The Slow Coffee Drinker

On the art of making a latte last two hours…

There are few things I like better in life than the indulgence of very slowly sipping a cappuccino in a coffee shop, and watching the world go by…While some people like to go bungee jumping or water skiing on their holidays, my idea of bliss generally revolves around sitting in a leafy European square somewhere with a cup of something hot and frothy, a cake and a good novel.

I’ve never been to Vienna, but I’ve often fantasised about the quality of the coffee houses, the precise flakiness of the strudel. It’s no surprise that Paris is one of my favourite cities, a place where the café culture (rightly) dictates that chairs face outwards to encourage blatant people watching.

London is getting better and better at doing decent coffee, but it’s still not quite as good at providing the places that allow you to really linger (perhaps it’s to do with our distinct lack of squares and leafy boulevards). There’s a fine art to making a tall latte and a cinnamon bun last two hours (still a rare affordable luxury, even in a recession). But in many establishments before you know it, an over-eager waitress will have whisked your tepid, half-drunk coffee away.

Chains, and their special brand of faceless anonymity – same furniture, same wall colour, same cake selection, same piped music and pictures – are sometimes better at allowing you stay as long as you want. But that’s mainly because the staff just don’t care. Better by far to choose a local independent café, to support someone’s family business, and become a familiar, welcome face. They won’t mind if you’re the kind of customer who spends two hours consuming one Americano and an apricot Danish, because they know you will be back tomorrow, and that you not only know their wifi password off by heart, you’ve also only got two stamps to go on your loyalty card before you get a free mochaccino.

Of course, some people wonder why a cup of coffee costs over £2, and feel that they are somehow being ripped off. ‘But I can make a cup of coffee at home for virtually nothing,’ they protest. That’s missing the point entirely. When you go to a café alone, you are not just paying £2 for the cup of coffee. You are paying to have a few moments of peace in a busy day, to have a space to ponder and be alone with your thoughts. You are paying to escape the familiar grottiness of your own home or workplace. If you like, you are effectively renting a table on a very short-term lease in a calm place where tasks and errands and unpaid bills and dirty dishes aren’t calling you. (How many novels and great ideas have started in coffee shops? How many writers still sit hunched over their netbooks, waiting for inspiration?) You are paying for the overheads of the shop, the rent, the staff, the lighting, as well as the coffee grounds. All that for £2 suddenly seems like a bargain.

So where are the best slow coffee spots in London? My favourites change from month to month, year to year. In central London, I have a perennial soft spot for the café at the top of Foyles, mainly for the free wifi, the jazz soundtrack and the eclectic mix of ‘starving-in-a-garret’-type individuals who appear to be writing screenplays on Mac books, while spinning out a cold espresso and a glass of tap water.

Out east, Counter Café, is a not-so-hidden urban secret – an Aussie-inspired joint tucked in a corner of Hackney Wick, with battered chairs and brick walls, that does seriously good flat whites and food. There are other cafés I love even more for the aesthetics, the buzzy atmosphere, the delicious cakes. But you can’t necessarily hang around in them, or guarantee you won’t be hurried along. And that is the key to slow coffee happiness.