Top 10 Cafes in London

Every cafe in zone 1
The fun part of looking for the best coffee in London is exploring new neighbourhoods.

London now has a wide range of great independent cafes run by staff from all over the world and serving coffee in every imaginable style. I’ve chosen the ten best based on the style of coffee I drink (Flat White) and the style of cafe I like (chilled out Sunday afternoon magazine reading).

Your top ten would probably be different, but every one of these cafes is world class and could stand up in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, New York, Paris or Milan. They are all worth a visit.

1. Department of Coffee

2. Workshop

3. Nude

4. Prufrock

5. Foxcroft & Ginger

6. Fernandez & Wells

7. Kaffeine

8. Tapped and Packed

9. Espresso Room

10. Notes

There are several great guide books for London cafes. My favorite is Independent Coffee London. The London Coffee Guide is the most comprehensive and authoritative guide, and Cafe Life London provides a more personal approach to finding the best coffee in London.

To me, the best way to explore the hidden cafes in London is using your iPhone or Android with FourSquare, London’s Best Coffee or the London Coffee Map app.

There are several great cafes (and cafe mini-chains) that I haven’t included here such as Monmouth, Sacred, Dose, Fix and Taylor Street Baristas. They are all excellent but if I had to pick only ten cafes to take a visitor from outside of London to, then the above list would be my pick.

Espresso Julep

New Yorkers get obsessed with iced coffee in summer. And New York’s independent cafes seem to keep coming up with endlessly creative new ways to make iced coffee.

Coffee Julep
Toby’s Estate Espresso Julep – Photo from Cool Hunting

To escape the heat of a recent New York summer’s afternoon we ducked into the Toby’s Estate location in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. Gabrielle had her usual iced latte and my parents (who were visiting from New Zealand) opted for iced espressos. But I was feeling particularly adventurous and went for a new mint flavored drink on their menu, the Iced Espresso Julep.

The iced coffee julep is essentially an iced coffee with mint. But there are several things that make the Toby’s Estate version a lot better than your everyday Mint Iced Coffee. The things that stood out to me about the Toby’s Estate Mint Julep were:

  1. Made with espresso rather than the on-trend cold brew. This gives the drink a nice strong and familiar coffee taste to build on.
  2. Stiffly frothed milk. The cappuccino style frothed milk makes a nice addition that smooths out the other tastes.
  3. The Mint is paired with Basil which gives a more complex cocktail-style flavor profile.
  4. The infusion syrup is not too sweet which means you can actually taste the other ingredients.
  5. The various ingredients are carefully layered so that the drink arrives looking like a hand crafted cocktail instead of a lime-green milkshake.

Overall, the espresso julep was cool, crisp, refreshing and easy to drink. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been plotting excuses to go back to the (shopping heavy) Flatiron district. There are several New York trend spotterscool hunters and coffee bloggers who have also noticed the drink on the menu, so I predict that by next summer it will be an option at plenty more hipster cafes in New York.

Coffee Julep
Mint Espresso Julep – Photo from Serious Eats

There’s a small cafe in Austin Texas called Houndstooth that’s been making an espresso julep for a couple of years now, but Toby’s Estate seems to be the first to bring it to New York and to do it well.

Mint Iced Coffee
Houndstooth Coffee Julep – Photo from Houndstooth Cafe

Since trying out the Toby’s Estate version, I’ve also been inspired to check out other iced coffee cocktails. Normally, I find that flavored iced coffees end up tasting horrible, but some of the New York iced coffee cocktails can be quite creative.

Iced Coffee Cocktail
SL 28 Fizz – Photo from Under Line Cafe

The SL28 Fizz from Under Line Cafe in Chelsea is made from grapefruit juice, tonic and espresso. It’s pretty bitter and I had to force myself to finish it. But I’m glad I ordered it and would recommend it to coffee hunters that are looking for something new. It’s a strong hit.

