Words Kirk Truman
Photography Chris Rahlenfeldt
“We still have customers coming in who are surprised to discover that it’s now a coffee shop…”
I know a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by. On a winter morning, or a sunny summer afternoon, it remains a perfect, diminutive, sanctuary on Great Ormond Street. Doctors and nurses come and go, making their way to the hospital across the road, but here – in one of London’s best coffee shops, and one of Bloomsbury’s closely guarded secrets – you can sit, right in the centre of Bloomsbury, among its distinctive residents, and just while away the time.
The Espresso Room is really just that – a space no larger or grandeur than a garden shed or a small bedroom. In a previous life, it was a tiny launderette, and then, set against Bloomsbury’s literary backdrop, it was fittingly reborn as a bookshop.
“Great Ormond Street Hospital’s just across the street. Sometimes, years can go by between people’s visits to the hospital, so to this day, we still have customers coming in who are surprised to discover that it’s now a coffee shop,” says co-founder Tom Mullings. Tom and his partner Chris, however, are no strangers to coffee. As well as The Espresso Room, they have opened Holborn’s Freestate Coffee as well as Covent Garden’s New Row Coffee. Tom’s no stranger to Central London either: “I was born in Soho. I can remember when I was kid learning to ride a bike on Old Compton Street – I guess not many people can say that!”
This latest incarnation of the little ‘room’ on Great Ormond Street arrived in 2009. Despite the bite of the ongoing recession, independent cafés and coffee shops were on the rise in Central London. Kaffeine and Lantana, for example, had opened their doors in neighbouring Fitzrovia during what must have seemed the most challenging of times to begin a new business venture.
With a small seating area inside, a carefully designed barista bar and a minimalistic interior, The Espresso Room feels like Bloomsbury’s contemporary equivalent of the classic tearoom or coffee house. It’s a good fit for the neighbourhood: unpretentious, sensible and intelligent. “It’s a given, I guess, that we get a lot of business from the hospital opposite and the staff. Many doctors and nurses are regular visitors, as well as residents from around the area, not to mention Lambs Conduit Street,” says Tom. “Its a weird feeling coming to work here – everybody knows everybody. Every day, it’s a case of ‘who’s spoken to who?’ You can really feel the local element. We didn’t advertise or promote this at all, but we recently began opening on Saturdays. As locals started to come in each Saturday, word spread through the area from person to person. Bloomsbury’s like that!“
With indoor seating for about four or five people, The Espresso Room has expanded its minimal capacity by moving outside. Tan wooden benches line the street during the café’s opening hours, helping integrate it into the neighbourhood’s social fabric. Out here, it’s even easier to observe the bustle of Bloomsbury locals, business owners, doctors and nurses, going about their day-to-day lives.
The limited capacity of this tiny coffee shop somehow makes The Espresso Room all the more special: it feels a bit niche, a hidden gem that you’ll only hear about through the Bloomsbury grapevine. The choice of food and drink is likewise small but equally memorable – mainly espresso-based coffees, a soup of the day, a sandwich or two, and a few baked goods. The place feels like a shrine to the soul of espresso, which is made with consistent and consummate skill using beans from Square Mile Coffee Roasters. A visit always provides me with what I’d describe as “textbook coffee” – something steering dangerously close to perfection and served with pride by the café’s wonderful baristas. Weather permitting, sitting outside The Espresso Room and watching the world go by in the company of a flat white (or whatever your coffee of choice happens to be) is a moment in Bloomsbury spent well.