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7 July 2020

Lockdown Lit: Five Books I've Loved of Late

Like many people, I enjoyed Tayari Jones's acclaimed 2018 novel An American Marriage, and a friend recently recommended I check out Silver Sparrow, which was published in 2011. Silver Sparrow tells the story of two sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, growing up in Atlanta in the 1980s. They are the same age and have a lot in common, but there's a catch: their bigamist father James Witherspoon married Dana's mother Gwen out of state having already married Chaurisse's mother Laverne years earlier. And although Dana knows who her father is and spends time with him in private, this secret must be closely guarded. The asymmetry of information results in dramatic irony in the second half of the novel, when the narration shifts from Dana to a blissfully unknowing Chaurisse. 

The narrative presents some other interesting questions, such as which of James's families, if any, is really better off. Gwen and Dana like to think that they are 'better' than Laverne and Chaurisse — more intelligent, harder working and more deserving of James's love and money, which they receive in only limited amounts — whom they think are unappreciative of their own privilege. But when we get Chaurisse's side of the story, it soon becomes apparent that the grass really is always greener, and that ignorance is not always bliss. Throughout the novel, Jones also shines the light on the stories of both girls' extended families, and we see tragedies and betrayals, plus a few kindnesses, repeated across the generations. Jones's prose is moving and compassionate, and her portraits of the two girls, intrinsically connected by a shared father and a shared sense of loneliness, are richly drawn.

If you read my last blog post, you'll know that I've been on a Suede rediscovery kick this year and it was an interview with bassist Mat Osman about his debut novel, The Ruins, which reopened that rabbit hole for me. And I'm happy to say that I enjoyed Osman's melancholic mystery as much as I've long loved his music. The Ruins is a tale of music and mania, brotherhood and betrayal. Set in London in 2010, it is, by turns, brooding and mysterious, sharp and darkly funny. Adam Kussgarten, quiet and serious, is shocked by the sudden death of his estranged twin brother Brandon, the erstwhile lead singer of a once-popular band. Brandon left a few written and musical clues, as well as a partner and young son back in LA, which fuel Adam's quest to find out what happened to his brother. 

Osman's London is claustrophobic and confusing ("taking pleasure in London's illegibility"), familiar but with more than a hint of the uncanny about it, and a dash of China Miéville in the extensive and intricate model city (and the city) Adam has constructed in his flat. As you'd expect from Osman's pedigree, there's a fair bit of inside baseball about the music industry, but in such a way that the music world's seedy underworld is as integral to the narrative as strings on a guitar. Eagle-eyed readers — especially Suede fans — will spot plenty of musical references and jokes, from lines like, "any fucker can play the bass", (ha!) and references to a character going "all Damon Albarn on me", to orbiting a character's "dark star," and to "skin like suede". Even Bowie's name becomes a pivotal plot point. "Music, if you do it right, is making the impossible come to life," one character writes. By contrast, Osman's evocative, keenly observed writing has made an almost-possible London and his cast of outsiders come to life very well indeed.

Leesa Cross-Smith's Whiskey & Ribbons is a story of love, loss and family. In the present day, former ballerina Evangeline is literally snowed in at her Louisville home with her brother-in-law Dalton and young son Noah. Her narrative alternates with accounts of those earlier, happier days from her husband Eamon, a police officer who was murdered in the line of duty, and from Dalton. It's one of those novels where you know right from the beginning what has happened but Cross-Smith's elegantly crafted story gradually clues in the reader in on how and why Evi and Eamon met and fell in love, but also on the story of how Dalton — who was adopted by Eamon's parents — and Eamon came to be brothers and about their deep, deep bond. In Evi's chapters, the complicated relationship she has with Dalton slowly becomes clear, giving the novel a pleasing symmetry, as well as a beautiful rhythm. 

Along the way, long-buried secrets come to light, and knowing the tragedy at the start of the novel does not make the ending any less powerful. On a lighter note, I particularly loved this line: "He stood there, drinking my Chemex, drinking my Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. I felt a rush of love for him." As I have some Yirgacheffe beans from Amoret in my hopper at the moment, I concur that Dalton has great taste in coffee!

A coming of age novel set in Hong Kong, Exciting Times introduces us to Ava, a 22-year-old Irish woman who has arrived in the Special Administrative Region to teach English grammar to schoolchildren. "I dented fricatives for a living," she explains, one of Naoise Dolan's many brilliant turns of phrase. Ava doesn't have much of a longer term plan, but things start to fall into place when she meets Julian, a banker a decade older, who could politely be described as 'distracted', or less politely as 'a bit crap'. She moves in with him, officially to save money, and a more-than-friends-but-not-really-a-couple relationship develops. Unsurprisingly, this is not the stuff of great romance and while Julian is travelling for work, an unsatisfied Ava grows closer to Edith, who comes from a local wealthy family. But this relationship is not without its complications either, and Ava ends up even more confused about what she wants and what she wants to do with her life by the end of the novel than she was at the start. Some may find this lack of closure to be an anticlimax, but although Ava can be frustrating, she is highly relatable, and you get the sense that she probably will be OK in the end — whenever that is.

