HER, Downham Road

June 20, 2012

HER is not the feminine possessive in this case, but an acronym for the considerably more mouthy Haggerston Espresso Room. It is a room, it is in Haggerston, but it serves more than espresso, and it certainly serves it to men, as I found when I went there. I went there on my E8/N1 borders blitz, and found it via the superb London’s Best Coffee app on iPhone, which I suggest you get if you don’t have it. The area is part of Hackney, but perhaps feels like the slightly poorer cousin to the trendier Dalston or Shoreditch/Hoxton end. There is a sense that the wide, roomy streets are waiting for something to happen, biding their time for the almost inevitable gentrification which appears not quite to have found its way to this part of town. But among the sometimes dilapidated housing and the unhelpfully obvious references to crime, HER is a little outpost of the coming expansion.

HER exemplifies the good parts of that change without suffering from the bad.

HER, Downham RdWhat do I mean by bad? Well, I suppose that urban regeneration has a qualitatively altering character which can impose a set of values, culturally, economically and so on, on an area that doesn’t really want them. When I see the superior coolness so beautifully satirised in Nathan Barley, with its focus on the immediate and the consumerist, which has overwhelmed parts of the area, it does worry me that there is a process of forgetting inhered as part of such a transition. The idea that what is brought by the newcomer is better, more interesting, more relevant, and so on, grates with me, especially when it is exemplified by the encroachment of a transient, image-oriented, and consumer-driven faddishness which seems a reoccurring trope of much of the gentrification of areas of near-east London. I suppose what I’m saying it that there is a certain cultural imperialism in saying that, say, Dalston is so much better now than it was because the instagrammers have arrived is unfair and patronising to what existed long before they moved there. Coffee shops are often part of this trend to modernising or redeveloping an area too. Coffee retailing, especially where the indies are concerned, is seen as a measure of the openness or appropriateness of an urban space to the ‘new’ crowd, who want somewhere to sit with their iBooks. I am not saying this is a function of how coffee shops see themselves, incidentally, but that it is something which can be used as a measure of the transition of a community towards gentrification. It therefore seems reasonable to regard the tone and attitude of such places as a barometer for the process. And HER is doing it in a way I happen to like.

HER, Downham Rd

But enough, for now at least, of my amateur sociologist posturing! What of the coffee? HER served me a Climpson roast, Sidamo/Daterra, for my espresso and macchiato. There was a pleasantly citrus flavour to the espresso shot, which didn’t puncture the rounded after-taste with too much bitterness. The shot had depth and fullness and was decently made, though I think it was possibly a little too hot. But the extraction didn’t suffer and that’s a good reflection of the balance of the blend. I sometimes find that if espresso is too hot, the high notes become shardy and bite into the palate, especially at the beginning and end of the cup. This didn’t happen, thankfully. The macchiato, which I got to take-away as time was rather pressing, was lovely. Poured carefully, draped even, onto the shot, it was soft and warm and gentle. The taste of the shot wasn’t overwhelmed by the milk and it held its own well. All in all, strong work from the baristas and from our friends at Climpson. Both were priced at £2, and I didn’t see a loyalty card, but I have no quibbles.

So, how is HER good, coffee aside? Why did I make the points I did above? I suppose my abiding memory of my visit to HER was that it was so very relaxed. The baristas were smiling and friendly, and there was an ad-hoc feel to the lay-out of the place which didn’t feel contrived, but rather encouraged a calm and welcoming atmosphere. There were artworks by local artists on the walls, and a notice board which advertised local services and community events and projects. Again, it felt like a venue which was comfortable in what it was doing and wasn’t having to try to fit in to or, worse, impose itself upon, an area. I have found places (though in fairness it is usually bars rather than coffee houses) which seem to size you up when you enter, and if the face doesn’t fit, or more likely the clothes/haircut, then you know about it. This is the sort of cultural imperialism I was talking about above, and it can be felt most keenly when an area is on the cusp, as Haggerston seems like it might be. It would be all too easy for HER to fall into that trap, of trying to be the outrider for a next wave of hipsters. I’m not for a moment saying that HER is not ‘cool’ – I’m hardly the person to judge coolness, as anyone who actually knows me would testify – and I’m not saying that some of those people don’t frequent HER. My point is that HER doesn’t seem to mind who comes or why. It seems rather preoccupied with serving good coffee and being a fun, welcoming venue. And for that, I salute it.

Haggerston Espresso Room, 13 Downham Road, N1 5 AA

Facebook page with details

Also on Twitter: @her_haggerston

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3 Responses to “HER, Downham Road”

  1. Richard Says:

    An enticing review: HER sounds like just the place I’m after. And a good point about the double-edged sword of gentrification. It is easy to get misty-eyed about an area’s past when there was plenty that was really quite rotten. What I find uncomfortable is when the incoming brigades drum out the original inhabitants entirely. It’s happened in Hoxton and Shoreditch. It’s quite clearly swept through some of the once fabulously grotty bits of Berlin. And in central London, Soho, repeatedly re-colonised by different groups is now dissolving into corporate blandness. It’s a shame when both old and new could live alongside each other and both benefit from the other. But still, there’s Bar Italia …

  2. liquidjolt Says:

    Ah Bar Italia. Very expensive though, but I know what you mean. I think my biggest issue with gentrification is that the benefit to areas isn’t shared much by the people who were there before, and that, in fact, property price rises and so on often just force them out. And it’s done in such a way that makes it seem like progress and innovation and urban cool, so to fail to appreciate it is to be off-trend. Ah well. You should try Tina We Salute You in Dalston too. Similar feel, and will be reviewing it next.

  3. HER Says:

    Thanks you for a lovely review and your loving to HER 🙂 hope to pull you another shot!


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