Category Archives: London

My Experience Working at the British Library

British library in the distance
Two weeks ago now I packed up my bags and hopped on a train to London to research at the British Library.  Despite searching for advice on how to approach the formidable place, I didn’t much know what to expect.  Some articles talked about the hierarchy of reading rooms — The Guardian think rare books is the place to be — while others mentioned the awkward photo taken for your reader’s card.  Few answered my questions: which reading room should I have my books sent to?  What documents do I really need to show?  How early do I have to get there?  Is it really that busy?  What do I do for lunch?  Where do I put my things?  Will I find a seat?

It’s up to me to answer those questions for you.

In January my independent study supervisor suggested I head to the British Library to research as Bristol’s library is woefully understocked regarding food culture.  I looked online and discovered that in order to use the reading rooms, you need to register for a reading pass.  I quickly pre-registered online, which involved filling out a quick questionnaire.  They gave me my reader number, which I then used to create an online account.  This allowed me to search for and request books in advance of my visit.  All the books you request get sent to your basket and from there you can figure out how long it will take to get them sent to a reading room.  You can choose to send them to any reading room and select the date you want them to arrive.  It’s simple, though takes a few tries.

How to decide which reading room?  Unless you’re researching a topic for which there is a specific reading room, there are few guidelines for choosing which study space to send your books to.  I chose what appears to be the typical choice: humanities 1 (or hum 1).  It’s one of the larger reading rooms, with plenty of seats and a hint of natural life.  The room is on the first story of the building.  When you enter, you walk up two flights of stairs and walk to the back of the floor on the left.  There are big glass doors marked humanities one.  I enjoyed my choice and found that there was plenty of seating for me every time I went (which was, at one point, in the middle of a Friday afternoon).  It may be one of the “less serious” rooms, but that was fine with me.

What documents do you really need to show? After registering online, bring the reader’s number you were given, the list of books you need with shelf marks (do this even if you’ve already requested them), proof of address (I brought a four month old check, which was fine), proof of signature (I used a passport) and any supporting documents (I brought my student card).  When you go to the Reader’s registration room, on the far right side of the Upper Ground floor, you’ll need to demonstrate these documents before you can complete your registration.

What time do I need to get there to make sure I’ll get a seat?  I read a few posts and articles that advised making sure to get to the library early because it gets busy.  I didn’t exactly find this to be the case.  When I arrived on Friday at 2:30 pm, I found a seat nearly straight away.  There were several other empty seats in the reading room.  On Saturday morning, I decided to arrive as soon as they opened.  I needn’t have worried.  The reading room was a ghost town for the first hour I was there.  Ditto on Monday morning.  Get there within the first hour or so after opening and you should have plenty of choice as to where to sit.

Note: When you enter the reading room, before getting your books from the desk, you need to find a seat (you’ll need to give them your seat number to collect your books).  It might be inconvenient to not find space, but you don’t have to worry about awkwardly walking around holding books.  There’s a cafe outside where people sit, so you can always wait around in hopes that someone will leave the reading room.

What do I do for lunch?  The library has a “restaurant” (it’s really just a hot bar and salad bar) and a cafe at which you can purchase food.  Feel free to pack something in your bag (you’ll be putting it in a locker) to eat as well.  I saw some people run outside to the Pret across the street for a meal.  People left their belongings at their desk when taking breaks (be sure to take your reader’s card with you!).  I tried both the restaurant and the cafe and, though slightly more expensive, preferred the restaurant.

Where do I put my things?  There are coin operated lockers on the lower ground floor for you to use.  On the day I left, I brought my weekend bag with me and shoved it in there along with my tote bag.  They have clear plastic bags for you to put your computer, pencils, phone, earphones, reader’s card and anything else you might need to take into the reading rooms.  You’ll have to open up your computer when you leave, so bringing your laptop case into the reading room can prove to be a needless hassle.  Nevertheless, I brought mine with me every time.  I never had any trouble getting a locker, though they are free for everyone to use so can be hard to come by at the weekend.  In that case, there’s a cloak check you can use.  If you don’t have pound coins, they have change machines so you can get some.

What if I don’t finish with my books at the end of the day?  You can hold back a couple books for up to three days.  They’ll be waiting for you at the issue desk when you return.

All in all, I loved my experience at the British Library and can’t wait to go back!

Did I forget anything?  Any other questions you have about using the reading rooms at the British Library?  Ask me!

Store Street Espresso and Continental Stores

Piccolo Latte

When I was in London in January 2013, I ran by Store Street Espresso.  The shop looked nice, but I didn’t have time to stop, so I made a mental note as to the location.  In my rush, the mental note flew out the window and I forgot where the cafe was located.  During my trip in November, I thought I found it with TAP Coffee, but only found an answer to the ‘flat white’ query there (answer: it’s good. order it.).

Enter The London Coffee Guide, an online compendium of good cafés in the capital.  As soon as I saw  the Store Street facade, I knew that I had discovered my long-lost cafe.  I took the tube from Paddington straight there.

Store Street Espresso and Continental Stores are sister cafes, run by the same people and serving the same food and drinks. The atmosphere changes to suit the location.  I went to Store Street for Friday lunch and Continental Stores later the same day.