Imbibe Magazine has the recipe to make your own Toby’s Estate style Espresso Julep at home.

Nitro Coffee in New York

Summer in New York can get surprisingly warm, so the city embraces iced coffee like no other city I’ve ever lived in. The newest craze in iced coffee is nitro iced coffee. This coffee has Nitrogen infused into the coffee to create a similar head and mouthfeel to a stout beer like Guinness.

Nitro Iced Coffee Trend
Adding nitrogen gas to make iced coffee frothy is the latest New York coffee trend.

In theory, nitro could be added to any style of iced coffee (espresso made, filtered or even instant), but the trend seems to be to add nitro to cold-brewed coffee. The nitro seems to balance out the sometimes tangy taste of a real cold-brew.

Nitro foam coffee
The nitrogen swirls around the glass and gradually forms a foam head.

Stumptown coffee roasters are leading the charge and they have nitro on draft at their location in the West Village.

Nitro Ice Coffee
Nitro at Stumptown in New York

They were nice enough to let me try adding milk at the bottom of the pour to make a nitro latte, but honestly, it tastes just as good as plain black coffee without the milk.

Nitro cold brew Stumptown
Stumptown have been a leader in adding nitro to cold-brew coffee.

Nolita Mart in Little Italy has their own keg system for iced coffee and they are serving Stumptown nitro as well as other iced coffees on tap.

Nolita Mart Iced Coffee
Nolita Mart has their own iced coffee on tap.

For a good nitro coffee in Brooklyn, Hungry Ghost is serving the Stumptown nitro on draft.

Nitro Cold Brew Coffee
Nitro coffee from Hungry Ghost in Brooklyn.

Sahadi’s in Brooklyn Heights has a nitro cold brew from Gillies Coffee Roastery in Brooklyn. But honestly, it was just a bitter coldbrew with some gas infused into it. The Gillies nitro taught me that adding bubbles won’t make up for a bad tasting coffee. So I can’t recommend it.

If you’re lucky you can find Nitro Cold Brew in a can, which would allow you to try out this trend at home.

Nitro coffee can
Nitro in a can.

Other places the New York Post suggests to check out include Brooklyn Roasting in Flatiron and Plowshares in the Upper West Side.

Bad coffee in stock photos

Stock photography is full of bad coffee. I’ve recently noticed that even in good quality stock photos, the coffee might look nice to the untrained eye, but almost every cup has something glaringly wrong to anyone that knows anything about coffee.

I’m a big fan of Product Hunt and use it every day at SeedInvest to help spot interesting new startups. Recently they featured a new stock photography company called Swauck. Some of their stock coffee photos got me so riled up that I’ve put together a compilation of my top 5 coffee sins in stock photography.

1. Stale coffee

You can tell from the popped bubbles around the edges of the cup that this coffee has sat for far too long. From a distance this coffee looks ok, but it probably tastes terrible.

Coffee photography
A stale latte that has sat too long.

2. Mottled crema

The weird froth like texture to this crema suggests a poorly made macchiato or an espresso that was drawn for too long.

Coffee photo

3. Burnt coffee beans

These beans aren’t too bad, but if you look carefully several of them are so dark that any coffee you made with them would taste acidic and horrible.

Burned coffee beans

4. Over steeped coffee

Coffee is only ever this dark if it has sat in a coffee maker for hours before being served. All the coffee taste is overpowered by the insipid tang of coffee grounds that have steeped too long.

Stale coffee


Life is too short to drink bad coffee and bad coffee photography is helping to perpetuate a lack of taste. Demand more from your stock photos of coffee.

New York Coffee Subscriptions

We’ve recently moved to Brooklyn Heights and we’re just out of walking distance for anywhere that sells really good coffee beans for brewing at home. So I’ve started looking for the USA equivalent of my beloved Pact Coffee subscription in the UK. It turns out there are some great options in New York for having coffee delivered to your home each week so that the beans are extra fresh.

