As I’m winding down to my year of living in London, I thought I would take the time to reflect on a few of my favorite things. Today I will focus on the cafes.
Other than the Starbucks in Russell Square and Balham, I have managed to spend quite a bit of time and money in some nearby cafes. Nearby is south side since I live in South London. When I first moved, I spent a lot of time at Kente on Sydenham High Street. I don’t know much about coffee, but they made a nice Mocha, presented it well, and didn’t overcharge. Their food options never looked appealing and the customer service could use improvement. After an absence of several months, I have started going into Kente again because it is the closest cafe before reaching the train station if you start at the bottom of the hill in Sydenham. I was delighted when I realized they sold almond croissants, but repeat visits have not produced any almond croissants and the regular croissants not only looked as if they were injected with steroids, but were not fresh.
Further up the hill, on the same side of Kente is Blue Mountain. The ambiance was much better than Kente and the staff was extremely friendly and polite. In the US polite and friendly in customer service could be synonymous with one another. Politeness is a rarity in London and friendliness is a bonus. While I stuffed my face with a variety of quiches, samosas, cups of Mocha and Tea, and whatever cake I fancied on a particular day, I got to know a few of the staff – where they were from and their names. Blue Mountain has a great location near the train station and close to a book shop so you can grab a book and head over to the cafe. It is a great meeting spot and they have quite a variety of food on the menu to fit everyone’s palate. I will caveat that it is a bit expensive compared to other cafes in the area and it tends to be crowded most times I visit.
I’m not sure exactly how I found this place, but my absolute favorite coffee shop is From the Forest in Forest Hill. From the first time I visited, I knew this was a place that I wanted to visit on a regular basis. I got to know the owner a bit and some of the employees, one of which indulged me as I struggled to piece some Arabic sentences together every time I saw him. From the Forest went under major renovation and I was sad because I thought it was closing. But alas, it reopened and still maintains the vibe it had when I first went in there. There are the regulars (and I guess I would call myself a regular)and you can’t leave without engaging in a conversation with one of the staff or another customer. It’s a melting pot of individuals who want to chat and chew. What I can’t get enough of is the almond croissant and the red velvet cake which is just a few items from their smorgasbord of cakes/pastries. I would say their prices are average and it is conveniently located across the street from the Forest Hill train station.
Last, but not least is SugaHill owned by my Turkish friend Yasmina. Similar to From the Forest, SugaHill has a young proprietor which is very inspirational for a young person such as myself (demographically I’m still considered a young person since I’m under 35). Yasmina learned my name very quickly and knows a lot about her customers. When you walk in, she knows what you want to eat and drink. She has an extensive menu which she is currently downsizing, but she has the best egg and bacon panini! I’m a bit of a snob with my deserts, so I only eat cake from Blue Mountain or From the Forest. Unlike all the other establishments, SugaHill has free wifi and keeps the radio on Jazzfm which is, in my opinion, the best radio station I have ever come across. Listening to the radio in her shop motivated me to buy a DAB radio so that I could listen in my room at home (and DAB radios are not cheap)! SugaHill also has its noticeable regulars and the prices are average. Yasmina admits the location is not the greatest, but it is a only a few meters from Blue Mountain and the Sydenham Train station (although off the main road). What is impressive is that she runs the cafe efficiently by herself.
For me, the cafe is synonymous with the barbershop/hair salon experience. I sit, I watch, eat, catch up on the latest gossip, and engage with a ‘community’ even if only a community in the temporary sense. The cafe is my own little piece of heaven. No matter what city I go to and how foreign it may seem, the cafe always serves as my refuge.