Before I moved to London, natives told me that no real Londoner spends time in Central London. “Oh it’s for tourists,” they would insist. I could not see how that was possible. After all, Johnson’s adage is true: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” The humming hub of central London, The West End, is teeming with life and buzz and character. We spent many a weekend for what seemed like the first few years of our existence in the capital exploring vintage stores and vegetarian restaurants, cocktail bars and coffee shops that secreted cool.
But hey, you discover a beautiful area like Hackney, you buy a nice place, decorate it with reclaimed, exposed brick, distressed g plan and suddenly you’ve carved a corner of this city for yourself outside of which you rarely have to roam. You think, is there really any point in squeezing, sardine-like, onto the tube to meander around streets immersing oneself in the ubiquitous commercial glitz of the chain store on the Great British High Street, only to compress your body mass once again, bracing yourself for the depths of the Central Line on the way home?
The Missus and I braved it anyway on Tuesday, gluttons for punishment that we are. I had the day off for the Jewish holiday of Shmini Atzeret and we seemed to find ourselves in possession of that rarest of commodities: free time.
So head into the West End we did and surprise surprise, I would rate the journey as okay to moderately pleasant, walking around W1 and environs therein reminded me more of a flaneuristic stroll than a claustrophobic squeeze and most joyously surprising of all was that as we were walking back towards Holborn, hankering for a cup of joe and eager to avoid the blandness of Costa and the burnt yet saccharine putridity of a beverage from a Seattle based chain that will remain unnamed, we stumbled upon Salt (pictured above), a lovely little place and a rare find in touristy central London. Salt is stylishly designed, has a great menu, and a lovely and welcoming atmosphere. It feels much more contemporary East End/Hackney than West End/Covent Garden partly because of the choices made in arranging the sleek and aesthetically pleasing interior and partly because of their choice of coffee — the eminently delectable Square Mile Roasters based in (where else?) the East End, bohemian Bethnal Green to be precise. Employees were cordial and the coffee was smooth, subtle and well crafted as is in evidence below. Tables were high, oblong and affixed to corners and walls, enjoyed atop chic stools from East London Furniture with lattes and flatties served in charmingly mismatched china and glasses.
Big deal. It’s a coffee shop. Doppio a dozen. Why am I so impressed? I’m impressed because you rarely find an enticing independent establishment that’s able to peep out from below brash and bulky elbows of the crowded together conglomerations of corporate cappuccino-serving froth factories in the center of this grand metropolis. Generally speaking, the options for tourists (Yanks and otherwise) range from Nero (bland) to Pret (organic bland) to the aforementioned Seattle-based chain (a taste of home bland) with not much in between. In the East End, you find that enterprising, libertarian spirit from Roman Road Market clear across to Murder Mile, but giving tourists in the ole Covent Garden a taste of high quality espresso for moderately low prices? This place gets kudos for bravery, ambiance, and caliber of product.
So, visiting compatriots, when you are around the market or The Actors Church or The Transport Museum and you want a delicious lunch at a decent price followed by elation-inducing double espresso, this place is not more than a stone’s throw and worth making the time to find.
Salt is located at 34 Great Queen Street, Covent Gardent WC2B 5AA open from 7.30 am – 7 pm Mon-Fri, 10 am – 7 pm Sat, closed on Sun. www.saltwc2.co.uk
Most impressive in this last respect were the people at Make Decent Coffee, who seemed to be affably able to chat about the bitter black stuff (the sobering kind, not Guinness) for days, while pulling a perfect macchiatto, the fourth of which made me feel a bit like my head was spinning like race car wheel, so fast it appeared to be intensely still.
Thankfully, just before we left, I spotted Byron Redman, a Bavarian beer specialist with a stall just squeezing into the corner of the True Artisan Cafe area. I bet his place was hopping (pun intended) in the afternoon, but we had the brunch slot, from 10-1. Redman aims for high quality and commercial friendliness, and he aims well. His beers, especially the Brewers and Union unfiltered, are of exceptional smoothness and subtly, distinctly flavourful. This soft spoken Southern German has a great future in beer.
It may have been purely psychological, but the sampler of Brewers and Union seemed to help me achieve chemical equilibrium in my bloodstream with no perceptible caffeine headache. Of course, it is just possible that this is the sort of experience one should get used to after a whole morning of drinking nothing but exceptionally high quality coffee.