Once upon a time, before the arrival of Starbucks and Pret a Manger, there were local coffee shops peppering the British high street, each with their own distinctive style… Now and again, when I’m not shamelessly stocking up stamps on my Caffe Nero loyalty card, I try to make the effort to seek out the smaller companies, many of which focus on high quality coffee and a huge range of speciality teas, catering to an audience that wants more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
On a recent trip to Bristol, a city which is something of a mecca for independent businesses (and formerly the home of Carwardine’s coffee, where my mum once worked), I decided to boycott the recognisable chains and discover the best locally-endorsed places to grab a drink. Three very different shops stood out for me, and I hope some of them will stand out for you.
Wild at Heart
The vintage emporium-cum-hairdressers-cum-tattoo-parlour-cum-cafe that is Wild at Heart has to be seen to be believed. With a quirky menu and cosy decor, it’s the kind of place that was made for retreating to. Not only could you emerge from your visit looking drastically different thanks to the other enterprises inside, but you’ll leave well fed and relaxed. My only gripe was that the waitress did forget one coffee order, but this was quickly resolved. I’d definitely choose Wild at Heart over a chain if I wanted somewhere to spend an hour with a good book or to meet friends.
Visiting notes: 51 Broad Street, not far from shopping spots like St. Nicholas Market and the Corn Exhange.
Stand-out drink: Cappuccino, £2.50, made with the proper ratio of foam to coffee (1/3 foam, 1/3 coffee, 1/3 steamed milk).
On the menu: Granola for breakfast or free range scrambled eggs on toasted sourdough; sandwiches, toasties and soup for lunch, as well as sophisticated sharing boards. There are also locally made cakes and biscuits for sale.
Boston Tea Party
Rapidly gaining popularity in Bristol and beyond, the Boston Tea Party has grown into something of a local institution, with five branches in the city alone, as well as others in Exeter, Bath and Honiton, to name but a few. I walked along Park Street to find the original shop, which has been open since 1995. The company prides itself on using 80% local suppliers, organic milk and single origin coffee, as well as aiming to be green and supporting community projects. Basically it’s more ethical than you could ever hope to be, but you can go in for a drink and hope that some of the good vibes rub off on you.
Visiting notes: 75 Park Street, with a terraced garden at the rear. Just along from Bristol Museum, this branch is really accessible if you’ve been sightseeing in the city.
Stand-out drink: Iced chai tea, £3.00 – perfect for cooling down after a busy morning. Alternatively, go for one of the hot varieties with crazy names, like Chinese Pinhead Gunpowder.
On the menu: Cakes, puddings and muffins galore to enjoy with coffee, topped off with full meals including speciality burgers and hot dogs, as well as salads and soup. Oh, and an all day breakfast…
A tiny venue, but one that’s worth popping into if you’re passing, Ground Up is a hidden gem. Serving reasonably priced coffee and tea, there’s added value from the long list of extras that the shop doesn’t charge for (soya milk, whipped cream, another shot of coffee, a flavoured shot, etc.) – now you wouldn’t get that service in your local chain. With limited seating available, this is largely a take-away spot rather than somewhere you can while away the hours, yet you’ll want to be back for more.
Visiting notes: 39 Queen’s Road, Clifton – on the Clifton Triangle, and close to the Royal West of England Academy.
Stand-out drink: Espresso with ice cubes and cold milk, £1.80. Ditch the frappuccinos (which can have as many as 12 spoons of sugar in Starbucks) in favour of this healthier option.
On the menu: Protein bars, but also more indulgent snacks like croissants and crisps. You might also be tempted by the shelves packed with travel guidebooks as you wait to place your order.
Other than the three I’ve mentioned, there are stacks of alternative coffee shops in Bristol with rave reviews, but I made a beeline for these because they looked a bit different and had that personal feel that you really want from an independent company. Seeing the best of Bristol is undoubtedly thirsty work, so why resort to chains to get your caffeine fix when you can try something a bit different?
For more coffee experiences from me, check out the review of London’s Tina We Salute You, a cult coffee shop with ever-changing artwork.