cafes of north london

I don’t think I’ve ever spent a happier day than a day I once had in Paris with my friend George. We spent the whole day just wandering without direction, stopping at a café every half-hour or so.

We’d spend about an hour at each café – enough time to get a drink (espressos in the afternoon, through to beer and wine as the spring evening gently rolled in), talk about politics, books, girls, language, architecture, the view, etc. – and then move on. From Montmartre to the Left Bank, wandering, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting happily in the sun. It was wonderful.

And then I came back to England, and wondered if a day like that would even be possible here. Sure, you could have a great day trawling through pubs, but it wouldn’t be the same kind of day. You could, theoretically, do a walking tour of all the West End branches of Café Nero – there might even be some value in that. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Now, today is not the day for my Walter Benjamin-esque treatise on why a misunderstanding of cafés is what has made the British so socially and culturally retarded. Let’s just say for now that I love them, and leave it at that.

Fortunately I live in North London now, where we have no shortage of cafés. They’re further apart than the cafés of Paris; but then, that’s what London is like. So, I thought, if I were to spend a day touring North London’s cafés, here are the ones I’d choose. (Feel free to recommend me any I might have missed)…

Honeycomb, Crouch End: Because I start most days here anyway. It’s practically right underneath my house but it feels like walking into a Parisian café-patisserie because they are always baking in the kitchen. It’s run by two brothers who are always say hello, the croissants are perfect and the chocolate fudge cake is phenomenal.

Spiazzo, Crouch End: The best place in London for pretending you are on holiday in Italy. Spiazzo had some trouble with the council when their terrace expanded into Hornsey town hall square, but then everyone decided it was a such great place to sit and eat and talk on a sunny day that they seem to have got away with it. So, extra kudos for Sticking it to The Man using espressos and lasagne.

On The Hill, Muswell Hill: It’s like the Honeycomb, only in Muswell Hill, plus it’s about two doors down from one of the most awesome little independent bookshops I know.

Queen’s Wood Cafe: It’s in a wood. In a real wood, with trees – huge great ancient-woodland trees. It’s about halfway between Muswell Hill and Highgate, but it feels like you could be way outside London somewhere. Plus the sofas indoors are comfy and the home-made cakes are delicious. One of the best places to read, ever.

Kalendar, Swain’s Lane: Don’t bother with Highgate Village, it’s a chain café hell (they’re the only ones that can afford the rent). But if you go down Swain’s Lane – possibly stopping off at Highgate Cemetery to say hi to Karl Marx, who no doubt would have predicted Highgate’s café problem – then there’s a few good cafés at the bottom. Kalendar gets the recommendation because whenever I’ve been it had the best coffee and the most outdoor tables.

Starbucks, Hampstead Heath: I know, I know. But this one’s…different somehow. Not to be confused with Hampstead Starbucks – the one I’m talking about is on South End Green, right by Hampstead Heath station. If you’d never seen a Starbucks and you thought this was an independent you’d love it. It’s neat and comfy and I’ve never failed to write good stuff there.

Inspiral Lounge, Camden: Yes, they’re a bunch of mental hippies. But if you really have to make Camden part of a café tour then you may as well smell it properly. Plus, it turns out that hippies make very nice bagels, and there’s a very nice view of the canal.

(I have a feeling that there’s a good café in Regents Park that I went to once and loved, but now can’t remember what it’s called…)

And since the tour seems to have crept towards central London, it’s worth saying that there’s also…

Russell Square gardens café, Russell Square: don’t get the food, it’s awful – but they make perfectly balanced cappuccinos and it’s the perfect place to sit in summer and watch kids playing in the fountain. (Though if you’re a male on your own, be careful that you don’t look like you might be there just to watch children. People don’t like it. Apparently.)

Cilantro, Piccadilly: This is in a location that ought to make it awful, but it’s just perfect; they have loads of books lying around that you might actually want to read, and a hot apple cider that I am sure has actually cured frostbite in January.

Fifth Floor of Waterstones, Piccadilly: narrowly beats Foyles café because you can take books up there and speed-read them, while spending the money you would have spent on said books on coffee/wine/beer instead. Plus you can see Big Ben out of the window. Plus, it’s cool – if I ever went on dates and wanted to impress them, I’d suggest this place. Though I would inevitably then bore the date by just talking about books. Duh.

Tate Modern Members Room: Having now abandoned the idea of sticking to North London cafés, I suppose I can put this in the list because it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Stewart Lee once said it had the best view in London, and he is very rarely wrong about anything. Incidentally, it would be another great place to take a date, were that relevant to me. Though I would inevitably bore them by just talking about art. (I guess if they got tired of that, I could always move on to books.)

Bar Italia, Soho: This has to end the list – not so much for the coffee, but because it never, ever closes. People come and go; the best and the worst of humanity can be overheard (and often over-seen); and insomniacs just sit and think and write, until the sun comes up over Soho in all its filthy glory. When I find myself there, I never know if I’ve succeeded or if I’ve failed, or what exactly it is I’m waiting there for.

But the charm of cafés, as Walter Benjamin says, “can only be thoroughly appreciated by those with a passion for waiting”. Benjamin was writing about Paris, of course, but the same could be true of any of London’s cafés. So here I am; writing this in the Honeycomb right now, without knowing what exactly it is that I’m waiting for – perhaps something that will never come – but still enjoying the wait…


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