A Cup of Coffee in Muswell Hill


Muswell Hill is beautiful little community in North London that boasts Victorian homes, a small town feel, and a Starbucks.  Being a hardcore addict of hot Café Mochas, I naturally gravitated towards the iconic green mermaid sign on a daily basis during my three week stay.  Not only is Starbucks one of the few locations in the neighborhood that has free Wi-fi, but I was also assured of a good cup of coffee.  Now, I love the Brits, but coffee is not their forte.  I’ve learned my lesson many times over that if you want a good cup of coffee in London you have to go with a brand name.

Within just a few days I found my groove in the one Starbucks that occupies Muswell Hill Broadway, (the main street of the neighborhood).  Isn’t it cute?

Click image for a full-size view

What I noticed immediately was how easily I was accepted into the ranks as a regular.  Not only am I foreigner treading in a non-tourist area, but I am a stranger within a very tight knit community. Instead of becoming an outcast, I was extended a warm invitation to sit down and relax.  The people that live here did not give me  the “Oh my God, another tourist” leer that is common in the city center.

The cafe occupies a building that outdates Starbucks by quite a few decades, which gives the place a lot of charm.  There are two levels of inside seating (upstairs and downstairs) and two outside seating areas.  The upper level is divided into two sections, with the coffee service station in the middle.  The front “lobby” has a window bar and two tables jammed in along the walls.

While the back room is a little more open, the floor slopes towards the middle and causes every table  to tilt at an angle.  It drove me nuts at first, but then I realized most floors in London buildings slope in one direction or the other – older buildings don’t like to follow the rules! Nine tables are crammed into a space that would better accommodate five,  so personal space is nonexistent.  I could literally read the computer screen of the person sitting next to me.  While a tad unnerving, the close quarters actually creates a sort of kinship among strangers. Everyone gathers in this place for the same things – a cup of coffee and a place to sit.

The space downstairs is a little larger, but it feels like a cave because of the low ceiling.  Several tables have soft chairs and the lighting is more subdued, which makes the room feel warm and cozy.  It’s quiet during the day, but by early afternoon it becomes the hangout for teenagers who just got out of school.  Teenagers and caffeine always make for an obnoxious combination!  Some things never change, no matter where you are in the world.

There are two tables on the sidewalk out front.  If its not raining, they are always occupied by moms with strollers or smokers with a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other.  Out back is a patio with tables covered by a large umbrella.  This is where the larger groups congregate, even if its pouring rain.  The patio also plays host to the smokers who want to sit inside, but still need a cigarette break.  The door leading outside is constantly in motion and very often left open by those with no etiquette.

As in the rest of Europe, prices vary depending whether you choose “to stay” or “take away.” Staying in costs a bit more (usually around 10p) than take away, which creates a much slower pace within the cafe.  Those who pay to stay, take full advantage of that extra pence they’ve spent and settle in for a long stay.  Those with laptops are plugged in, others sit with newspapers stacked high, and writers toil away in their journals.

Now that I am home and sitting in my usual coffee cafe, I can’t help but think of my “spot” in Muswell Hill.  I miss how the musty smell of rain fuses with the earthy aroma of coffee, how the air conditioning kicks on even when it’s cold, and the sound of quiet conversations in more languages than I can understand.  Most of all I miss the people – the regulars – who showed up every day at the same time.  There’s the older couple who share sections of two different newspapers, a pair a teenage girls who stop by each day to spill the latest gossip, and a young man who spends hours taking notes from a propped up book.  And I’ll never forget the employees who made my coffee each day.  The most memorable is a girl who has the longest dreads I’ve ever seen. She is one tough cookie that refuses to be pushed around by rude customers.  Then there’s a cute curly haired man who never stops smiling, a shy black haired Czech (I think) boy who barely says a word, and a tiny Asian girl who is still learning the ropes.  Though we barely spoke, I miss them and remain thankful for how quickly they learned I’m the one who always orders a Tall Cafe Mocha, (with cream).

c.b. 2011