London cafes to read in
London isn’t short of trendy cafes. If you’re after a decent coffee and a pasteis de nata in a clean, well-lit cafe with scaffold board benches you can put your finger on a map and odds are you’ll find a suitable hipster joint and that First Aid Kit song you love will be playing and all will be well in the universe. The coffee will be served in a small glass, the ambience will be cool and aspirational, you’ll probably get an idea for an app. But finding somewhere cosy and homely with deep sofas and little crannies you can read in is a far tougher ask.
Why don’t more grannies own cafes in London? It’s the question of all questions.* I’ve always said that when I’m old and retired I’ll open a ramshackle little cafe in Clerkenwell or somewhere, which will have wall-to-wall bookshelves full of plays and poetry books, and we’ll serve every tea imaginable in teapots with tea cosies. I’m going to run it with my friend Brendan and it’s going to be called Owl or Frog. There will be lots of doilies and I’ll bake brownies, and the books will be borrowable like in a library. Brendan and I will be a pair of old lushes and we’ll regale the youngsters with tales of all the boards we’ve trodden, and all the actors we’ve slept with. But Owl or Frog isn’t open yet so, in the meantime, here are some other options for Londoners seeking a comfortable spot to disappear for a few hours with a book.
This place is right on the corner of Old Street near the railway bridge, and I’ve walked past it a hundred times without realising there’s a cafe here. You press on the buzzer to get in, and walk up a flight of stairs to the cafe. I say cafe, it’s more like a communal living room. You pay by the minute (5p/min so £3/hr) but once you’re inside everything else is free. The kitchen is self-service and very well stocked - there are cakes, biscuits, bread and a toaster, a coffee machine and a cupboard crammed with all the teas. The wifi is free, the cafe is warm and the board games are piled very messily on the shelves, a tempting nudge away from avalanche. The best thing about Ziferblat is its homeliness and its abundance of squidge: there are beanbags, sofas, armchairs, cushions, two plush red velvet swivel chairs, and a little cubbyhole room with a bed and so much upholstery. If it’s bottom-padding and reading potential you’re looking for, this is the place for you. Be warned though, the minutes soon clock up and if like me you end up spending 3 hours there, it’s going to set you back £9. The difference between this pay-by-the-minute establishment and a standard cafe is that you don’t feel guilty for sitting there for hours nursing one latte and get cowed into buying another by a glowering barista - quite the opposite, you feel guilty for not having another coffee and getting your money’s worth. My tip for getting the most out of Ziferblat is not to be kitchen-shy. Have some toast, have some cheese, have that second slice of cake - you’ve already paid for it.
CANDID ARTS CAFE
This is another hidden-away-up-flights-of-stairs cafe. Three flights of stairs that feel like six. It’s worth the climb though. There are plenty of sofas - posh red velvet regency chappies with grand swirly mahogany details, a big leather chesterfield with the requisite slashes, a tall embroidered wingback chair, and a couple of impossibly squidgy sofas that look like they were found in a skip but feel like marshmallows under the rump. There’s a long banquet table in the middle and tables dotted around, but even these are serviced by cushioned chairs. The food here is fantastic - homemade quiches, vegetarian curries, cockle-warming soups, pies, sandwiches - and vegetarians are well catered for. There’s no wifi and not many plugs but if you’re armed with a book you don’t need the internet. The best thing about Candid is the artwork on the dragon’s-blood walls. Expect sexy Glastonbury fairy goddess mamas, large naked ladies draped in pearls and the odd sombre portrait. If you visit at night the place is lit by flickering candlelight and is quite romantic.
Park Theatre Cafe
The upstairs bit of this theatre cafe is perfect for reading during the day but to be avoided just before the shows open (aim to leave by 7pm). When the pre-theatre crowds aren’t around it’s a serene little haven. There are plenty of cosy leather sofas and chaise longues by the huge windows, which provide lots of natural light for reading by. If you have any doubt about the Park Theatre’s book-friendliness it will soon allayed - the entire ceiling on the second floor is festooned with books dangling from strings, and a piano on the far wall is stacked with old playscripts. However the cafe is also officially dog-friendly so if you’re not fond of pooches perhaps this isn’t the place for you. I learnt this the hard way when the resident labrador and pug turned up one afternoon (I’m not so good with man’s best friend) - both dogs are apparently very friendly by the way, it would just be wrong for me not to mention this for the sake of other dog phobics like me. I would heartily recommend this place to everyone else! It’s light, quiet and your bottom will be well cushioned.
This is top of the list when it comes to granny credentials and comfort over trendiness. Edith’s House is a cafe run by two actors and it’s clear they know a thing or two about set-dressing: the entire cafe is done up to look like an old lady’s house and it’s like stepping back in time to your Grandmother’s home in the seventies. There are floral sofas and matching armchairs, velvet poofs, lacquered coffee tables, terrible lightshades and unashamed doilies so uncool they’ve come full circle. The cosiness levels here are off the scale - there are so many cushions and sofas and there’s even a bed in the bedroom at the back with a beautiful old sewing machine on the bedside table. There’s a bathroom too, complete with pink toilet and frilly lace toilet seat cover - perfect for people who like to read in the privy. The amazing thing about this place is the attention to detail: the small retro television and bag of knitting gently resting against the tv cabinet, the orange and brown tile design wallpaper in the kitchen, the VHS tapes, the row of Tetley houses on top of the kitchen cabinet, the chintzy cat salt and pepper sellers, the lap trays, the family photos on the walls, the pile of nostalgic toys in the attic, the pink granny square quilt and the crochet cushion covers in the bedroom. At the weekend Edith’s House gets very busy and you’ll be lucky to get in, but the in the week it’s a charming place to bring a book and get snuggly. They have a resident pug but he’s very well behaved so if you’re not keen on canine attention you just have to let the guys there know, and old googly eyes will be kept well away.
Tottenham Court Road.
This cafe is part of a chain and I can’t speak for its other branches as I haven’t been to them but the Tottenham St cafe is a big bright place with a glass ceiling, clashing wallpaper (my favourite featuring galloping ostriches, prowling tigers and entitled white ladies with parasols riding elephants in the Raj) and the dangling lightbulbs beloved of hipsters. They do coffees but the main event here is the tea, loose leaf and served in teapots. They have honey too, which is the sign of a superior cafe in my books. The wifi is good and there are plenty of tables from which to run your startup. There are a couple of dusty pink verging on brown rococo armchairs so deep and low you’ll have difficulty ever leaving their velvety embrace, a big wooden framed sofa with huge velvet cushions and a broken back that means you slip down into a wonderful slouch that’s hard to retrieve yourself from, and a handful of cosy armchairs, all perfect for a couple of hours of reading or knitting.
That’s it for now but I’m constantly on the lookout so will be adding more as I find them.
*I stumbled across NANA cafe online and I can’t sign this off without a mention. NANA cafe was a cafe run by grannies in Clapton - my idea of heaven! It’s sounds like it was a wonderful place, staffed entirely by ladies over 60. Sadly it’s now closed because the organisers had some problems with the local council and it sounds like the group that was supposed to be helping the cafe ended up screwing them over. Such a shame, as the idea of a community cafe run by nanas is a great one: homely, no nonsense, good natter and proper tea in pots, served by ladies who are retired but not ready to pack it all in yet. I hope NANA cafe comes back somewhere else.