56 St James, Walthamstow

February 13, 2014

The espresso.

The espresso.

Things appear to be stirring in Walthamstow. There’s no doubt that the area can appear, ostensibly at least, to be a bit grimy and down-at-heel, the area is also a vibrant community, centring around a strong market and high street. Walthamstow benefits from that rarest of qualities, a blend of long-standing residents who give a place character and feel, and a sense of excitement brought about by newcomers, including plenty of artists encouraged by the available studio space and now ten years old E17 Art Trail. Despite this, Walthamstow also has escaped the mass influx and corresponding ‘gentrification’ (dirty word) that often robs an area of its established character.

As I have remarked often, though, new artisan cafés often herald this change. Should we look at the opening of 56 St James as a harbinger of things to come?

The straightforward answer to that is god alone knows. If it does, though, it is fair to say that the newcomers will find an excellent coffee shop when they arrive.

56 St James is, despite being only a month old, already well on its way to being an excellent coffee shop. They serve Nude Espresso, and the double shot I kicked off with was all dark chocolate and warmth, sweet to the dregs. It was well made with a thick crema and not too oily, a smooth mouthfeel to the finish. I then had a piccolo, which I discussed with the barista; he was keen to make it how I wanted it rather than just serving up what he figured it was, an approach I really like. He then came over to check that it was good, which it was, the dark chocolate of the Nude roast mingling well with the milk to create an almost mocha-y taste with none of the over-the-top sweetness that drives me away from that sort of drink. If I had one criticism, it would be that the milk was a fraction hot, but this is a minor quibble and it didn’t detract from the quality of the drink; a minor adjustment would merely make it sweeter. Both drinks came in at £2, which is also very reasonable, with flat whites and such like at a standard £2.50.

The National Geographic, excellently present.

The National Geographic, excellently present.

Creating great coffee is tough; creating a great atmosphere is arguably even more of a challenge. 56 St James is pleasingly low-key, from its retro office interior to its long, shared table which dominates one side of the café. The music is relaxed and low enough not to impede conversation. A young woman knitted quietly to one side and there were already clearly a few regulars who engaged the barista in chatty conversation, another good sign for a new place. 56 also already has an active social media presence, which further demonstrates both their outgoing nature and the strong potential of the area: the café is clearly already a bit of beacon to the Twitterati of Walthamstow and indicates a potential for strong growth in a location which has clearly been missing a genuine artisan coffee shop. None of this, of course, would work if the venue fell short on quality, but it does not.

Who doesn't love an owl?

Who doesn’t love an owl?

56 is also clearly popular with young parents, but a smaller downstairs area allowed them to mingle without it detracting from the experience of quieter coffee drinkers looking to read or, as mentioned above, knit. There is a blackboard wall for drawing on, a small but pleasant touch, and although the venue isn’t enormous, it didn’t feel cramped despite being busy in a way that many cafés can when swamped by prams and children.

All in all, Walthamstow may or may not be ripe for a property surge and there’s no doubt that with train or tube lines into Victoria, Liverpool Street, and out towards Gospel Oak, the area is very well connected without feeling like it’s right on top of the city. I can never quite be sure if there is a corollary between cafés and gentrification: my instinct says yes but whether they are a sign or a symptom (if that’s not too emotive a term), I don’t know. I suspect that a quality coffee shop will flourish whether it happens or not. For this reason, I reckon the future of 56 St James looks very bright.

56 St James, St James Street, E17

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