I had hoped to introduce thos. more to Monmouth Coffee Company during a London business sojourn in December 2006, but my plans were thwarted by the fact that this café keeps rather inconvenient business hours. I suppose opening at 8 am is a reasonable business strategy; closing at 6:30 pm, on the other hand, is a lamentable decision. This means that the calendrical system, if you will, of Monmouth Coffee Company is firmly anchored to the workaday schedule of your average London suit. Presumably, once the shops and offices have closed, everyone heads to the pub. But for those of us who are more café-prone in the evenings, we are left with few options in Central London other than the Costas and the Starbucks. And for those of you who intended to skip church to go hang out at Monmouth Coffee Company, I’m afraid you’re also out of luck: the cafe is closed on Sundays.
There is also the matter of the holiday season. London, for those of you unaware of this peculiar fact, essentially closes down for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Business hours, such as at Monmouth Coffee Company, are reduced, for everyone leaves the city to vacation in family cottages, where they drink hot toddies by firelight in the evenings and pick fastidiously at Wedgwood platefuls of biscuits and bite-size sandwich wedges during the day. Certainly I jest at this suggestion of such jolly good fun; the point, in essence, is that this festive time is a period of leisure. As no one is working, there is no need to keep a coffee shop open.
Too bad for us rapscallion tourists who, knowing no better, actually fly into London on 25 December, a day when the entire public transportation system for the city shuts down, and as a result end up having to tote eighty pounds (lbs) of books, travel presses, and typewriters from Victoria Station to Clapham Junction—on foot. If you should decide to rough it in London during this holiday week, expect that most of your favorite—or soon-to-be-favorite—coffee shops will be closed and the weather will be dismal for the duration. The one bright spot on the horizon is the vegan all-you-can-eat Thai buffet chain, which, amazingly, seems to have spread to every nook of the city. Though café-less and cold, you can at least look forward to never-ending heaps of soy strips and soy chunks, as well as a constant stream of customers who are alternately entertaining and annoying, but who will nevertheless provide you with a few nuggets of inspiration so that you and your business colleague, once you have exhausted all other topics, can discuss whether the Jack Sprat and Wife seated at the nearby table are indeed a married couple, or, whether, as brother and sister, they represent some carnivalesque expression of genetic potential gone awry.
When you arrive at Monmouth Coffee Company to find it closed, you will be able to peer through its glass front into the narrow interior. From this vantage point, you will be able to take in the extent of the establishment. Doubling as both café and shop, the Monmouth Coffee Company is of such a diminutive size that one feels discouraged from lingering for too long. Indeed, patrons are encouraged to share one of several large, heavily shellacked wooden booths with other coffee-sipping strangers. So, while you may have hoped to nestle yourself and a book into a cozy corner, you may just as well end up swapping café tableaux with a cute, saucy Londoner. (Caveat: you could also find yourself having to ‘make friends’ with two mothers with prams in tow!)
Above all else, I appreciate the proprietors’ concern for maintaining reasonable decibel levels in the café. Signs posted in the booths state that ‘this is a mobile free zone,’ in this case referring, in British, to what an American might call a ‘cell phone’, rather than to Alexander Calder’s primary-colored sculptural works, which is almost certainly what just sprang to your mind. (Calder, incidentally, was an American, which makes sense, for if he were British he most certainly would not have christened his hanging clusters with a name shared by the pocket-sized crutches too many of us tote around these days.) Monmouth Coffee Company also serves a nice filter coffee—a pleasant way to watch your brew take form, before your eyes, as well as to reduce the assault of swishes and grinds generated by constantly pawed machines. It is not often that one gets to feast upon such a lazy and indulgent sight in a cafe: the operation of water being filtered through one’s own individual serving of beans and paper.
As if in a nod to this emphasis upon process, the physical arrangement of the small café is such that the barista’s ‘work station’ is open and exposed to the coffee-drinkers seated nearby. This is a small gesture, to be sure, but the effects are profound: the patron is provided a view onto the machinations of the business, while the customer’s social shield is rendered transparent to the eyes of the roving employee. They both—to put it another way—occupy the same living room. What I’m really trying to say is you will have eminently more opportunities to flirt with that hot phe who’s fixing coffee drinks—or, if you should choose, to chat with the Aussie twenty-something who ended up sitting at your table. If you are feeling extremely outgoing, strike up a conversation with the fifteen or so people who fill up the café/shop to its capacity and make plans to head off to the Indian vegan buffet in Islington before this cozy little experiment kicks everyone out at 6:30.
* While Monmouth Coffee Company’s beans are not Fair Trade Certified, I have learned–through personal communication–that the proprietors seek to establish ‘sustainable, fair, and equal trade’ relationships with the growers and exporters with whom they do business. We at Cafe Tableaux encourage any patron interested to learn more about Monmouth Coffee Company’s business practices and ethics to contact the proprietors themselves.
Monmouth Coffee Company27 Monmouth Street
London, WC2H 9EU