Coffee shops: gwallter’s top 10

May 5, 2023 2 Comments

As pubs have closed, so coffee shops have multiplied.  This must surely be a progressive social trend, at a time when most social trends are depressing.  Making a coffee at home, if you have the right equipment, has its advantages, and even adventures (our Gaggia Brera has a mind of its own and from time to time will fling a small tantrum for no apparent reason).  But going out for a coffee offers even more small pleasures.  It’s not just the coffee, of course, but the ambience, the company – and the expectation of the journey.  Here are a few coffee shops that stand out for me (additions welcome, but don’t on any account mention Costa or Starbucks).

Mumbles Coffee

It’s hidden away in an arcade, enjoys virtually no natural light, and allows little personal space between customers.  That doesn’t make it seem appealing, but the Mumbles Coffee shop has a special aura, in part thanks to the exceptionally friendly staff, and because it serves the best coffee.  There’s a good cross-section of clientele, the oldies leavened by students and children, and a good mix of groups and soloists, most of the latter bent over laptops, sipping very occasionally.

This is where I usually buy my bags of beans for home consumption, and they’re completely reliable.  The MCS is for purists. It does serve bits of food, but most people are here for the hard stuff.  There are two (very small) ‘branches’: a stall a few yards away at the end of the arcade, to catch passing pedestrians in a hurry, and Microlot, a corner kiosk in Dunns Lane, an even more obscure position.  Friends tell me that this is the place to meet Russell T. Davies and other Swansea celebs, but I wouldn’t know about that: I find it a bit spartan, because you have to sit or stand outside in the rain.

Verdi’s, Mumbles

A legend, far and wide.  It’s hard to imagine that Verdi’s didn’t even exist when we first arrived in Mumbles, because it seems to have been a fixture for ever.  It started quite small, and it has grown in phases, so that it now has three large spaces, two inside and one out, and a separate ice-cream counter.  Its fame is based on three virtues, apart from the high quality of its coffee and ice-cream: its grand position overlooking Swansea Bay at Knab Rock, its gleaming steel and glass building, and its astonishingly swift service.  In Rhwng y silffoedd it appears, thinly disguised, as ‘Donizetti’s’:

It was also famous for its rapid service.  Sometimes, it was said, the coffee would arrive before you’d ordered it … People would come to Donizetti’s to do business.  Indeed, at one time, so the story goes, some of the most important decisions in the country would be made by government ministers and their friends around these tables.  Since the place was so noisy it was possible to keep a conversation private without difficulty. [my translation]

I don’t go to Verdi’s as often these days, since they stopped providing newspapers, always a good practice in a good café.  Recently the Moruzzi family, who have owned Verdi’s since the start, sold the business.  Time will tell whether the new owners will be able to keep up its impossibly high standards.

Coaltown, Ammanford

They don’t come more up-market than this, at least in Wales.  Coaltown has been going in Rhydaman since 2018, fifteen years after the last coal was dug in the town, and quickly made a name for itself.  Order your coffee and sip it while admiring the big roastery through the glass next door.  And before you leave, buy a few bags of specialist coffee.  They offer a wide array of blends, using ingenious local branding – ‘Anthracite’, ‘The Union’, ‘Jenkin Jones’ and ‘Black Gold’ – as well as single-origin coffees from Ethiopia, Peru, Costa Rica, Kenya and Uganda.

If you’re travelling north from Swansea, the temptation is to take your coffee stop in Llandeilo, which has several excellent shops, including Diod and Pitchfork & Provision.  But from time to time it makes a luxurious change to deviate to the Amman Valley and hit the Coalhouse.

White Rose Books, Thirsk

For some years I nurtured a fantasy that I would retire and set up a café-bookshop, including a second-hand books section, and ideally with a bicycle repair shop attached.  Fortunately, it’s stayed a dream unrealised – I would have been bankrupt within a few short months – but I can’t help but admire, and investigate, working examples of café-bookshops.  One of the best I know is White Rose Books, on one side of the big central square in Thirsk, North Yorkshire.  We often seek it out when visiting my brother.  The bookshop’s on two floors, and has a good section of local, especially walking books. At the back of the ground floor is the café.  Its speciality is cakes, as you might expect in this part of Yorkshire.  In my personal mythology North Yorkshire is stuffed full of inveterate reactionaries – after all, it gave us Rishi Sunak – but it’s a county hard to beat for cakes.

Other excellent café-bookshops I’ve used include Booth’s in Hay-on-Wye, Booka Books in Oswestry and The Hours in Brecon.  Waterstone’s in Swansea’s also worth a visit.

Caffi Porthor, Llŷn

All good walks of medium to long duration should start with a coffee, of that I’m certain.  It’s not just that the caffeine gives your body a physical boost you need at the start of a long day.  Somehow a coffee sets your mind in motion too, and fills it with good and hopeful feelings.

Of all the ninety-five stages of our Wales Coast Path journey, the walk from Porthor (Porth Oer) to Tudweiliog on the north coast of Llŷn stands out in the memory as providing us the ideal coffee start.  Not so much for the quality of the coffee, though I’m sure that was excellent, but because of the location of Caffi Porthor.  Also known as the Coal Hole Café – it was converted from being a coal yard before the Second World War – it sits on the edge of one of the strangest beaches in the country.  In English, Porth Oer is called ‘Whistling Sands’, but that doesn’t convey the sand’s oddness: when you tread it, it emits a pained squeak, apparently due to the peculiarly globular structure of its particles.

