In my new spirit of solutions-centric positivity, I begin, as promised, with the first of a multi-part foray into Lutonian café culture, and with a solution to that timeless question, ‘Where can I get myself a decent cup of coffee?’ The good news is: it is possible. And what’s more: it’s getting better. Sound the positivity klaxon!
It was not always thus. When I first* moved to Luton, in 2006, Luton was a coffee wasteland, with nary a mochacchino frappé latte to be had anywhere between junctions 10 and 11 of the M1 (like much of what I write on this blog, this is not strictly true: I suspect that the inner-Arndale Costa was already in place by this time, but I’ve always found that too dingy an affair to much bother with). Coming from Brighton, where I’d spent the previous two years, this was something of a shock.
While decent cups of tea have never been in short supply in Luton, sourcing espresso-based coffee was, to begin with, a challenge. I remember an occasion when I popped into one of the cafés in Stopsley and unthinkingly asked for a cappuccino. A moment of pause from the waitress, before responding, ‘Ooh! A cappuccino! Yes, I’m sure we’ve got a sachet for that somewhere! Phyllis, have we still got one of those cappuccino sachets somewhere?’ I didn’t have the heart to change my order.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was also, around that time, a lovely man who set up a Damien Hirst-inspired concept café at the train station, and set his heart on capturing the early-adopting wheatgrass-shot brigade, along with organic milk coffees, slow-cooked porridge and bagels. While I gave him a good deal of business, here was a man who was decidedly before his time as far as Luton was concerned, and – following a break-in – he packed it in and refocused his efforts on Hitchin.
But these are matters historical. In the words of David Bowie, where are we now?
Remarkably, we are still – in 2013 – pre-Starbucks, practically virgin territory! – and that is something to cherish and celebrate for as long as that remains the case. We’ve acquired a second Costa in recent times (overlooking St George’s Square), which on localist principles I might shun were it not for the fact that it is really the only place that opens very early in the morning (and the coffee is not bad). But slowly, slowly, high-quality independent cafés are emerging. In today’s blog I will focus on two of the newest (and best, in my opinion; there may be others you know about and I would love to hear about them). Primarily tea-drinking establishments such as the Scandi, Tim’s Kitchen and the Hatters Café I will reserve for another occasion, as it hardly seems fair to compare crema and foam density in the same breath as canteen tea.
The Coffee House, on the pedestrianised section of Park Street, is my new favourite place to work during the day. It attracts a pleasingly mixed crowd – students and staff from the University of Bedfordshire, local shopkeepers and pensioners – and there are nice touches such as colouring pencils for children (and adults!), arty lighting above the serving area and a respectable softcore indie soundtrack. The owner is that rarest of birds: an old-school attentive shopkeeper clearly skilled beyond his years in the charismatic arts.
Free wifi, decent espresso and toasted bagels at (one suspects) unsustainably low prices (£2.50 for my favourite salmon and cream cheese toasted bagel), as well as organic teas, milkshakes, smoothies and desserts of various kinds (I haven’t tried it, but their red velvet cake looks quite special).
They serve very good cappuccino as a rule (when it’s not a latte; I’ve already acquired a reputation for being a stickler about the cappuccino/latte distinction there, but they’ve never hesitated to remake it), and it’s the kind of place where you can stay for hours with a minimum of hassle, though with a modicum of distraction reliably provided by Annoying Phonecall Man, who makes a habit of staging Dom Joly-style telephone interventions to an unwitting public audience (one time, a lengthy exchange concerning a telephone order for a particular style of a women’s shoes; another, a forthright encounter with a Ford customer services assistant in which he makes it known that he has recently sent a lengthy letter of complaint on the matter of his clutch).
I already have all of Annoying Phonecall Man’s personal details, since he invariably spends a good while spelling these out for anyone in earshot: name, address, credit card details and car registration number. While I haven’t quite made my peace with Annoying Phonecall Man (ostentatiously donning of a pair of ear plugs the other day was to no avail), he adds colour – and inadvertent comedy – to a genuinely very good café which is long overdue in Luton town centre. There are a couple of downsides: I’m not sure if they make a toilet available for their customers (though there may be one out back) and the décor, though modern and neutral, is bland. I nevertheless hope it will survive under the current management. Its location in town and proximity to the university, at least, work very much in its favour.
