Edinburgh boasts an embarrassment of riches for lovers of single malts and coffee beans alike – the city is crowded with pubs and coffee shops, two or three to a block. If you’re moving to Edinburgh for the long term, ignore this article: it’s better to stumble and discover these places for yourself. But if you’re here for a few days and you’ve already made your pilgrimage to the Elephant House, I might be able to help. These are some of my favorite caffeinated haunts, starting within easy walking distance of the University. (Expect posts on other neighborhoods, like Marchmont, The Royal Mile, and Newington, to come.)
This place has been getting some buzz, lately, as the new brew spot on the block. It’s known as a place that takes its coffee (and itself) seriously. You know – it’s that spot on South College Street that your hipster friend keeps telling you about.
The decor in Brew Lab attempts to convey an upscale coffee joint moved into an active but relatively quiet construction zone. Exposed brick meets a paint-speckled floor; iron-leg picnic benches lead to red upholstered chairs (perfect for looking moody in); and Anglepoise lamps illuminate countless cups of coffee, copies of Nabokov, and novelists’ longhand scrivenings. The music: sufficiently ignorable. Smartish Oxford-shirt Scots and Brits focus on the coffee; girls in plaid button-ups shotgunning black stockinged legs focus on the conversation; a few in chunky glasses pause to Snapchat.
And the coffee? I ordered a long black, which appeared with a rust-like sheen on the top (not a true crema). it tasted like rust, too – and not unpleasantly at all. Complex Turkish notes met a metallic mouthfeel and iron aftertaste, but beneath this was a very acidic, earth-based bitter foundation. This was a slow-sipper, one to savour. 6oz., £2.30.
Choice Reading: Jonathan Franzen, but only if he’s just put a new book out; Julia Kristeva, something in an Eastern European language, or anything by Freud
Just across Nicholson Street from Brew Lab is Black Medicine Coffee Co., a different flavor of hipster altogether. Simple stools and chairs are the rule, with high seats looking out on the street, rustic white beachwood logs for footrests, and enough large tables to make this spot a nice choice for an afternoon meet-up or study session. There’s a kind of deep green, North Pacific theme going on. A totem pole, in at least one corner.
The coffee’s quite good, not as aggressively self-conscious as the coffee at Brew Lab, but classic and well rounded, with enough variety in the pastry case to satisfy most, as well as a robust panini list .Another plus: the drinks come with top-notch caramel or ginger cookies, for dunking.
Black Medicine is a less stressful alternative to a place like Brew Lab, where you get the feeling people are sneering at your Moleskine while secretly coveting your premium window-seat armchair. Black Medicine’s staff is the friendliest I’ve yet seen – they act as if it’s a joy to brew, as if taking my order for a simple filter coffee is as delightful as finding an extra quid forgotten in the bottom of a cardigan pocket.
It took two or three playful calls of “Takeaway cappucino … Free takeaway cappucino!” for me to get off my stool and go up to the counter. Someone had forgotten their drink, and where other baristas would have taken this as their own bonus and sipped it behind the counter, the Black Medicine folks gave me, little old me, this bonus drink for the road. I finished George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline there (I’m leaning toward doing my master’s dissertation on Saunders) and hit the road with the bonus cup warming my hand.
It’s about a block away from the excellent bookseller Blackwells, and I made my second stop to Black Medicine after picking up one of my course books down the street. I caught a cool seat in one of the side windows, which had been turned into two tight but comfortable working benches – another student and I leaned back onto an odd-angled wood slab, our backs to the street, and scribbled on rough desks jutting out of the support beams. (I had a large Americano that time – good, but it cooled to quickly in their signature soup-bowl of a mug. I should have known, glutton that I am.)
So: grab something new (or something old) from Blackwells and crack it open in Black Medicine. They won’t mind if you sit for an hour, or three.
Choice Reading: W. B. Yeats, George Saunders, or Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion (to go with that whole Edinburgh-meets-Oregon thing they have going here).
WiFi: No, but if you sit close enough to the front windows (and you’re a Uni student) you might be able to hop on the wireless at the Old College campus across the street.
The Elephant House
Do try and get past the pictures of J.K. Rowling placed proudly in the window; pass by the watercolor post cards of the author at work in this cafe, on a rainy night, composing the books that would define our generation. Fight through the (usually modest) crowd of tourists at the door, and order a cup of coffee and a pastry.
It’s actually quite good.
I actually have to shake my head in guileless befuddlement when I tell my friends that there’s just something about the Elephant House.
Thankfully, the bar isn’t actually J.K. Rowling- or Harry Potter-themed – it’s maintained its original and mysterious devotion to elephants. Our largest land mammals lurk in every corner; they come in wood, ceramic, and glass; there’s an entire glass display case devoted to elephants in miniature.
I’ve come to the Elephant House more than once now to sample their delectable cakes and pastries, and to take an entirely satisfying coffee (and, once, a dangerously good hot chocolate) to the back room, where the tables are spacious and solidly wooden; and each time, without going there with any intent, I’ve been compelled to write. I write furiously; I forget everything around me; I don’t even bother to look at Edinburgh Castle, of which, looking out the Elephant House’s window, one can get an astounding view.
Is there some kind of magic in the Elephant House? I’m not sure. But it’s worth checking out, and when you do make it, you’ll find quality food, quality coffee, and a little bit of booze if you’re in the mood. You’ll also find, during the best hours, that you’re entirely among locals and regulars.
Choice Reading: Any Artemis Fowl book. Just because, you know.
…is Paris without the pretension, New York without the rush, the kind of shop you’d be drawn to in any romantic, classically literary, fresh little town, yet the kind of shop that, as soon as you cross the threshold, seems familiar.
Classic marble table tops and wooden chairs painted black, quick service, and a decent treat selection (and ciabatta paninis if you’re in for lunch) make Press Coffee a regular stop for professors and postgrads from Edinburgh’s business school and the humanities. Then again, it’s also the closest coffee spot for George Square academics, barring the Appleton and David Hume Tower cafes. Even with all the inter-lecture traffic, the small shop on the corner of Bucchleuch Place and Bucchleuch Street manages to feel neighborly rather than cramped.
I ordered a Long Black; it was earthier and more sweetly acidic than Brew Lab’s, like grapefruit and strange dark berries. I didn’t stay for the food, although I’ll be back soon. Sort of. I’ll probably head below Press Coffee, to Rotato, a basement joint catering almost exclusively to Uni students in the know – they’re only open from 11:30 to 3:30. They’re famous for almost doubling a baked potato’s weight with filling. Make your own for £4.50? No doubt one of their starch-bombs will send me upstairs for an espresso, to rest and digest.
Choice Reading: Ezra Pound
I’m including this on the list simply because more people outside Edinburgh must know about Snax (although I’ll be clear: you couldn’t call this a coffeehouse). Snax is a favorite of graduate students and city workers alike – it’s just half a block north of the meadows, and it’s filled every morning with regulars attracted by its quick service, unbeatable prices, and general friendliness. Taxi drivers, airport workers, sewermen, and jackhammer wielders bustle in and out the door carrying takeway breakfasts. On an average morning, I might get a hot haggis roll and a coffee for just £3. They have larger items, like paninis and burgers, but even their largest “All Day Breakfast” caps out at just over £4. The same amount of food would cost you £10 at a (very) reasonable Sunday brunch spot. If you want to eat like the locals in Edinburgh, come to Snax.
Choice Reading: Your smartphone, scanning the course texts you put off the night before.