While most people still assume that you’re stuck with English Breakfast and Earl Gray while visiting London, you will be amazed by the relatively-recent preponderance of coffee houses in the capital city. There are shops on nearly every street corner now where you can get your morning jolt — including several major chains and a bustling Soho institution that you’ll have to see to believe. Remember: enough caffeine in the morning and you will get you through the busiest of vacation days!
Costa Coffee originally started out as an Italian-style roastery in 1971, and by the late 1970s their first espresso bars opened in London There are now hundreds of locations worldwide. Their secret blend is apparently the winning combination of six Arabica beans to one Robusta bean. Pastries and light snacks are available, as are cold drinks perfect for summer days.
Coffee Republic was formed in the 1990s by a brother-sister business team, Bobby and Sahar Hashemi. Their website states, “Unable to find in London the delicious quality and wide choice of the espresso-based coffee drinks we had experienced in New York coffee bars, we decided to open our first coffee bar in London’s fashionable South Molton street.” You’ll find hot breakfast and lunch sandwiches here to complement the traditional fare and espresso drinks.
If you’re more familiar and comfortable with Starbucks back in the States, have no fear. Since 1998, this Seattle-based company has been selling its full range of coffee and tea drinks (along with pastries and sandwiches; no hot food) to Londoners and tourists alike. Soft lighting and music, comfortable chairs and workspaces, and a strange dichotomy of manic energy and thoughtful calm thrive in these stores. Many of them are situated over two floors, with seating and clean restrooms below street level. The baristas’ accents may sound different, but you’ll be right at home.
Caffe Nero set up shop in 1997 and, according to their press, is the largest independent coffee retailer in the UK with nearly 300 locations. They’re a major player in London, where they boldly vie with Starbucks for market share by offering a similar atmosphere, but with an emphasis on the European traditions rather than the American. The espresso is arguably richer and more robust — and they’ll tell you in the stores that this is their competitive edge. There’s a good selection of Italian-influenced lunch items, and select locations (notably on Frith Street in Soho) are open nearly all night.
Speaking of Frith Street, make a special trip to Bar Italia, a Soho staple since 1949. It’s undoubtedly the most famous 24 hour cafe in London. Sit outside if you can one night and watch the people (you won’t believe the amazing mix of characters you’ll see), or hang out during the day when it’s a little less busy and enjoy your coffee in a real cup — no paper sleeves required. Some days you’ll find an Italian scooter club gathering for a meeting, or a group of soccer fans watching a game on the TV.
Don’t leave before heading down a few doors to Bar Italia’s coffee supplier, the equally-wonderful Angelucci’s, where you can purchase the most aromatic whole or freshly-ground coffee beans to take and make back home. You and your taste buds are sure to be wide awake.