What made this café even more special when we visited, in July 2017, was the quality of its flapjacks.  For me, if a coffee shop offers flapjacks, it automatically leaps up the league table.

Millefoglie, Swansea

Unlike Mumbles, Swansea city centre is a bit of a coffee desert.  (Actually it’s a desert for much more than coffee, thanks to decades of catastrophic planning decisions, which continue to this day.)  But there’s one outstanding coffee shop, Millefoglie.  You’ll found it in Picton Arcade – this being Swansea, no one’s been bothered to remove the name of the villainous General Picton – nestled among the barbers, tattoo parlours and vaping outlets .  It’s run, unsurprisingly, by Italians, who know what they’re doing.  It’s not a large place, and sparsely furnished.  All the action takes place at the counter, where you’ll find some of the most exquisite chocolate cakes to be found in the city.

The coffee, as you can imagine, is first rate, but what makes Millefoglie special is that it’s almost impossible to leave without scanning the patisserie and choosing a cake or pastry to take away with you.  The process is Pavlovian: smell the coffee and instintively your nose and eyes are led to the sweet stuff and then to your wallet.  As I said, they know what they’re doing.

Alexandra Nurseries

It’s a familiar walk with our grandson: along Lawrie Park Road, under the railway bridge, past the pub-cum-theatre, down Penge High Street (more tattoo parlours, barbers and vape shops), turn left and, after another railway bridge with a huge painted mural, across the street to Alexandra Nurseries.   Once through the gate, you leave behind the urban jungle of London and you’re in a different, magical world.

Alexandra Nurseries is an independent garden centre, but it specialises in ‘vintage’ garden furniture of every kind.  All kinds of odds and ends – chairs, pots and pans, old signs, windows, trellises – are ingeniously arranged around café tables and chairs.  You order coffee and cakes inside, collect your numbered wooden spoon, take your seats outside – and while you wait, thumb through the books and other amusements scattered around.  After half an hour in this asylum you feel your strength returning, and you’re ready to face the grunge of south London once again.

Caffi Rhiannon, Cross Hands

It’s not an easy place to find, hidden in the Business Park well off the main roads in Cross Hands, but then Caffi Rhiannon isn’t interested in appealing to roving coffee gourmets.  It’s strictly for locals, and maybe lovers of Leekes.  Go there at lunchtime on Saturday and you’ll find it hard to get a seat – and its not a small café, by any means.  The coffee is ample and milky, of the kind that wouldn’t impress highbrows and purists.  The food is standard, and the portion sizes are designed for outdoor people with large appetites.  In other words, there’s nothing special about what Rhiannon serves.

But what’s special is the atmosphere.  Everyone seems to know everyone, and there’s a cheerful hubbub, in English and especially in Welsh: you have the feeling when you walk in that you’ve stumbled on to the set of Pobol y Cwm.  The staff are as friendly as you could wish, and really helpful (we left a coat there once, and they found it and kept it for us).

HQ Urban Kitchen, Swansea

It’s odd that the ‘creative’ quarter of Swansea, round High Street and Alexandra Road, has so few good cafés.  HQ Urban Kitchen, which occupies a quiet enclave behind the old police station, tries to fill the gap.  It’s unusual in not being a conventional business, but a ‘purpose-driven social enterprise’, and is one element of the Urban Foundry, a ‘creative regeneration agency’ that aims at encouraging innovative thinking in business and education.

The coffee’s OK, and there’s a limited range of food, but the Urban Kitchen’s real strength is its social seriousness.  It’s a real ‘facilitating’ place, one that encourages groups to meet over a coffee and discuss ideas.  Often you’ll find several such gatherings going on at the same time, and nobody minds if you spend hours in conclave over a single drink.  And it’s also hospitable to solo laptoppers who just want to be left alone to work.

High Street has a few cafes, including the Tangled Parrot, a rare example of the café-record shop, and Basekamp in Kings Lane, a trendy but rather frigid space.

Tate Britain Members’ Room

I’m cheating here, because this café isn’t open to the public, only to friends of the Tate Gallery, and I’m lucky in being married to one.  Tate Britain is usually a better experience all round than Tate Modern – more out of the way, less crowded – and that’s certainly true of the cafés.  The views over the river from the Tate Modern café are spectacular, but you also have to put with all the bustle and clamour of an overcrowded attraction.

Tate Britain’s members’ room, on the other hand, is quiet and subdued, and its surroundings magical.  The tables form a circular chain around a columned white rotunda, and the effect is one of total serenity.  After a tiring trek round the art works it’s the ideal spot for rest and recuperation – if you can manage it to the top of the lengthy staircase.

Comments (2)

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  1. Gillian Lewis says:

    Enjoyed that Andrew, I can concur with you on many of your coffee experiences, mostly in Wales,luckily though, I’m a Tate member too…but it seems I now have a new bucket list…or should it be a coffee pot list… I’ve spent the past few weeks enjoying a ‘beca’ coffee a day…a small strong Portuguese coffee, usually for the princely sum of 90 cents..

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