Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly is one of my favourite bookshops. It is also the largest bookshop in Europe spread over six enormous floors in an Art Deco building dating from the 1930s. The building is Grade 1 listed due to its innovative design and from 1936-1999 was the home of Simpson’s store, the largest menswear store in Britain at the time. I remember going there often with my parents as a child and later as an adult.
I first wandered into this Waterstones by chance a few years ago when in the area and was delighted to find the most amazing travel section in the basement. As someone who loves to travel and always likes to take with me not just guide books, but other books set in my destination – whether novels or non-fiction – Waterstones’ layout in this department is perfect. Set out by countries and also subsections of different kinds of travel, you can’t fail to be inspired or find something that matches your travel plans, and it’s quite hard to walk out without a book in tow.
I’ve always noted the café at the far end of the travel section of the store but have never been there at a time when I wanted a coffee or snack. However, last week I was again in the area, browsing the bookshelves before meeting a friend for an early evening meal and then theatre, and I decided to stop for a coffee. It was a very good coffee so last night, when looking for somewhere to have a snack before heading to the Royal Academy of Arts, where I was to begin a 10-week course on ‘Food in Art History’, I decided to go back to Waterstones and their Café W.
It’s a very ‘bookshop-y’ café. Books line the walls and some fill boxes on the table. You are bound to find some bookish entertainment to look at with your coffee. I sat at a large communal table but there were smaller tables, and in one area armchairs and low coffee tables. Some people were busy on their computers while others chatted to friends or simply read quietly while they ate and drank.
Another thing I noted when there last week was that food came from the Balthazar bakery in Covent Garden, which was impressive. I asked about this yesterday and was told that some did, while some came from other sources, like Peyton & Byrne. A blackboard behind the counter also declared they offered cheese boards with cheese from the famous, and nearby, Paxton & Whitfield.
I wanted a snack, not a meal, so chose a ‘sandwich’ (panini-like) of pesto, mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. They asked if I wanted it heated and I said, Yes, please, but only lightly. I don’t like UK-style panini which are invariably squashed inside a toaster so they come out looking like they’ve been run over by a truck, so hot they burn your mouth, and there’s no longer anything identifiable in the filling as it’s been so abused. The Italians don’t serve panini like that! And neither, it seems, do Cafè W. My panino was one of the closest I’ve come to the genuine Italian version.
It was really delicious. A very simple ‘meal’ but an excellent one. I drank some cloudy apple juice with it. Then I decided to have coffee and cake too. I went back to the counter and ordered a cortado and chose a small carrot cake.
The coffee, again, was excellent; small and strong, just as a cortado should be. The cake light and delicious. The staff were friendly, clearing my panino plate and then asking when passing by soon after if I liked my coffee.
Now, I’m quite accustomed to getting completely ripped off when buying coffee, sandwiches and pastries in central London. Prices for an indifferent coffee and croissant can be eye-watering. Thus it came as a very pleasant surprise to find Café W’s prices great value. The panino was £4.95, the juice £2.50, coffee £2.30 and the cake £3.50. Not only good value but far better food than at some familiar chain cafés nearby. Café W is a great place to go for a coffee or snack even if you don’t want to buy a book but are in the area. It’s a haven of peace from the chaotic bustle of Piccadilly Circus just outside. There was just a gentle hum from people quietly talking and a wonderful sense of calm. Open from 9.00am to 9.30pm every day (12-5pm on Sundays), it couldn’t be more convenient. But go with time to browse the bookshop too. And there’s a full series of events on all year: author talks, book launches, even writing classes (click here). Really, you could almost live in Waterstones Piccadilly … in fact, many of the people in the café looked so at home, maybe they do!