. The upstart-takes-London narrative is a touch tired, but this cafe can now claim to be an East London institution, appealing to the industry crowd with a slew of U.K. Barista Championship wins from the 2010s and to the, well, Shoreditch crowd with a pair of espressos and at least three filter options on batch and by-the-cup, showcasing sourcing by Freda Yuan—a three-time champion, this time in Cup Tasters—on its elegant, mural-backed brew bar.
Eleven years on from Penny University’s slow brew wizardry on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, Warren George’s Born Drippy in Clapton is saying no to the ‘spro. The menu is V60 pour-over, batch, or cold brew, with a rotating cast of three or four roasters providing the beans, including a decaf filter. Nearly all of George’s selections are from roasteries run by women, and the cafe majors in beans from female producers too, while also charging 20p for a takeaway cup. The coffees, which change roughly weekly, are handwritten on a clipboard menu, in a sort of homely [homely or homey?] nod to their transience. Progressive in multiple senses, while some of the meditative benefits of a filter-only bar are dimmed by COVID-19 regulations, this place will regain its full vibe upon indoor reopening in May.
Towpath, a venerable spot on the Regent’s Canal run by Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson, is one of the absolute best places to eat in London, whether snow-white goat’s curd topped with a head of smooshy beige confit garlic, or the bright red of Italian tomatoes blanketed in the darker beige of a tonnato sauce. The coffee rebels against many of the third wave edicts: it’s Italian (scream) roasted in Florence (ma dai) and dark, chocolatey, richly sweet, and brash. It has robusta as a component in its ten-bean blend. There Is Only One Milk and It Comes From a Cow. But to think like this is to define something by what it’s not, and in the part of London most susceptible to cookie-cutter “speciality coffee,” standing at a rickety wooden bar by a serene canal, throwing back an espresso as a prelude to a grilled cheese sandwich and a cappuccino in a glass, is a tonic only Towpath can provide.
This Victoria Park cafe run by Hasan Yildiz and Fulya Naim positions itself elegantly between neighborhood standby and journey-worthy, thanks to a considered approach to coffee selection and, admittedly, a prime location next to one of east London’s loveliest parks. Mainstay coffee comes from London veteran Caravan to make milky drinks rich and sweet, while a guest espresso, and a filter or two, could come from any of Europe’s current top roasters: La Cabra of Aarhus, Friedhats of Amsterdam, The Barn (of) Berlin. A range of snacks, natural wines, and quality olive oils round out an offering whose adaptation to the needs of locals during the COVID-19 pandemic was as natural as they come.
Still holding on to the best coffee in and around Stratford title despite a spate of new openings, Dominic Rich and Eva Kostalidou’s second cafe—after 46b Espresso Hut, in east neighborhood Homerton—is more of a paean to Kostalidou’s Greek heritage than its elder sibling. This is a Square Mile cafe through and through, changing its offering explicitly through a rotating selection of filter coffees brewed on batch, and implicitly as its Red Brick blend shifts with the seasons. There’s a real suntrap of an outdoor space to enjoy it all, and an impeccably made phyllo pie with rotating fillings is, it turns out, the ideal partner to an expertly made drink.
James Hansen (@jameskhansen) is a London-based journalist and an associate editor at Eater London. This is James Hansen's first feature for Sprudge Media Network.
Photos courtesy cafes, used with permission.
*An earlier version of this article claimed the original Monmouth Coffee was in Bermondsey, South London. This is inaccurate; the original Monmouth Coffee was located in Covent Garden, Central London.