Coffee shops are everywhere in the modern world. Even in sacred spaces. Central London has at least a dozen beautiful churches that double-up as cafes. How many have you tried?
For the full-on crypt experience
The daddy of them all, the subterranean Cafe-in-the-Crypt is a macabre treat. Enjoy a decent meal from the school-dinners-style canteen, or just sip a coffee while pondering the gravestones. We once read the whole of Dracula in this eerie, but welcoming space. While you're in the crypt, take a look at the small museum. Highlights include the local whipping post and a statue of the first Pearly King. Read our full review.
For a church-coffee crawl
St Nicholas Cole Abbey -> St Mary Aldermary -> St Mary-le-Bow, City of London
This trio of churches are all within 10 minutes walk of one another. A caffeinated crawl would serve as a peculiar but rewarding way to spend an afternoon.
St Nicholas, on Queen Victoria Street has its cafe in the main nave, and calls itself The Wren after its famous architect. It's a big, bold space with no columns interrupting the volume.
St Mary is just round the corner near Watling Street. It's in the Gothic style (rare for Wren) and has a very different feel to St Nicholas. The cafe's called Host — almost a triple pun, with reference to a gang of angels, the act of hosting, and an independent brand of coffee (though, sadly, they don't serve it).
The famous St Mary-le-Bow, by contrast to the previous two, is a crypt-based affair, as suggested by its name of Cafe Below. This is geared up restaurant-style, and more a place to come for breakfast or lunch, but coffee sippers are more than welcome. Read our Historic London Breakfasts review.
For a modern take
For something altogether more modern, check out the recently opened New Acre Cafe. It's built into the entrance of Westminster Chapel, an evangelical church in Victoria (with the second largest cork floor in Europe, so we're told). Clean white lines, proper good coffee and a view of one of London's largest organs await anyone who ventures inside. The cafe has plenty of sockets and is well geared up for laptop users; equally, families will feel at home in this well-thought-out and welcoming space.
To find sanctuary in the East End
Christ Church Spitalfields
That'll be the imposing Nicholas Hawksmoor church that spikes the sky over Spitalfields Market. One of London's most impressive churches also has a splendid cafe in its crypt. Again, it's never been over-troubled with punters on our visits, so offers a quiet, contemplative environment right next to the bustle of the market. Free wifi, too.
For unusual architecture
Lumen church, Bloomsbury
Hidden away in the multi-peculiar Regent Square in Bloomsbury, the Lumen church is not a place many will stumble across. It's worth seeking out. The interior is dominated by a shaft of light, captured in concrete. This novel architecture is best enjoyed from the comfort of the Lumen Cafe (previously the Black Olives Cooks Cafe), though at time of writing, it's closed indefinitely.
For a touch of class
St John's Smith Square, Westminster
St John's has often been likened to an upturned chair, hence the name of its crypt eatery, The Footstool Cafe. It offers sandwiches, salads, snacks, and hot and cold drinks, and the space is particularly popular with those going to the concerts upstairs, when a bar also opens, but offers a quieter retreat during the daytime.
To keep the kids happy
The Sherriff Centre, West Hampstead
This truly unique venue is a combination of cafe, gift shop, post office, church, concert hall and the Hullabaloo children's play area. It's rammed in the school holidays — the mix of coffee space and soft play proving irresistible to local families. Our own tot regularly demands a trip to 'the bounce bounce in a church', despite living six miles away. Still, catch it off-peak, and the centre — inside the Anglican St James' church — is a relaxing and beautiful place to linger.
For peculiar history
St Luke's, Chelsea
St Luke's in Chelsea is a massive old church. Cafe Portico lives up to its name, situated in the porch just before the nave — which is screened behind glass doors. This is a traditional British cafe, specialising in milky cups of tea, full-English breakfasts and lunchtime sandwiches — all with bags of charm. The church was the scene of a peculiar stunt in 1874. Daredevil M Vincent de Groof leapt from a hot air balloon, at the controls of a mechanical bat-wing. The contraption immediately collapsed, and de Groof fell to his death in a nearby street.
For those south of the river
It occurs to us, belatedly, that all the examples above are from north of the river. One of London's best ecclesiastical eateries lies on the Surrey side, however. The mighty Southwark Cathedral is many things to many people, and its popular cafe is certainly worth your pennies. It's a bit of a cheat, as it's not in a particularly churchy bit of the complex, but its a pleasant space with plenty of lovely food, so we feel happy to recommend it.
Many further church-cafes can be found across town. Please share your own tips in the comments below. All photos by the author.