Mugshot: London coffee culture steps up a notch

New breed: Flat White in Soho.
New breed: Flat White in Soho. 

The last time I was in London - 1988 - I was on my way home from a year in Milan. Coffee? Yes please, white with two sugars in the Charles and Di mug. (OK, we did find one little Italian place in Soho where you could get a decent espresso, but there must have been others.)

How things have changed. The recently published Specialty Coffee Map London lists 100 cafes, coffeehouses and carts where you can get good coffee between Marylebone in the west and Whitechapel in the east.

If I'd known where to look in 1988, I might have found Monmouth Coffee in Covent Garden (27 Monmouth Street, WC2H), a pioneer of specialty coffee in Britain.

Monmouth opened in 1978, with a focus on roasting and selling beans for brewing at home. They moved the roastery across the Thames in 2007, and Covent Garden is now a lovely pale-timbered retail shop with cosy booth seating up the back where you can sample one of a dozen single origins from all around the coffee world, plus their seasonal espresso blend.

The staff are young and cool, the service British polite, and the coffee some of London's best.

But the touchpaper for London's specialty boom was lit in 2005 when New Zealander Cameron McClure opened Flat White in Soho (17 Berwick Street, W1F), a narrow espresso bar with banquette seating that really feels as if you've been transported back to Surry Hills. The flat whites, using a custom blend from Square Mile Coffee Roasters, are exemplary, and there's a cheddar-and-Vegemite toastie on the pegboard menu in case you don't get it.

McClure sold up and went home in 2012, but Flat White and its sister, Milk Bar (3 Bateman Street, W1D), continue. The only question for a visiting Australian is whether you're lapsing into mild self-parody when you order that flattie.

Among the hip new kids on the block, in a cheerful, English way, is Prufrock (25 Leather Lane, EC1N), famous for its minimal coffee offer: black filter, black espresso or espresso with milk in three sizes, but no cappuccinos, flat whites or caffe lattes. The coffee is from Square Mile, as well as guest roasters on the continent.

And just a little further east is Workshop Coffee Co (27 Clerkenwell Road, EC1), a stylish and low-lit cafe-roastery where you can sit up at the central bar to watch the espresso and Aeropress action.

A visiting Melburnian will feel right at home and yet somehow transported.