Brooklyn Roasting Company

The Brooklyn Roasting Company options for beans are good but you need to purchase the annual subscription as a single upfront purchase and the delivery costs are additional. I’ve found their general house espresso roast to be far too dark for use in an Aeropress or a French Press plunger at home.

Brooklyn Roasting Coffee Subscription
The Brooklyn Roasting Company subscription is really just a mail-order delivery.

I’m still a fan of Brooklyn Roasting Company but their subscription service feels like its been tacked on as an afterthought.

Brooklyn Roasting Subscription: $14 for 12 ounces every two weeks


For me Stumptown is the leader in the New York coffee scene. On average all their roasts are slightly lighter and in keeping with the taste of modern coffee connoisseurs.

Stumptown Coffee Subscription
The Stumptown Coffee Subscription arrives every two weeks.

The Stumptown coffee bean delivery seems well put together but I get the sense it’s just a small part of their much larger business so it’s not really a focus for them

Stumptown Subscription: $20 for 12 ounces every two weeks

Blue Bottle Coffee

Blue Bottle is a Venture Capital backed startup. Last year they acquired a dedicated coffee subscription startup to re-brand it as part of their family of cafes and roasters. I find their espresso beans a bit weak and flavorless but their in-home subscription service allows for you to try different coffees each time so it should all balance out.

Blue Bottle Coffee Subscription
The Blue Bottle coffee bean delivery feels like a modern on-demand startup service.

Their subscription business is obviously a key focus for them and they seem to have put the most effort into building the subscription model and allowing you to customize it.

Blue Bottle Subscription: $17 for 12 ounces every two weeks

Coffee Subscription Reviews

Over the coming months, I’ll be trying the different coffee bean delivery services in NYC to see which ones have the best beans, delivery and customer service. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Starbucks Flat White

The flat white is a medium sized coffee with milk. Starbucks in the USA recently added the Flat White to their permanent menu. The Starbucks version is based on their normal cappuccino and latte with a few modifications.


Espresso shots

The Starbucks Flat White uses ristretto espresso shots. A ristretto is an espresso shot with less water used, or the same amount of water in a smaller amount of time. Ristretto shots aren’t really necessary for a drink to be considered a Flat White, but the best baristas usually do pull a shorter ristretto shot when making small milk drinks like a Machiatto, Cortardo and Flat White. So it’s a nice touch by Starbucks.

Velvet textured milk

The texture of the milk is a large part of what makes a Flat White different to a cappuccino and a latte. In some high-end cafes all the milk-based drinks are steamed the same. But in most middle of the road cafes and in Starbucks, the Cappuccino has more froth whereas the Latte has less froth (and more liquid milk). The Flat White is halfway in between.

The smooth texture of well steamed milk is one of the hallmarks of a good Flat White. This velvet texture seems to be the intention of the Starbucks barista training but honestly, the variabilty in milk between stores (and baristas) is what makes the Starbucks Flat White so hit and miss.

White dot

The Starbucks flat white has a white dot poured in the latte art. This is a nice touch and a good way to visually see whether the milk has been properly textured. If all you see is a mushy orange mess, then you can already tell that the milk has been poorly made without even tasting the drink.

Ordering off the secret menu

The only size the Flat White is listed on the menu in is “Tall” which is the Starbucks equivalent of a “small” (although at 12 oz, it would be considered a large anywhere else). The baristas are perfectly happy to make a Flat White in the secret “off-menu” “Short” size which is the Starbucks equivalent of an “extra small” (and at 8 oz would be considered a “medium” size anywhere else).

Before the introduction of the Flat White, the off-menu Short Cappuccino was my go-to order at Starbucks. In theory, the Short Flat White should be the ultimate Starbucks drink for modern coffee connoisseurs. But the recipe seems to be dialled-in for the Tall size and the Short tastes bitter, dark and burnt. Personally, I now stick to the recommended Tall size.

