Words Gordon Ritchie
Photography Manu Zafra
A summer morning, the sun shines on London. Kept cool by the tall buildings opposite on Beak Street a friendly welcome and smile set the tone. It’s going to be a great day. Exit through the Soho Grind. Sit in the picture window and watch Soho come to life.
“Soho Grind opened on May 2nd, 2014, in somewhere that we wanted to be. We couldn’t turn down the opportunity. Before we arrived, the building sold porcelain dolls, but we only know that because some rather peculiar-looking people have come asking about it.”
A supreme cappuccino kick starts the day. A few suits have jumped over from the hedge funds of Mayfair and tradesmen with calls nearby are clustered round the door: the barista, as good with the pleasantries as pouring a perfect coffee. The white brick wall interior, large jugs of water, cucumber, orange or lemon added, wait to be poured into beatnik glasses. Green touches high along one wall on shelves above a row of brass mirrors. The atmosphere is cool and fresh, and a summer breeze wafts in the open door.
“We’ve always found that the best staff find us. There’s a long culture of Aussies and Kiwis coming to the UK with two-year visas. We’re lucky to have built up enough of a reputation that they find their way to us. We’ve had a few baristas that have been pulling shots for us at the Grind having come through Heathrow arrivals the same morning.”
A red neon Espresso Bar sign hangs low in the window: ‘The Soho Grind’ in red, subtitles in black, ‘Coffee, Sex and Rock and Roll’ reads the cinema style hoarding. Inside though, it’s relaxed the music mellow, no drama. Except that one time the coffee exploded over the stressed out businessman.
Mid-morning; back at The Soho Grind. The croissants are freshly baked, plain, ham and cheese, just enough between breakfast and lunch. Out in Beak Street, the traffic is busier, a remarkable number of white vans pass the window. The door is shut now. Sit along the wall at the dark wood shelf that runs on the opposite wall from the counter. The custom stools, metal framed with Soho Grind built in to the struts. Round caramel padded discs to park on. A free magazine to glance through while you eat, and sip another cappuccino. In the window, Creative’s discuss projects, beards optional, this is Soho. Expensive jackets, trainers, and sweatshirts compulsory. They come and go, male and female two’s and three’s. Open laptops, overheard words occasionally. Investment, development, projects, apps, shoots, release dates, Soho’s media village coffee stop: A steady flow; never too busy.
“Our designer is based in Melbourne and all the stools and light-fittings were designed and made bespoke there, before being sent around the world to us in Soho.” As it gets near mid-day, the sun, high in the sky beats in the large window. Early bird Asians start congregating and queuing out on the narrow pavement for meat, a lunch table inside, next door at Flat Iron. At The Soho Grind the red, white and green filled ciabattas are being stacked up on the counter: Mozzarella, Tomato, Pesto. Bowls of healthy salads are being brought up from downstairs. Italian tourist families in Belstaff jackets glance in the window, peer up at the sign, walk back to the door and decide not to come in.
I first encountered the Grind at Old Street roundabout in Shoreditch, East London. Ignored by a directional Emo Phillips haircut in skinny jeans for what felt like 10 mins. After curt service, eventually the coffee was good. The Holborn Grind was more business-like, busy and straightforward, no quirks, like the area it sits in. The Soho Grind was cool, and drew me back. It became a regular spot.
By lunchtime it’s as busy as it can be. Lucky to find a stool. It’s a hustle and bustle as friends and colleagues meet and eat. Quickly, conversations, start and stop, change subject, and leave. The tempo of the music has picked up, wonky house, abstract but still in the key of calm.
Early afternoon, late lunch, most of the sandwiches have gone, the stack depleted. Cold in the summer, but toasted in winter. Salami, rocket, mozzarella. In autumn afternoons the red neon glows inside. ‘French lessons given downstairs x’, reads the neon sign on the wall above the staircase. The small basement offers a cosy den for clandestine afternoon meetings out of sight, and holds a secret all of its own. In the 1960s, Soho was infamous for the ‘walk-ups’ to hidden brothels or strip clubs hidden away from the street. ‘French lessons given’ was a popular innuendo for marking these out.
Late afternoon, the last drop-in of the day, another caffeine hit, a flat white, and maybe one of the mini-cream filled croissants or chocolate filled little pastries. Unobtrusive, staff chat amongst themselves, surprisingly focused, it’s about work. Sometimes they talk about travels, places they’ve been, where they’re from, where they’re going. Music volume rises as the day unfolds, a bit of reggae, some hip-hop beats, and a raggle taggle of Libertines. It gets lively, but it never gets too loud. Opposite in the street, an “agency” photographer appears with an overdressed, aspiring “model”. No qualms about posing suggestively in a Soho doorway. “In the last few years, we’re seeing more and more UK-born baristas. Our Head of Coffee, Sam, was born in the UK now he trains and certifies all our baristas to the Grind standard.”
Pass in the early evening; it’s still open, bathed in the red of Soho’s night lights. Smiling faces sit in the window, young girls laughing looking forward. Blonde hair, red lips and black hats. First stop for nocturnal Soho night birds. Exit the Daily Grind.
Then later one night, everything changed. The rain made the streets of Golden Square shine. Only just visible, as I headed up Lower James Street, was the familiar red glow. As I got nearer I could see the bulbs suspended on black wires, their fast scratch, visible elements contrasting against the red which bathed the rectangular room. White flames on candles in old crystal chimed with the lights. A metal tray turned over and propped up, in the window. Written on it opening hours I had never noticed before: “7.30 am- 11.30pm” and “Cocktails and Tapas“.
“You’re not normally open this late are you?” I asked the late shift. The new and different staff now, unfamiliar, who all wore white shirts: “Just since we opened the cocktail bar downstairs.” Was the answer that surprised me as I ordered a mocha, thick and sweet, small but filling. I glanced along the bar at Iberico Ham, bowls of green olives, and a tub of beer bottles on ice. Cool I thought but not what I was expecting.
“In the evening: a menu of traditional aperitif and cold meats, alongside some more modern dishes of our own, an after-work espresso – and an escape from the bustle of central London nightlife.” The atmosphere still felt the same upstairs and looking round everyone was still drinking coffee. I take a mental note in my mind’s notebook to drop back when night manoeuvres are on the agenda. I stand up, drink up, zip up my Jacket as I exit through the Soho Grind.