This guide is best read in concert with the Sprudge Guide to North London, not for some lazy comparison about compass points, but because “south” is in many ways as inadequate an encapsulation of “north” for areas that stretch and unfurl horizontally as much as they do vertically. To understand how these coffee shops share commonalities but do so in radically different contexts, it would be best to walk from one to another, or visit two locals—Brown’s and Good as Gold, or Nola and Old Spike—on one cafe crawl.
Parts of London on this guide, especially Elephant and Castle, Brixton, and Peckham, have also been more violently and forcibly changed by developers and landlords’ desire to tastemake for affluent property buyers. One inescapable downside of the growth of specialty coffee is what its sometimes homogenous aesthetic can flatten and erase; in turn, this guide seeks to celebrate cafes that refuse this process.
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Founded by Edison Shehu in May 2021, Nostos—the name derived from the Greek word for “home”—mixes traditional elements of Hellenic coffee culture into contemporary London specialty, all in the shadow of beautiful Battersea Park. So order an espresso or cappuccino freddo, the latter capped with sticky, dense froth like snow on a mountain top, or pick up a carefully brewed filter from the likes of playful Amsterdam roaster Dak. Or, do both, and fully capture the two moods of Nostos.
Black Cowboy Coffee
John Otagburuagu’s cafe homage to Black American cowboys may now have a sizable space inside the newly built Elephant Arcade, but the way he got there is not as smooth as the rich, old-school espresso he pulls day in, day out. Having long traded at Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre—a hub for Black and Latinx communities in south London—he and many other traders were pushed out by developers who have demolished the building for new-build flats. Otagburuagu was eventually granted this new space after a long period of uncertainty, and his majestic peanut butter cappuccinos and other luxuriant milkshakes still flow, but it should not have demanded such resistance for it to be possible.
Good as Gold
Anthony Khouri and Tom Hibbert’s Brockley cafe started life as a residency in probably the most famous barbershop cafe in the world: Sharps, which launched a thousand (well not quite) shops from its Soho incubator. It’s now a firmly established fixture in Southeast London, frequently brewing fragrant filters from near-neighbors Plot alongside a tight and reliable menu of espresso drinks. An evening dinner series has only burnished its reputation further, with the same care and attention paid to food and wine as the caffeinated stuff this guide aims to provide.
It’s a dosing joke! Oh my god!! Okay but seriously: Normally the trajectory for a serious London neighborhood shop goes like this. They open, they buy nice coffee from a nice roaster, they brew nice coffee from a roaster nicely, and nice people come and think “wow, this coffee is nice.” Then the cafe thinks, “Ooh what if we made nice coffee from nice coffee we roasted nicely ourselves instead,” they try to start roasting, and then the nice coffee they roast is roasted not very nicely and it is sad. 15 Grams in Greenwich decided this nice idea wasn’t very nice at all, so instead they honed their roasting first, in partnership with a Marylebone newsagent and a couple of cafes, then opened the cafe to brew their nicely roasted coffee nicely. Now it’s one of the best cafes in Southeast London, and indeed the whole city, whether for espresso or filter. Nice.
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Browns of Brockley
We now arrive at the institution section of this list, and it begins with Ross Brown’s eponymous Browns of Brockley. It has evolved into myriad forms—a coffee van at the home of cricket, Lord’s, a diminutive spin-off called Bon, in nearby East Dulwich, and a takeover of Forest Hill favorite St David’s—but the Brockley cafe is mothers both ship and lode. A Square Mile lifer on espresso with a penchant for guests on filter, it’s a model of consistency and excellence that any neighborhood cafe in any part of London would aspire to match—or just get somewhat close.
Before the Square Miles and the Workshops, the Mothers Milks (RIP) and the Prufrocks, there was Monmouth. It may have began on the street for which it is named in Covent Garden (and a small shop stands there still today) but it is its larger space which pours out on to Stoney Street in Borough Market that has become its most famous cafe. Its roasting style may not be as light as some of the cooler kids might want, but joining the queue for a remarkable production line of cone-filtered coffee, selected from a roster of beans available to buy by weight, is one of the London coffee experiences to this day.
One of the longest established coffee shops in Brixton, owner Ali’s business has come on leaps and bounds since he founded the cafe with his partner in 2014. Focused on espresso drinks—and a technicolor range of juices and smoothies — it isn’t just its longevity that makes it such an important hub for the area. Ali has since established Perception, a coffee roastery of his own, broadening the menu’s palate and adding something new to Balance’s offering, which will in turn become a legacy for himself and for Brixton over time.
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One of the first London speciality cafes and roasters to use the beverage as an outlet for social enterprise—by offering training and support to homeless people designed to lead to employment with longevity—Old Spike has held court in Peckham since 2015. Founded by Cemel Ezel and Richard Robinson with support from Rob Dunne, its Peckham Rye cafe/bean-browning space still holds up seven years later, with a willing focus on the art of blending for fruit, as well as chocolate that will recall, for U.S. heads, the likes of Intelligentsia’s Fruit Bat and Summer Solstice.
Watchhouse Maltby Street
The best of what is now 12 cafes (backed by a combination of crowdsourced investment and institutional investment) Watchhouse’s Maltby Street arch doesn’t just house its newish roasting operation, but also one of the most beautiful brew bars in the capital. The classifying of origins into “rituals,” “ventures,” “horizons,” and “rarities” according to how far they stray from “what coffee tastes like” is, in all honesty, a little bit cringe, but the filters here—whether on batch, or done by-the-cup on branded pour-over cones—are always high quality.
Please don’t stop reading when I tell you that a popular indie band founded a coffee shop in London, because it is actually genuinely very good, man. Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht of Oh Wonder haven’t just opened a really good cafe; they promoted their last album with nothing less than a sponsored coffee tasting tour, which is probably the first and last time that sentence will ever be written unless they do it again. Nola, the fruits of their passion, serves coffee roasted by Belfast’s Bailies, out of a very slick Mavam machine. It’s lo-fi but warm, cool but with heart—very much like their music.
Correction: An earlier version of this article depicted Watchhouse as being backed by private equity investment. They are in fact backed by combination of crowdsourced investment and institutional investment.