St David Coffee House, Forest Hill

April 8, 2013

This Easter weekend arrived, bright and cold, and a trip long-planned was finally realised by the accomplice and me. We set off for Forest Hill with a dual purpose, to visit the gloriously named Horniman Museum, recommended a while back by the lovely Fiona W., and to drop in on St David Coffee House. I have for too long failed to get to grips with south of the river, due largely to travel times and a self-confessed ignorance of the area. I was glad I set that right.

Forest Hill seems to be a largely residential area, comfortable and family-friendly, London but not quite London if you know what I mean. It was not developed a great deal until the mid-19th century and retains an unhurried feel, with green spaces and trees abounding. In this respect, St David nestles neatly in the general milieu, as much substitute front room as café.

St DavidA quick word on the Horniman Museum though. It is quite the most bizarre collection of items I think I’ve ever seen. Having visited the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford, I was expecting a similar array of material culture and creatures in formaldehyde, and in this I was not disappointed. There are some wonderful badgers, an ill-stuffed walrus of significant bearing, a tuba the size of an NBA player, terrifying masks, and some very odd puppets. I would counsel anyone to go, if for no other reason than because you won’t have seen some of the objects anywhere else and are unlikely to find them anywhere else either. The gardens are well kept and there was an exciting-looking gourmet pizza/flatbread van parked up as well. The view from the top of the hill at the back of the museum is fantastic and gives a panoramic vista of London from the south, a sort of Suicide Bridge scene but from the other side of the river. The museum was, however, totally packed with children. I’ve no complaints; it was Easter weekend after all. But after swimming through tides of pushchairs, ears bombarded with the caterwauls of excitable young’uns, we both needed somewhere to kick back and slough off the manic hyper-stimulation of the previous two hours. And so we went to St David Coffee House.

And kicking back seems to be what St David is all about.

To get there, you walk up a little side road that becomes an elevated pedestrian path. The café is thus set back and up from the road, and feels pleasantly distant from the hubbub of passing traffic. It is laid out somewhat chaotically, chairs and tables crammed in among books, records, and other odds and ends. The toilet is through the kitchen area, and you have navigate past the neighbour’s cat, known erroneously as Rudy (he actually goes by Rumi, but the change has stuck, in St David at any rate), who is curled up in a bespoke cardboard house and as chilled out as everyone else. The whole feel is friendly and very calm, which when it was as busy as it was we when went, is a masterfully difficult thing to pull off.

St David

And what of the coffee? It is Square Mile’s Redbrick blend which, I must confess, I am starting to tire of slightly. I suppose it is dependable and does the job, but there are so many different and exciting choices out there now, it does feel a bit tame. Having said that, you still have to handle the stuff well, and there were no complaints at all about the quality of the coffee from St David. Both the espresso and the macchiato were well-crafted, thick enough to feel strong and lithe enough to avoid clagginess and retain a smooth, gentle feel. The accomplice vouched strongly for the tea, direct from Suki, and also a very moist and bitey lemon cake which I did manage to steal one bite of (I agreed with her verdict). All in all, if you just want to know that your coffee is going to be good to spot-on, St David will not be a disappointment.

But, and to me it is now a big but, this place is a lot more than coffee. I suppose we are now getting to the stage where there are a lot of places which do provide almost generically ‘good’ coffee. Is that a bad thing? Heavens no, but it does mean that for a place to be worth making that extra trek for, there needs to be something that elevates it above the ordinarily good. London’s coffee naissance is a glorious thing for consumers and is also a great spur for places to find their niche, to find what it is they want to do that will make them stand out from the crowd. The wonderful thing is that your niche can be whatever you want it to be. It might be that you hold other events, it might be food, it might be a joint enterprise with a book-shop, it might be a focus on the different ways to make coffee, or a host of single origins and so on. But in a field where skilled baristas are appearing all the time, and good quality coffee is either available to buy from a wide range of sources or, in some instances, now even being roasted in-house, I am increasingly looking beyond coffee for reasons to visit a place.

To me, St David’s great strength is its tone, its atmosphere. There is a skill to creating an environment which feels like it hasn’t been created. If that makes sense. St David feels like Jordan and Russell have opened their house, arranged some furniture, stuck on a record, invited a load of friends round, and just happen to have a La Marrazzo in the kitchen. It feels like the sort of place where strangers chat, that people who’ve left the area come back to, that people who’ve just moved there quickly establish as ‘their’ haunt. And to me, it doesn’t feel like a ‘London’ café to an extent. It is too warm, too unhurried, and too unbothered by its own rough edges. It is not trying to be cool or exciting. It doesn’t seem to be trying at all. St David just succeeds, and that’s why you should go to Forest Hill and try it. That, and the walrus.

St David Coffee House, 5 Davids Road, London, SE23 3EP

Website with details

Also on Twitter: @StDavidCoffee

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