573 - Look Mum, No Mermaids!

573 - Look Mum, No Mermaids!

Remember that guy in the Truman Show who pretends to be the protagonist’s best buddy [1]? Who takes him out for a few brewskis on the beach when Truman starts to suspect he’s at the centre of... something? The buddy offers Truman the proverbial shoulder to cry on, but his apparent sincerity is fake. He too is part of the conspiracy, merely part of the décor, his friendship no more than cardboard. 

That’s what coffee-shop chains feel like. They’ll take your personalised order and write your name on the cup so it can be shouted out when your overpriced designer coffee is ready. But the tailor-made, name-tagged treatment is the illusion that masks a hyper-streamlined experience. Every store you enter will have the same menu and meet your expectations for the music, the snacks, the look and feel of the furniture. 

Coffee chains are conveniently uniform, but uniformly bland. Hence the aromatic blend of love and hate they engender in their ‘heavy users’ - that guild of professionals born in the internet age, hooked on power sockets and Free Wi-Fi [2]. These e-nomads, liberated by their laptops from the drudgery of static jobs, are now free to roam whole networks of ‘third places’ - all looking, smelling, sounding and tasting exactly the same. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. You could step outside of your comfort zone, and take your laptop - or even, come to think of it, your coffee - elsewhere. This charming map, produced by Herb Lester Associates [3],  locates a number of locations in Central London where you can have coffee, meet with friends or business contacts, or work on your next blog post, without having to tango with the twin-tailed mermaid.

“The creators of this guide have spent hours sitting at sticky tables having meeting or waiting for appointments, always with the niggling thought that there must be somewhere nicer to pass the time. After all, there are thousands of places to meet in London, why put up with something wretched?”

Having excluded places that are “too loud, too crammed, too smelly, too over-run with sightseers and school groups, places with bad coffee, and anywhere that requires membership, this map lists no more than two dozen “quiet spots to think, and secluded spaces to conspire”. Obviously, there are more. Don’t hesitate to add your favourites to the list. Here’s a brief overview of the ones already included:

1. The Barbican: “For anyone in search of peace, quiet and privacy, the Barbican’s notoriously confusing layout is a distinct advantage.” 

2. Bermondsey Street Coffee: “The large front window, with a distracting view of the unfolding street scene, is probably best avoided by anyone with serious work to do.”

3. British Library: “Nine out of ten self-employed layabouts agree that spending a day at the British Library delivers a feeling of accomplishment out of all proportion to work actually done.”

4. Club Bar & Lounge at the Grosvenor: “[Q]uiet and tolerably comfortable, neither of which can be said of anything in the nearby Cardinal Place shopping centre.”

5. Curzon Cinema: “A convenient meeting place but perhaps not conducive to more than a brief appointment.”

Northwest quadrant, including the Wallace Collection, "remarkably off the beaten path".


6. Fleet River Bakery: “In the colder months, the woody interior is a place of refuge, warm and intimate.”

7. Garden Cafe, Regent’s Park: “[T]he service is desultory[, and] cursory, superficial, perfunctory, half-hearted and unsystematic wouldn’t be wide of the mark either.”

8. ICA: “The tiled walls and raised bar area lend a slightly disorientating swimming-pool echo to this useful but unlovely cafe.”

9. The Jerusalem: “It takes discipline to conduct business in a pub, but if you’re suitably strong-willed, this atmospheric little hostelry is a very pleasant place to do it[.]”

10. Jerwood Space: “[I]t’s easy to overlook this very pleasant cafe which sits in a covered courtyard.”

Northeast quadrant, including the "notoriously confusing" Barbican.

11. London Review Cake Shop: “Possibly rather too charming for its own good, [it] gets very crowded.”

12. Look Mum No Hands!: “For the hectic freelancer, tearing through London traffic on a bicycle, this cafe-cum-cycle shop is a haven[.]”

13. Upstairs at Maison Bertaux: “It should be utterly charmless but the effect is quite the opposite[.]”

14. National Portrait Gallery: “Throngs of tourists make it very much an off-peak meeting place, but when the time is right this underground cafe is an ideal West End bolthole.”

15. Nordic Bakery: “Not the biggest or best-equipped place, but far and away the best-smelling with the air thick with the aroma of cinnamon buns.”

Southwest quadrant, including the Serpentine Boating Lake, "for those really secret meetings."

16. Photographers Gallery: “Small, functional cafe chiefly recommended for its location, so close to Oxford Street.”

17. Poetry Cafe: “In the back streets of Covent Garden, a rare, untouristy treat.”

18. Prufrock: “Large, airy, and often surprisingly empty, this is a spot justly renowned for its coffee[.]”

19. RIBA: “The totalitarian-moderne style of this setting only adds to its appeal as a place to conspire, and there’s ample space in which to do it.”

20. Royal Festival Hall: “[A]t the RFH, you’re spoiled for choice.”

Southeast quadrant, including Bermondsey Street Cafe, "with a distracting view of the unfolding street scene".

21. Russell Square Cafe: “A modest and friendly cafe in the corner of this leafy square.”

22. Serpentine Boating Lake: “A useful place for those really secret meetings.”

23. Wallace Collection: “Despite ever increasing footfall in nearby Marylebone High Street, the Wallace Collection remains quite remarkably off the beaten path[.]”

24. Whitechapel Gallery: “Well-lit, with comfortable chairs and good food and drinks, the only jarring note is that reading material is attached to the walls by cables to thwart light-fingered art-lovers.”

25. Wild &Wood: “If Ratty and Mole from The Wind in the Willows were looking for a place to meet and work, this would be it.”

Longer descriptions on the flipside of this map, which can be found in selected bookshops, or obtained directly via the Herb Lester Associates website


[1] Marlon, as played by Noah Emmerich, whose face seems purpose-built to convey disingenuity; hence often typecast as the mole, the backstabber, the dirty cop, etc. 

[2] Not a Chinese dissident.

[3] A small outfit specialising in cool stationery and quirky city maps. Not associated with yours truly.

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