119 Lower Clapton, Clapton

May 18, 2013

As you may know, I have been writing for Caffeine magazine since its second issue, and something which keeps coming up, both in the Knockbox piece I wrote for issue #2 and in conversations with café owners like Shelagh Ryan, is the idea of cafés being associated with gentrification. One of the places Shelagh specifically pointed out was Clapton, E5, saying to me that it was one of the places that was on her radar and being on the up-and-up. And so when I heard about 119 Lower Clapton, via my sister’s friend India, who is cheffing there on the weekends, I felt that it was too good a chance to pass up on.

Catching the bus down from Stamford Hill, it was clear that if this area was being gentrified, it did have some way to go. The vista of sprawling, red brick or grey towered estates which sit either side of the road is imposing, and there is a heaviness that sits over much of the upper Clapton area. The more south you head, though, the brighter and more vibrant it gets. I would never wish to seem judgemental about a place, but it’s hard not to feel that certain parts of London seem so liminal, so cast off, that the prospect of positive change seems very, very far away. The shame, corruption, or lack of care of countless councils and housing associations is chronicled in better and more astute places than this, a coffee blog, but it isn’t something to be forgotten.

119But enough of that! I am not here to pass sociological judgement or chronicle social deprivation, but to cheer change when it manifests in the form of a lovely, interesting new coffee shop, which it has done in the form of 119. The venue looks like a former shop, which I’m guessing is what it was. A massive bay window opens onto the street, flooding the place with light/views of passing buses. The furniture looks like it’s been grabbed for any number of possible locations, but it doesn’t result in the homely clutter of St David or feel like it’s a deliberately staged ‘upcycling’ cool thing. It actually reminded me a little of a fantastic Polish café/restaurant in Wrocław, a sort of utilitarian school-room feeling, which I really like.

The coffee served is Workshop’s Cult of Done, which I’ve had at a few places now and I have to say, I really like. It’s sharp and fruity on the up and then bottoms out with sweetness and cocoa and syrup. The cortado was very milky, and I think probably on reflection I’d ask for it to be a more balanced ratio, but it was creamy and soft and very well-made. The espresso shot was done well too, the extraction ensuring that the bitter notes which can come through quite strongly in the roast were checked and balanced by the sweeter tones. It seems clear that the relaxed, low-key attitude of the venue hasn’t resulted in any sloppiness where the coffee is concerned.

Opened 119by Erica, who is local to the area and decided to open up near home having considered a variety of other, further afield locations, 119 is very low-key, a touch thrown-together, and clearly on the way to be a massive local favourite. Personally I like places which are as much about atmosphere as they are good coffee. Atmosphere is generated by friendly service, decor, and all the little immeasurables which you don’t necessarily notice as individual points, but whose sum results in a great experience. 119 has enough of these little touches, as well as a very relaxed attitude. The barista was friendly and chatty and talked me through how she would make a cortado to check that would be good for me. I saw several customers come in and be greeted like long-lost friends, a sign that people are returning and that the venue is building a loyal customer base, and a smiley, waving one at that. I was encouraged to say the least.

I am always a little wary of places which open up in areas which are being gentrified, particularly if those areas are north-east of Hoxton and Shoreditch, because I worry that because an area is becoming ‘cool’, cafés which open there feel they have to come across a certain way. There is a pressure I believe, because I pick it up from the feel of certain venues and certain baristas, to live up the hipness of the area, or worse still, to be some sort of pace-setter, a self-appointed indicator that an area is on the turn. Coffee, as I’ve argued before, needs to be especially careful of this, given that as a discrete field, a field which relies on specialist knowledge of product and venues, and a field which is so closely associated with certain tribes or areas which are ‘cool’, it is always running the risk of becoming exclusive and deliberately abstract. This is doubly a risk for those areas which are going through the process. I did see a few customers in 119 who were very Shoreditch/Dalston, if you know what I mean – but their too cool for school attitude has definitely not translated to the café itself.

119The thing which always irks me about that sort of thing is that ‘cool’ becomes ‘cold’, that enthusiasm, friendliness, and inclusivity are seen as bad because they’re not sufficiently reserved or they open things up beyond the preserve of a few arbiters of what passes for taste. I have been to coffee houses where the atmosphere is like that, usually because too many of the customers are, or because the baristas are (not going to name names, but you’ve all encountered similar stuff I’m sure). The trick, for me, is for a café to welcome everyone without taking on too much of any of their customers’ personalities. Unless, of course, all their customers are awesomely friendly, happy, lovely people. It would have been very easy, I think, for 119 to fall into that trap, but they haven’t. They provide good coffee in a place where there currently isn’t much, and they do it in an unfussy, welcoming way, while delivering high quality. This place has its own character, its own qualities, and hasn’t felt the need to buy into the idea that as Clapton is becoming more hipster, it has to be too. And for that, as much as the fact it delivers a damn good coffee, I salute it.

119 Lower Clapton, Lower Clapton Road, E5 0NP

Website with details

Also on Twitter: @119lowerclapton

NB – as I said, I know the chef who works at weekends, India. She is an old friend of ours. I haven’t reviewed the food and this review is based on a subjective assessment of the coffee, and not influenced by being friends with someone who works there. In case anyone wondered.

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