Store Street was bustling when I arrived at lunch time, but I had no problem finding a seat.  There were several communal tables as well as a few double ones.  They serve an extensive café food menu, complete with soup, salad, sandwiches and sweets.  I ordered the vegetarian quiche, a thick wedge of roasted red peppers and eggplant gently laced with egg and cheese.  It had a phyllo crust.  I drank a piccolo latte; served in glass, I hoped it would be like a cortado.

Store Street Espresso

My drink was good, though was more latte than cortado.  The warm milk reminded me of high-school coffee drinks.  The quiche was satisfyingly and disappointingly like a savory pie.  The phyllo didn’t drown the vegetables in crust, my favorite part.  I would have preferred more egg-custard in my slice, but for a lighter cafe-choice I enjoyed it.

In the afternoon, after working up an appetite reading, I went to Continental Stores, conveniently hostel and library adjacent.  This time I ordered a macchiato and a chocolate-cherry-beetroot muffin.  The barista me a number and I took a seat in the back of the cafe.  It was late afternoon — too late to be drinking coffee — but there was barely any space for me.  I nabbed the last table.  Continental Stores is smaller, cozier and more intimate than Store Street, better for a friendly chat than a caffeine fueled working session.

The barista quickly brought me my muffin and coffee.  I gently stirred the schiuma into the coffee, which was pleasantly nutty and dark chocolatey.  Nothing surprising, but well made and a delight to drink.  The muffin was rich and moist, though not worryingly so as coffee-shop cakes tend to be.  There were barely any cherries — I got two total — but there was plenty of chocolate.  The beetroot added a pleasant, almost floral note.

Although they’re owned by the same people, Continental Stores and Store Street Espresso use the same techniques to target different crowds.  Whereas Store Street caters to the university set with ample seating and a bright bustling atmosphere, Continental Stores puts the same good coffee and food in a smaller space to give a neighborhood effect.  Whatever reason you need a cafe, take note.  Write down the names, bookmark the page, print out an image; do whatever you have to do to remember because these are two London coffee shops you don’t want to forget.

But do yourself a favor, order a pastry and skip the quiche.

Chatting or working: what’s your main reason for going to a cafe?

Store Street Espresso on Urbanspoon

A croissant from Joe and the Juice in London

IMG_0856

I, like the rest of the world it seems, am obsessed with Scandinavia.  In particular, Denmark.  We’re familiar with Norway and Sweden, the latter more so thanks to IKEA.  We know that Finland is out over there somewhere.  Yet we continuously look over little Denmark, nestled into the bottom of Scandinavia.  ‘Danish’ sounds like ‘Dutch’ and if you add the word danish to any google search you will turn up more results concerning sugary pastries than relate to Denmark.

I guess, however, I’m lucky to be obsessed with Scandinavia at a time when the rest of the world is similarly possessed.  There are restaurants devoted to Copenhagen in New York and books called How to be Danish on the shelves at Daunt Books and Blackwells.  Even Danish chains have begun infiltrating British streets.  At least, Joe and the Juice has taken over a small corner of Soho, which was good enough for me on a rainy Monday morning in London.

When I was running around Copenhagen with my mother, I saw plenty of Joe and the Juice outlets.  They looked nice, they had a pink logo.  That was it.

Corner in Marylebone

Or it was until that rainy morning in London. I was eager for breakfast and clueless as what to get, where to go.  Then, like a lamp illuminating the dark, I saw that familiar pink logo and ran for cover, ran for food.  It took a few minutes to peruse their extensive juice menu, but I decided on the carrot, celery, apple combo, with a croissant on the side.  This, I thought, is my version of balance.

The croissant wasn’t perfect, but it was a delightful and untraditional twist to have alongside juice.  It was a bit spongy, while still being soft and buttery.  The outside wasn’t crispy, but there were still a good amount of shards flaking off as I bit into it.  There was butter, but it didn’t aggressively assert itself.  It wasn’t sweet, rather it was delicately salty.  While croissants from coffee shops and chain restaurants are usually a way to guarantee yourself a mediocre experience, the pastry from Joe and the Juice fell solidly on the better end of the spectrum.  If I had the choice of this croissant in Bristol, I would eagerly say yes.

As for the juice, it was delicious.  Not to sweet, light and refreshing, the only thing that would have made it better would have been a shot of ginger.

Oh well, I guess that will have to wait until next time.

What does a balanced breakfast look like to you?

Joe & the Juice on Urbanspoon

A weekend of drinking coffee in London

Monmouth Street

When my friends asked me what my plans were for London, I replied, with confidence and conviction: having coffee.  Sure, there would be the requisite visit to the National Gallery and a misguided walk through the dinosaur hall at the Natural History Museum (on a Sunday morning, no less), but those were merely stops on the path to coffee.  Along with a few good croissants, it made an utterly refreshing mini-break.

I started with the café that I was most eager to visit: the Monocle café.  The entire brand is beautifully designed and the café follows suit.  From the blonde wood to the big windows and gorgeous baristi, the Monocle café perfectly manifests the Monocle brand.  When I arrived midday on Saturday, there were a smattering of people inside and plenty of people streaming in and out as I sat and drank my cappuccino. including, may I note, the company’s owner.

