From my city to yours: Celeste Wong on cafe culture and London’s top coffee shops

The writer, presenter and coffee expert has kept London caffeinated for over a decade. Now, she’s set to co-host The London Coffee Festival 2022. We chat to her about her career and her favourite spots to enjoy coffee in London.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 23 Mar 2022, 15:00 GMT, Updated 25 Mar 2022, 09:53 GMT
Celeste Wong is a writer and presenter whose website and blog, The Girl in the Cafe, ...

Celeste Wong is a writer and presenter whose website and blog, The Girl in the Cafe, chronicles cafe culture in cities around the world.

Photograph by Jeff Newton

Tell us about your career as a barista.

I’m Chinese, but I was born in New Zealand. I lucked out with my first ever cafe job in Dunedin, working in a tiny, retro, backstreet cafe in the business district, surrounded by people who really inspired me. The cafe was busy, so I learned quickly — we often had people queuing down the street for hours on end. This was before anyone else in the city was practising latte art — and we were nailing it. From there, I travelled to Melbourne to work at Batch Espresso, a cafe that serves as a kind of home away from home for Kiwis. As a team, I felt we were really part of the growth of what people call the ‘third wave’ of speciality coffee, and the breakfast and cafe culture that seems so second nature in Melbourne now.

When I first arrived in London over a decade ago, I worked at Flat White in Soho, which, at the time, was one of the only artisan cafes in the city (apart from the longstanding Monmouth Coffee, Covent Garden). It was owned by an Australian and a New Zealander and business was relentless — like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was the place for coffee for all the post-production film companies that dominate Soho. There were a lot of famous faces we kept caffeinated — and educated on what a flat white coffee was. I travelled to many places and met people who’d heard of Flat White, which felt really special — especially in the days before Instagram.

I fell in love with London through this era, working in Soho. It was intense but so rewarding — and great to be a part of the movement in forging a strong industry of speciality coffee in London that we’re now so familiar with. Off the back of Flat White’s popularity, we opened a sister cafe with a rock ’n’ roll vibe; Milkbar, which sadly closed in September 2020. The pandemic hit the area hard. I’ve been away from Soho for a while now, but it’s noticeably different — although probably perfect for a new generation coming through.

Rosslyn Cafe on Queen Victoria Street, nearby St Paul's Cathedral.

Photograph by Lauren Kallen

Which are your favourite London coffee shops?

I’m a huge fan of Rosslyn Coffee, near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City. It has a minimalistic vibe, but there’s a personality there. An essence of old-school knowledge and attitude that’s quite hard to find these days among so many cookie-cutter cafes. It’s super close to the Tate Modern, which makes for a great day out.

Pavilion in Victoria Park, East London is in a beautiful setting by the waterfront and sells the best pastries — I go there for a cinnamon roll and a flat white.

Both of these cafes have consistently good coffee and service, which are the two things that can be the most challenging to replicate time and time again, no matter when or how often you visit a place.

The Japanese aesthetic and way of service at Omotesando Koffee in Fitzrovia really pulls me in. The space is minimalistic and there’s an unusual process where you’re greeted at the door to order in a sort of reception area. Then you walk into a light, wooden, angular cafe with very little seating. There’s a sense of calm and quiet — a Zen-like atmosphere. Of course, the coffee is fantastic, and well made.

I’m a nostalgic person. I do have a soft spot for the cafes that are more makeshift and less curated. Places that are a bit low budget, a bit rough around the edges and have an individual style – like Birds Hill Café in Bermondsey, which operates out of a converted garage. In the old days, people would use milk crates to sit on outside instead of chairs, which became an aesthetic. There’s a difference between using milk crates for budget purposes, and sourcing some to fit an image.

Which are your favourite global cities for cafe culture?

I've always admired Berlin’s coffee scene. It’s been especially strong in the past eight to 10 years. The quality of coffee and the attention to detail is outstanding, with cafes like The Barn, Bonanza Coffee, Five Elephant, The Visit Coffee Roastery and Coffee Profilers leading the charge. It’s a cool vibe that sits somewhere between super luxe and casual cool, but never exclusive.

I spend a lot of time in Lisbon, Portugal. The industry there has a lot of room for growth, which is pretty exciting. Porto has a strong speciality coffee scene, though — particularly at C’alma, Combi, SO Coffee Roasters (there’s also an outlet in Lisbon) and at My Coffee Porto.

The US can be a little hit and miss in my experience, with a slightly different relationship with coffee compared to the rest of the world. It can be hard to differentiate between the businesses that have been created through passion and graft and those that are the result of having had lots of money thrown at them by developers. Regardless, there are incredible cafes in New York, Seattle, Portland and LA that have had a big impact on the coffee industry throughout the world.

Four London coffee hotspots

1. Climpson & Sons, Broadway Market
Its quaint old-fashioned exterior stands out on the main run of Broadway Market in London Fields. The coffee served here is roasted at nearby Climpson’s Arch. There’s an incredible variety of speciality and single origin coffees to order, with barista courses and home-brewing courses available to book too. 

2. Crol & Co, Bermondsey
This coffee shop has been a labour of love for owners Vanessa and Nico. It’s decorated in the style of Vanessa’s quirky taste, and hung with pictures of the Belgian royal family. The sister site in London Bridge, near Borough Market, is worth checking out, too.

3. Origin Coffee, Shoreditch
Speciality coffee is served at each of this independent coffee shop chain’s three locations, but its flagship shop in Shoreditch features its full range. It’s a B Corp-certified business, too.

4. Attendant Coffee Roaster, Fitzrovia
This coffee shop has a dubious claim to fame: in Victorian times it was a public urinal. Its ornamental features were preserved in the restoration, which completed in 2013. It’s one of five shops in the Attendant portfolio.

Celeste Wong co-hosts The London Coffee Festival 2022, which takes place from 31 March to 3 April. Find out more about Celeste on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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