"I'd have worn a shirt if I'd known it was this nice. I feel like I should've been on a guest list to get in." Gareth, who is more at home in Hackney Wick, has come to join me at the Nespresso Café in Bank. With window seats offering scenic views of Santander, Argos, Lloyds and Nationwide, I've opted for the sofa, which overlooks the rest of the room. Here I can settle back against the sofa's multiple matching cushions in a pebble-white hard-wearing fabric, that looks like it would survive a good scrub.
I'm drinking an iced hazelnut macchiato. I'm partial to an iced coffee, but I like it to be a bit more like a melted ice-cream. Yes, Starbucks, I’m looking at you and your sugar-cocktail frappuccinos. I know no one should give Starbucks their money, but who can resist a syrupy caramel flavoured caffeine hit? Not me. Sadly, my macchiato is nothing like liquefied ice-cream. Eschewing the coffee completely, Gareth goes for a juice. What does he think of the place?
It's clean, it's smart, and it looks sharp — but it's the sort of place you'd come for a work meeting or a job interview. It's not for me.
Nespresso is best known for its ads starring George Clooney — and its coffee capsules that you stick in Nespresso machines at work (or at home, if you've got up to £429 knocking about). This concept is so entrenched in my brain, that when I first arrive at the Nespresso Café, I stand at the glass-shielded wall of multi-coloured capsules, trying to work out how to make my coffee. There are some ATM-like screens and I stand at one, pressing buttons, becoming increasingly self-conscious and a bit panicky. HOW DOES EVERYONE ELSE KNOW HOW TO WORK THINGS?
A man comes over and asks if I'm alright. I'm not, but I do not want to tell him this. "What is it you want to do?" he asks patiently. "Do you want to buy capsules or do you want to order a coffee?" Um… It turns out I'm at the wall where people buy pods to take home. The counter, where they make coffee for you to drink, is just there. I have seen this counter of course, but I thought it was just where you bought cake. The man is wearing a badge that says he's a Coffee Specialist. When I order a coffee at the actual counter, he tells me I've made a good choice, and I feel proud.
Nespresso opened its Cheapside coffee shop in June 2016. Adding to Soho's gentrification, a second branch opened on Broadwick Street a year later. Its slick appearance seems to embody Stephen Fry's fears that Soho is being taken over by, "shiny, glossy buildings — like Singapore Airport."
It's certainly in sharp contrast to Bar Italia, round the corner. The family owned coffee shop which opened on Frith Street in 1949 was recreated in the David Bowie film Absolute Beginners. It inspired the Pulp song Bar Italia, as well as a stage musical written by the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. The corporate air of the Nespresso Café makes it more likely to inspire a sales presentation.
Given that the image of the City is slick, sanitised and shiny anyway, the Bank branch of the Nespresso Café should feel less offensive. But actually, the City's got a whole lot of history, and the Nespresso Café is less than ten minutes' walk away from the site of London's first coffee house which opened in 1652. Now The Jamaica Wine House, it features on a tour of the City's coffeehouses, led by historian Dr. Matthew Green who's currently writing a book on coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th century.
What, I wonder, does Dr. Green make of the Nespresso Café?
Nespresso Cafés are soulless clones, emblematic of the banality and conceited Epicureanism of modern life. From my limited exposure to them, the coffee, too, tastes electronic and disgusting.
Not holding back, Dr. Green describes the cafes as, "monstrosities," and says they’re, "a disgrace." If there's any doubt about whether he recommends them, he adds unequivocally: "Avoid."
In the Broadwick Street branch, which I visit first, I’m joined by Kerry who works across the road. Why hasn’t he been here before? Kerry says:
Why would I spend my money in an international, conglomerate bastard place like this when I can go to one of the quirky, charming, independent coffee shops in Soho — or one of the chains if I want a takeaway? It'll cost me less and I won’t feel my soul is being chewed up and spat out.
Pretty clear on that then. But now he's here, what does he think? "The staff seem to be well drilled, and they've put thought into the décor. There are flowers everywhere, and you can pour yourself free flavoured water." Looking around, he says, "I can see more spaces opening up like this — I can see freelancers coming here and working all day." Has Kerry's mind been changed? Then echoing Stephen Fry, he adds, "it reminds me of a high class airport executive lounge."
Both branches of the Nespresso Café are busy when I visit, so there's clearly a market for an airport ambience. I look on Twitter, under the hashtag #NespressoCafe, to try and find some truly positive tweets. A man whose bio says he's "mad for Project Mobilisation & Organisation Change" describes the Nespresso Café as, "The new City spot for meetings and smiles." A woman who identifies as a "dim sum fiend" tweets that it's a, "great new working spot;" and someone who's a "Banker by day / Food & Lifestyle Blogger by Night" captions a picture of a coffee with the words, "Nespresso, what else?"
The fact is, it's not all bad. Despite the fact that the iced macchiato calls to mind the rectal rehydration scene on Bear Grylls' Mission Survive, the Nespresso Café does have its plus points. It's clean, it's comfortable, and there's loads of natural light. It even has silver cake stands stacked with little lemon sponge cakes that are FREE. "There's no butter, no calories, they're just air!" says a staff member, before revealing that, "actually, they’re all butter. Hahaha!" Who cares? They're very nice.
The difficult truth is, I like this place. And if you like a bit of mystery with your macchiato, head to Broadwick Street — you never know who will be serving coffee behind the counter.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.