The Monocle Cafe

While the café leaves a something to be desired in terms of quality, the design is spot on.  Unlike the many that exude a crafted hipster aura, the Monocle café blends together Swedish and Japanese aesthetics.  The cups are neatly stackable — they looked like these from Lagerhaus — and are served on Japanese style serving trays.  You can get a cardamom bun from Fabrique or some Japanese candy to have with your drink.  If you’re in the mood for a meal, there’s taco rice and other appropriately cool dishes.

I went with the cappuccino and resisted the lure of the cardamom bun.  It was a fine coffee, but nothing great.  A proper cappuccino with a thick head of silky foam, the drink had the soft, sweet milk chocolate coffee flavor that I always think of when I think of drinks from train stations and airports.  You go here for the experience, not necessarily for a great coffee.

Bulldog Edition

Next up was Bulldog Edition at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch.  This delightfully hip hotel seamlessly fits into the aura of the Ace Hotel brand.  The atmosphere is laid back work.  There isn’t much seating in the café itself, but you can spill over into the lobby (complete with a photobooth) without raising an eyebrow from the concierge.

I ordered an off-menu cortado.  They only had macchiato and cappuccino mugs, so I opted for a single shot macchiato, an approximation of a noisette.  The resulting drink was delicate, sweet but still pleasantly rich with a velvety punch punctuating each sip.  There was a tea-like flavor behind it, with notes for sweet berries.  It was the kind of drink you’d keep going back for.

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs

Then it was Sunday and cafes operated much reduced hours.  I walked through a desolate city to Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Leather Lane to drink a macchiato.  While I was initially a bit bummed to find a proper macchiato as opposed to a noisette, my spirits rallied as I saw the adorable so-called latte art.  My spirits soared at the first sip.  The espresso was winey with blackcurrant notes.  Sweet, juicy, it was fantastic.

TAP Coffee

On Monday morning, I went to TAP Coffee on Wardour Street in Soho and ordered a flat white.  If a flat white is to London as the cortado is to New York, it can be directly attributed not to the ethnic differences between the two cities, but rather to the climates of each place.  My flat white was like a big cortado, rich and silky with a good coffee flavor behind it.  There was a berry sweetness, yes, but the drink didn’t beg you to stop and think in the same way that my macchiato from Department asked to be analyzed.  I sipped and enjoyed the drink, wondering if all flat whites are so good.

I guess I’ll need another trip to London in order to find out.

Monocle Cafe on Urbanspoon

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Urbanspoon

Tapped and Packed on Urbanspoon

Is the best croissant in London from Ottolenghi?

Ottolenghi

Sunday funday is not my personal motto.  For better or for worse, neither is Sunday, laundry day.  No, my personal motto is something more akin to ‘Sunday, do we really have to do this again?’.  Since that is a touch too long to catch on, I generally just give a general shrug at any mention of the day.  It does the trick.

In my dream life Sunday would always begin early, preferrably with a croissant at Ottolenghi in Belgravia.  Last week I was fortunate enough to begin Sunday exactly so.  I set my alarm clock early after a fitfull night in my orange hotel room, delighted to get up and out into the grey London day.  I was at Ottolenghi  seven minutes after they opened at 9 am.  And good thing, I was nearly too late to get a prized seat at their back table.

I admired the array of pastries without any doubt as to which kind I would choose.  One croissant please, to have in.  Oh what the heck, I’ll have a cappuccino as well.  I sat down, my one tablemate already elbow-deep into the weekend edition of the Financial Times.  Moments later we were joined by a French couple, armed with a week’s back-issues of Le Monde.  I blinked and then there was a man reading his copy of The Guardian.  Add in me reading The New York Times on my phone and the table was full.  I glanced down at my watch, 9:17.  That was quick.

Then our food began to come out.  People had ordered everything from pear upside down cake to fruit bowls and scones.  The cappuccino was popular, but I felt a pang of jealousy when I saw the fresh mint infusion come out.  My croissant was served on a bright yellow plate, a spot of sunshine on a grey Sunday.

The croissant certainly looked appealing.  With a shiny outerlayer, visible layers and delicate crackle, it was all I could do not to dig in before my cappuccino arrived.  Yet I waited and the suspense made the first bite taste even better, if that’s possible.  The end was crispy, buttery and perfectly browned.  There was a bite of caramel and a touch of sweetness, but neither overpowered the butteryness that’s so crucial for a good pastry.  The layers were moist and distinctly layers.  The outside was crispier than the rest and delicious.  While I would have preferred my pastry a touch more golden, complaining about this croissant would be like complaining that Eden is too perfect.  It was, hands down, the best croissant I’ve had in England.

I don’t know what my tablemates were reading, but I discovered that Bill deBlasio studied Italian and that made me feel quite legitamate.  OF course, any news would have been good news after eating that croissant.  I may not be able to enjoy it every Sunday, but even one glimpse into my perfect world feels good enough to me.

What would you do on your perfect Sunday morning?