Without wanting to shock you, this post is no Dickens – but given this month marks the 200th Anniversary of his birth the title seemed apt. More to the point, I liked the joke, because I am nothing if not a giant sad act: not only is Leather Lane, where this caffeinated tale is set, a Victorian locale, but more to the point, ‘A Tale of Two Coffee Shops’ sounds like a tragic hipster love story. You know: they have to share a table one day because a bunch of suits have taken every darn table; they spend months catching each other’s eye over flat whites while they write their literary magna opera; she reveals she’s a dab hand with a pour-over; he finally summons up the courage to ask her out by slamming down the lid of her MacBook Air when the she’s crying because her bobble-hatted boyfriend has run off with a part-time burlesque dancer; she borrows his Charles Bukowski t-shirt, he uses her hair tie as a friendship bracelet.
However, before I reveal the plot line to what will surely make my millions, back to the job post in hand: a side-by-side, comparative, scratch ‘n’ sniff review of Department of Coffee and Social Affairs and Prufrock Coffee, two yearlings of the London coffee scene, which I visited last weekend.
First up was Department of Coffee, which, if only for it’s name, beats the rest of the London coffee shop quarter hands down. We were hungry – due to a lack of breakfast planning on my part, and a general reticence to get out of bed particularly quickly on a Sunday morning – and after a peek through the window of both places, we figured the Department’s doorstop rye sandwiches and super-size ham and gruyère croissants looked particularly golden and warm. Moreover, there were pickles and pastrami on offer, which made up for the trauma of cold toes and the nearest bus stop being closed.
Critically, not only was the breakfast warming and golden, but the coffee was divine, served by Antipodean staff cheery to the point of lysergic assistance. I liked the feel of the place: dusty exposed brickwork and Scandinavian fixings kept it simple, pattering radio made it homely, and the stack of magazines made for an interesting flick-through while I exploded my croissant’s choux all over my front and took embarrassing quantities of photos. It was a little chilly: perhaps because we were sitting by the window, but the cosy atmosphere more than warmed and I left feeling positively gleeful about life, death and the universe. If I ever needed to write a novel, I’d probably like to write it there.
That’s not to say Prufrock was anything less than excellent: the flat white I ordered was impossibly good, and arguably the best in London. But the two places are different, which is why they seem to happily co-exist: where the Department is a place to have a sublime cup of coffee (and a sublime plate of everything else) Prufrock is the place to go if you truly, madly, deeply adore your blends. Like Speakeasy Coffee off Carnaby Street, this gaff has a brew bar, and the staff were expert at extracting the best from the beans: they even offer classes on various coffee techniques. Ryan made his own, in an experiment the barista awkwardly called cupping (I snorted into my coat with childish glee: Ryan was not impressed) and proclaimed it one of the top ten cups of coffee he’s ever made.
Prufrock’s food offering was not to be sneezed at either. I inhaled a slice of gluten-free mandarin and chocolate slice (I wasn’t necessarily looking for something that was gluten-free: the food just was) and the gymnasium-sized space made for a well of chatter which bubbled nicely. I particularly liked the branding – in a shocking turn of events, bunny rabbits melt most hearts – and though both places had fancy glass Japanese brewing kit for sale, the expanse of floor space at Prufrock made it easier to see the wares on offer.
But the final Dickensian decision beckons, and because it’s the end of the post, we need a conclusion: if I was to go back to Leather Lane, where would I go first? It entirely depends on circumstance: with my Mum? The Department. With Ryan? Prufrock. For a bite to eat? The Department. For a flat white? Prufrock. Great expectations of a final judgement somewhat dashed, but the point surely is you now know there two more places in London to get your coffee fix, my hipster love story has two potential locations, and Dickens’ mastery of woeful tales is nothing compared to my award-winning indecision.