It's no secret that coffee is big business in London. After years of suffering through watery chain store coffee, the rapid-fire rise of the London indie coffee scene was a furious backlash to the poor coffee on offer at overpriced chains like Costa, Pret and Starbucks.
From blending and roasting their own beans to sourcing free-range organic milk from a single dairy, independent cafes have flourished in all parts of London, with caffeine consumers becoming as cultish as wine connoisseurs about the origins of their brew.
Yet the coffee scene has shifted again with the rise of the concept café. From getting your beard trimmed in the back of a barista bar to sipping lattes in a Victorian urinal and making your own cup o' joe at a Russian-inspired shared working space, concept cafes are a curious new London trend.
The hype peaked with the opening of Lady Dinah's Cat Café in Shoreditch in March. Cat cafes aren't new (there are over 50 in Japan, and Australia had its first cat café open in Melbourne this July) but it was a concept London embraced, with over £109,000 ($199,642) raised through crowdsourcing website Indiegogo to get the cafe off the ground. Lady Dinah's became a media darling, and in August there was still a five-week wait for a table.
The concept cafe trend doesn't seem to be dying out, with more due to open up in London this year, including Draughts, a café themed around board-games, and a rumoured "dog café".
However, nothing beats the originality of London's Rat Café, a one-time pop up café at the London Dungeon featuring 20 domesticated rats. The canny summertime promotion was a huge success, piggybacking on the hype caused by London's first cat café while successfully breaking down stereotypes about keeping rats as domesticated pets (and not to mention being a PR success for the London Dungeon).
But are these cafes just novelty-fuelled gimmicks, or do they actually have something substantial to offer the London scene? On a recent trip to London, I visited the capital's concept cafes to find out- and was pleasantly surprised.
I started with the Attendant, located underground in a converted Victorian-era urinal. While the thought of having a cup of coffee in a century-old toilet might sound like a novelty, the tiny space is quite cosy. The street-level wrought iron entry is architectural gold, and the modern refit downstairs a worthy design match. Benches are built into the space where the urinals curve inwards, and one or two ancient cisterns with lime scale have been kept for effect.
Photographs and newspaper clippings of the history of the space are hung on the walls, but what really makes this place work is the friendly staff, the enticing selection of food on the counter (located, ironically where the cubicles once were) and the fact they serve a fairly decent cup of coffee.
Next was Peloton & Co, representative of the wave of cycle cafes beginning to pop up across London (other popular cycle cafes include Look Mum No Hands, Rapha Cycle Club and Micylce). Located five minutes from Liverpool Street Station, Peloton sells high-end bikes & gear while serving coffee & snacks and organising social rides for customers. I had expected a cafe focused on catering to one niche market to be a little alienating to outsiders. Yet what brought me back to this cafe twice is its inclusive atmosphere and its excellent coffee.
In fact, I had expected the coffee to be average at most concept cafés, but the coffee at both Peloton & Co and the Attendant exceed expectations. It gave me high hopes for my next stop, Sharps Barber and Shop.
Located in Soho, Sharps operates a café up the front, while in the back an old school barbershop offers high-end grooming by tattooed hipsters. The two businesses seem a perfect compliment to each other, with the barbers doing a brisk business in beard trimming during my visit. However, while the coffee is decent, Sharps seems very brand-focused (my polite way of saying they're trying very hard to be cool) and the service comes across as a little aloof.
The last place I visit is Ziferblat, a concept café that seems to suffer from a case of mistaken identity. Although Ziferblat was largely hyped as pay-per-minute café in the media, in reality it's more of a freelance co-working space, with users paying 5 pence per minute to use the wifi, eat snacks from the kitchen and help themselves to tea and coffee.
After being buzzed in to their second floor space, I choose a clock called Herbert to time myself, fetch a cuppa from the kitchen and grab a seat by the window to catch up on emails. It's a comfortable co-working space that works - but you have to have a reason to be there, otherwise you're better off down in one of the cafes along Shoreditch High Street.
Overall, London's new wave of concept cafes surprised me. I'd cynically expected to be able to write off most of the concept cafes I visited as gimmicky, but each seems to fill a niche and deliver to its target audience. Most places I visited still made an effort to serve decent coffee and despite the hype, none were over-the-top temples to novelty culture. Instead, they reinforced not only London's identity as a global trendsetter, but also the city's ability to have a little fun.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Stena Line