Closer to (my) home, there’s Marjorie’s, the new darling of High Town. I don’t know why it’s called Marjorie’s, but I do know why there’s a fairly significant wooden crucifix attached to the wall: the café is the brainchild of a (presumably holy) trinity of three church interests. Unsuprisingly, there’s a link to High Town Methodist Church just over the road, but it’s also connected to St Mary’s as well as a Pentecostal church, New Covenant Fellowship (I would have linked to their website, but it is currently redirecting to a dodgy pharmaceutical site). It’s being run as a not-for-profit, social concern, though I sense that some of the finer details of the arrangement are still being worked out.
Aside from God, the second thing that Marjorie’s has very much on its side is its remarkably attractive – and well-looked after! – premises at 48a High Town Road, on the corner with Duke Street. And while the devil may have the best tunes, God, it turns out, wins on pizza. They do extraordinarily good pizza there; made, it would seem, by real Italians: fresh, hot, crispy (the pizza, not the Italians), and moreover inexpensive: only £4 for pizza and garlic bread when I was there. And panini, with a choice of exciting sauces:
The coffee could be better (my cappuccino was veering dangerously toward latte territory, and the foam a little feeble for my tastes), but I hear from friends that the cakes are good (more research is needed here!). They’ve also had a stab at a Bill’s-style deli wall, though I suspect this will be more decorative than profitable (though jars of Italian antipasta: yes please!); there’s no wifi but the place is already attracting the Lutonian hipster contingent (these fine, beardy fellows in their checked shirts could be straight out of Shoreditch).
What it also possibly lacks is a clear strategy with respect to capturing the early morning passing commuter trade: Marjorie’s doesn’t open early enough to catch the morning commute. While I like the idea, I fear that Marjorie’s may struggle to bring in custom, and plausibly some people may also be put off by the 4ft-high wooden replica of a Roman instrument of torture and execution (just sayin’!).
I asked them whether their Christian values extended to any policies with respect to food, and got the impression that they hadn’t really worked this out yet, though the coffee was fairtrade. While that’s a start, it would be lovely to see a more robust and thoroughgoing commitment to an ethical policy, even if it led to slightly higher prices: a concern for food miles, a commitment to localism, and possibly a view on organic produce as well as fairtrade. Marjorie’s is great, but at the moment it has an amateur quality, and a sense that it is not firmly ‘owned’ by anyone in particular (the person I spoke to suggested that the kitchen and serving team might change at intervals). Italian-focused now, but will it still be in six months’ time? It’s a lovely space, and there’s so much they could do with it: as a venue for evening events, such as book clubs; by making more of their enviable proximity to the train station; and, for the daytime laptop crowd, wifi would be lovely.
While I am not Christian, I would love to get behind local businesses that have a clear set of ethical trading principles at their heart: in other towns where I’ve lived I can think of a number of enterprises that are vibrant examples of this: a Cambridge supermarket run on Islamic principles; various Christian bookshops and cafés (and relatedly, the wholehearted Quaker approach), and businesses such as Evolution, run by Buddhists.
So for me it’s a marginal win for The Coffee House, out of the two: wifi and bagels are a more sustainable proposition than (mainly) pizza, pizza, pizza (as far as my diet goes), and the owner of The Coffee House has succeeded in cultivating a laid-back, friendly atmosphere. But with a little time and a clearer sense of its offer, Marjorie’s could yet steal the prize, and save me at least a walk through the Arndale.
In part 2, Tim’s Kitchen goes head to head with The Scandinavia Café, and a pattern emerges: Luton town centre v High Town. Can the Scandi equalise for High Town? I’m also acutely aware that I’ll be needing to put in serious beverage-partaking and cake-consuming in some places that I know less well (Siedemnastka, the French Coffee Shop, the Hatters Café, among others). It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it…
* strictly speaking, the second time I moved to Luton; I was here for two years as a child. This lends support to my theory that Luton is like Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.