Ghosts of coffees past: Fleet River Bakery

Fleet River Bakery (FRB to you) marked another milestone in my learning to surf the third wave. Here’s how it went. I used to drink Ribena or strawberry Nesquik or water or pints of milk out the bottle or whatever. Then instant coffee (a fad at university was to drink it, very strong, out of a bowl to fuel last-minute writing sessions). Then at some point, cafetière coffee with single cream (I still like that). Then, when I started working near Euston, I got to love the creamy cappuccini sold at an Illy stall outside the station. Then, in 2011, my work moved down to Holborn, and FRB was the local place to go.

I was just cottoning on to how nice nice coffee was. I’d paid a trip to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street, as it was ‘famous’ on the scene, or appeared so to me. But their queuing and ordering system was stupid – you’d give your order, and the cashier (I use the term because I think they’d dislike it) would bellow it out loud, for the barista to repeat from up on a mezzanine level. No writing it down or anything because writing down is for suckers. Writing is not cool. Except that 100% of the times I went in there I saw them get orders wrong (no exaggeration; sample size = 2). So it must have been happening all day long. This stuff matters.

But anyway, FRB was closer, just hugging a corner of Lincoln Inn Fields with all its caffeine-hungry legal types. It was done out in the usual sort of hipstery way, but with some art deco touches, for example in its typefaces. It was actually more of a lunch & brunch place, with coffee on the side and a good range of salads, frittatas and so on, and cake slices of inviting size. I definitely had a delicious eggs royale there at least once, and I think there was where I met my first piece of hummingbird cake. At its busiest times it would have a queue snaking half a dozen long outside.

You’d give your order, and the cashier… would bellow it out loud, for the barista to repeat from up on a mezzanine level. No writing it down or anything because writing down is for suckers.

FRB occupies a central location in my time in London. I didn’t always go there, but it was ever-present and reliable. Like a friend who you only see a couple of times a year, but always with pleasure. It was a bystander to various events of interest in my life, at various distances. I like the vibe, and the space, and that it was named after one of those old underground rivers like the one that goes through Sloane Square station.

And then one day I got there and it had been gobbled up by Espresso Room. It was still there, but not quite the same.

Espresso Room began as a tiny section of corridor next to Great Ormond Street Hospital, and was also an early stopping point in my coffee journey. I didn’t go there that often because I found it awkward to order and then have to wait while standing right there in front of the counter. I’d be forced to make conversation, or look artificially at my phone, or choose the difficult third option and find a spot on the wall to stare at. I didn’t like any of these options. This stuff matters.

Espresso Room has grown into a little empire, belying the small-scale name. Is it such a bad thing? In some respects it is inevitable, almost like circles of life itself. Dogs eat dogs. But there is something to be said for keeping biodiversity high, for more originality and a more interesting experience. Each place I go to (Lord knows, I am promiscuous with my coffee shopping) has its own appeal and it is maybe diminished by the inevitable decision to standardise the branding.

In fact, judging by an Instagram feed called “Espresso Room Fleet”, the takeover may have happened as long ago as 2014, with décor and branding only updated recently, a bit like what Department of Coffee and Social Affairs has now done with TAP. So they penetrate the body, lie dormant, then consume – like some sort of parasite.

I jest, of course. Who cares? I don’t even know who owns any of these companies. I don’t scrutinise. Remember how annoyed everyone was when they found out Harris & Hoole is Tesco? (Now Caffè Nero, apparently!) Well, I didn’t and don’t care about that, really.

All sorts of things might make me come to or go from a particular shop – the queuing system, a change in supplier of almond croissants or a strange decision to start making horrible coffee instead of nice coffee. But an owner change probably won’t do it.

And plus, takeovers mean loyalty cards that I can suddenly use in several more shops than before.  So I forgive you Fleet River. I forgive you Espresso Room. And TAP, and Timberyard, and 6/8, and Wild and Wood. And all the rest. I’m glad I knew you, and knew your brew.

So let’s get the flat whites in, get high together and forget this ever happened. Whadaya say?