Coffee credibility

To me, a large part of the motivation for adding the Flat White to the menu is to help Starbucks recapture the positioning of a coffee-focused cafe. The “third place” positioning has taken the company too far down the road of a confusing menu, free-wifi and public-toilets. Starbucks was starting to feel like a tired habit and a co-working space without a monetization strategy. The Flat White is part of a larger global push to focus back on coffee.

Whatever you think of the drink itself, it’s great to see the largest coffee chain in the world putting some serious effort into actually making coffee.

Interview with the CEO of Pact coffee

Pact Coffee is a speciality coffee delivery startup. They recently raised a round of venture capital so during my last week in London before moving to New York I went to meet with the team and hear about their vision to bring good coffee to the masses. I visited Pact on a crisp sunny autumn afternoon. Their offices and packing operation are tucked away in a light industrial complex in Bermondsey just south of the Thames River.

Pact Coffee Startup Team

The industrial complex that Pact is based in is owned by Club Workspace and is actually a loose affiliation of startups that have physical product businesses (instead of the tech-only startups that I’m used to in my day-job). Pact has deliberately located there, partially out of necessity, because they’re packing coffee (soon to be roasting as well), and also out of preference because they enjoy being surrounded by other entrepreneurial businesses who are also trading in physical products.

Continue reading Interview with the CEO of Pact coffee

Origins of the flat white

The origins of the flat white are hotly contested. Both New Zealand and Australia claim to have coined the term “”flat white”. And while I’ve previously written a summary of the various definitions of the flat white, to really understand the origins of the drink, we need to go back in time to the 1980s.

Flat White Definition
My theory is that the origin of the flat white is the humble coffee mug.

I think the flat white was an attempt to get cafes to make the sort of coffee that New Zealanders were used to making at home. To understand why this is, we need to go back to how coffee was made in the home in New Zealand before cafes became a popular place to hang out.

Black and white coffee at home

The basic convention for describing coffee prepared at home in New Zealand is to refer to coffee without milk as black and coffee with milk as white. So a common question you would ask a guest is “Would you like your coffee black or white?” Continue reading Origins of the flat white

Buy shares in the London Coffee App

When I first arrived in London I tried using FourSquare and TripAdvisor to find good cafes. But it was too confusing because every search for “coffee” returned so many hits that I couldn’t get a sense for the best places to go.

Blue Crow Media
The London’s Best Coffee App is made by Blue Crow Media.

Luckily I found a couple of iPhone applications that transformed my experience of exploring London to find new cafes. The London Coffee Map and London’s Best Coffee are the two apps I use the most to find new cafes. So you can imagine my excitement when I joined the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs in January and discovered that the makers of London’s Best Coffee were raising investment for their business through Seedrs. Continue reading Buy shares in the London Coffee App

Coffee Orienteering

The reason that I love reviewing cafes isn’t as much the coffee as it is the excuse to explore new parts of London and to go on an adventure. You could pick almost any type of destination and make it into an urban orienteering adventure.

Coffee Walks
Visiting small cafes is a great way of seeing a new city.

Small independent cafes are usually hidden away in interesting neighbourhoods so hunting for good coffee is a good way of hunting for the cultural heart of a city. When I travel I always go searching for a flat white. – Even if I fail, the effort leads me down interesting alleyways in new neighbourhoods.

Last weekend I ran to Sacred Cafe in Caledonia Rd (only an hour from Clerkenwell) but a fun way of breaking up a long run. It got me thinking about cafes as “destinations” for exploring. So I did a little research and thought back on my early days in London when we franticly ran around the city trying to visit as many places as possible.

Tim Chester from NME did a multi-day pilgrimage across London in the Great Flat White Hunt. He had some comments, quite rightly, about Taylor Street Baristas and Dose not being places to linger. But when you are coffee orienteering then it doesn’t matter. Tim also made a Google Map of the cafes he visited.

There are several good routes to take around London. For example, Nick Wade’s Disloyalty Card is a great excuse to explore.