Russell Norman's Dispatches From Soho: Coffee | 451life

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Russell Norman's Dispatches From Soho: Coffee

My first coffee every day is a passable cortado made with a Nespresso machine in my suburban kitchen. It’s usually enough to power me through the 18 minute train journey into Charing Cross where I will sometimes neck a macchiato on-the-hoof from Caffè Nero before marching into Soho with something quirky but comforting on the iPod - Field Music and Wild Beasts usually hit the spot.

It’s only when I get to Cambridge Circus that my real coffee day begins. Everything up to this point has been functional, medicinal almost, just enough to get me this far. My problem now is: Where do I go for my first proper coffee?

Soho has more coffee shops than I could shake a stick at. It’s a characteristic of the area that goes back to the 1950s when the emerging folk rock and rock ‘n’ roll scenes were centred around the many authentic coffee bars set up by Italian immigrants. It was London’s first taste of this style of coffee, made using roasted beans, a Gaggia machine and foamed milk. The best known places were the Top Ten on Berwick Street, Heaven & Hell on Old Compton Street, Bar Italia on Frith Street and, most famous of all, The 2 i’s at 59 Old Compton Street. This tiny shop and basement is credited with being the birthplace of British rock ‘n’ roll with the likes of Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donnegan and Cliff Richard all starting their careers there.

Only Bar Italia remains from this golden era of espresso. But, ignoring the variable quality on offer from the multi-site chains like Nero, Costa and Pret, there is a new generation of caffeine peddler. And it is to these that I take my not-inconsiderable disposable coffee budget for my early morning fix. (With an average of three bought coffees a day, I estimate my annual coffee spend is somewhere in the vicinity of £1,875. That’s an appalling amount of money.)

Flat White on Berwick Street and The Milk Bar on Bateman Street are often cited as the go-to Soho coffee joints. I have to admit that the quality of the coffee offered and the care and attention-to-detail exercised by the baristas is impressive. My gripe is that the coffee is always tepid. The (mostly Australian) staff tell me that this is the correct way to drink it and that any hotter would burn the milk. I’m clearly thought of as an unsophisticated heathen, judging by the looks they give me when I request a “hot skinny piccolo”.

Lina Stores, one of the two great Italian delis serving Soho for over half a century (the other being I Camisa) is well-known for its fresh pasta and dried goods, but probably not always thought of for its coffee. It should be. Their espresso is excellent. It’s drunk in the proper Italian fashion, too, standing, and down-the-hatch in about sixty seconds.

A relative newcomer, with several Soho locations, is the rather excellent Fernandez & Wells. The founders, George and Rick, have cornered the local market in great quality, made-on-the-premises sandwiches, panini and pastries as well as serving carefully crafted coffees including my current favourite, the “Stumpy”, a sort-of cortado with attitude. There are several copycat operations nearby (no, I’m not going to name them) but Fernandez & Wells still rules the roost.

But the place I hold closest to my heart and where I will head, on a regular basis, for my last coffee of the day, is Maison Bertaux. This patisserie and coffee shop has been serving croissants and cafés au lait from the same delightfully dilapidated Greek Street location since 1871. It is eccentric and charming, as far from the anonymous and corporate high street coffee chains as it is possible to be. Sisters Tania and Michelle run things in a wonderfully parochial way, seemingly chaotic but actually remarkably efficient, looking after their regulars and welcoming newcomers with equal love and attention. The coffee may not be made by artisan baristas, bearded and inked (who scold you for wanting a hot brew), the single lavatory may not be for the faint-hearted, the crockery may have the occasional chip and the tables may wobble alarmingly, but there is nowhere I would rather be.

(By the way, if you make it to Maison Bertaux, and I strongly advise that you do, don’t leave without trying the Dijon Slice. Legendary.)

Russell Norman