As regular readers know, I'm always on the lookout for well written detective novel series, and the opener of Ausma Zehanat Khan's Detective Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty series certainly left me keen for the next instalment. Set in in the Toronto suburbs, the novel follows Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Getty as they investigate the death of a local businessman, Christopher Drayton. His financially motivated fiancée is devastated, her world-weary teenage daughters less so, and his connection to a local Andalusia museum is also a puzzle. And when the detectives find documents in Drayton's safe that suggest links to the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, they begin to wonder if there may be more clues to be found among the local Bosnian Muslim community. Cleverly constructed and broad in scope, Zehanat Khan's novel kept me guessing almost until the end. The obligatory detective demons made their début too, although they remained mainly in the wings...for now.

22 May 2020

Staying Connected in the Time of Coronavirus

This post is rather more personal than usual but I wanted to write down some thoughts during these most uncertain COVID-19 times. Normal coffee- and travel-post service to resume...at some point, I hope.

“I never realised you were so into football,” a colleague said to me last year. It was a fair point: although I had mentioned the game and my team — Wolverhampton Wanderers — periodically over the five years we’d been working together, I'd also been inflicting my updates on my non-football-following co-workers with increasing frequency.

In fact, I’ve followed Wolves for as long as I can remember. My family are from the Black Country and Wolves are a ‘family team’. But my interest has waxed and waned over the years, rather like Wolves’ own fortunes. For much of my childhood and teenage years, their performance could perhaps best be described as ‘underwhelming’ or ‘frustrating.’ Jumping more solidly onto the bandwagon during the recent (old) golden period could be seen as glory hunting, but it’s more complex than that. For one thing, as a Wolves supporter living in London it’s easier to follow them when they’re in the Premier League and appear on TV and radio more often, and enjoy more media coverage.

But there’s another factor too: the sense of community following a football team instills, the agony or the ecstasy — depending on the result — shared with thousands of others. This was represented perfectly by the only two games I was able to attend last season, both at Wembley. Our Twixmas comeback against Spurs, leaving even newly MBE-ed Harry Kane powerless to stop us winning 1-3, was a delight to behold. Four months later, the tables were turned as we took on Watford in the FA Cup semi-final. At 78 minutes in, Wolves were up 0-2; nothing could go wrong, and then in classic Wolves fashion it did. We lost 3-2. It took me almost a year to get over the defeat — yes, I know it’s only football, but the loss aversion bias is always strong. And there was a comfort in knowing there were thousands of others feeling exactly the same.

As for why I’ve been particularly motivated to rediscover football during these past two years, well, as more and more friends have married and started families, it’s sometimes hard to feel as closely connected to our divergent presents, despite our shared history in common. I love my friends as much as ever but my life and my experiences sometimes feel less relevant.

One of my coping mechanisms was to throw myself, Red Queen-like, into travel, ticking off new cities, new countries, new bucket list items. The sense of discovery and adventure set off my endorphins and my constant string of trips gave me something to look forward to, something to talk about given my apparent lack of recent ‘life events’. I have the same job, same flat, same lack of partner, same lack of kids, but I hiked the Inca Trail, skydived in New Zealand and ate insanely fresh sushi in Tokyo. The same could also be said for my interest in speciality coffee, where the community — online and offline — has brought me joy, taught me a great deal and allowed me to meet a lot of wonderful people.

And this is why the current pandemic has given me the lockdown blues. The things that I love — watching football, travelling the world and visiting speciality coffee shops — are on hold indefinitely. Coffee Twitter, at least, is still active but I’ve also been avoiding Twitter more, of late, because of the toxicity and judgement, which has become harder to avoid. I’ve been sharing one photo per day on Instagram of something that brings me, and perhaps others, a little happiness — usually coffee, food or a photo from one of my daily runs or walks in and around Bermondsey. I am, of course, relatively very lucky: I am healthy and have a safe, comfortable place to live. I have a secure job in scientific publishing — one that keeps me busier than ever during the COVID-19 crisis and one where I can work from home. But I still miss my friends and family, and my old life.

The human mind is remarkably adaptable, however, and well equipped to seek companionship even during times of physical distancing. As such, I found myself tumbling down another internet rabbit hole and into another community. It was by chance that I happened to read a Relative Values column in The Times with Richard Osman, of Pointless fame, and his brother. I hadn’t made the connection before that Richard’s brother was Mat Osman, the bassist in Suede — one of my favourite bands of the 1990s. In the Britpop wars, I chose Oasis over Blur, but Suede’s music — and especially Brett Anderson’s darkly poetic lyrics — spoke to me more. Inevitably, I also had a massive crush on Anderson himself, but the playful subversion of the music and the band themselves was also very appealing; they've always wanted to start their own 'tribe', for those who couldn't find their place among those that already existed.

Although I came for Coming Up, released shortly before my 13th birthday in 1996, I stayed for Stay Together, a bleak tale of love in the time of apocalypse, released on Valentine’s Day, 1994. The song has remained a regular feature of my primary ‘current’ playlist on and off ever since. In 'normal times', I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music, so when I do, it has to be special music that has emotional resonance for me. Working from home recently has meant more time for background music, though, so I downloaded Suede’s entire back catalogue, including the three albums released since their reunion in 2010, and listened to everything pretty much non-stop for the next few weeks. I watched old interview clips and gigs, I read Anderson’s two well-regarded memoirs and watched the excellent documentary The Insatiable Ones.

Then I discovered an active and welcoming Suede fan group on Facebook. Each Wednesday during lockdown, they organise a ‘stay home’ Suede activity. As part of this, I’ve recreated my own Suede album cover — shot underneath some local skyscrapers, in the style of the Stay Together EP — which got more likes than anything I’ve ever done on social media. I also wrote a poem for this week’s competition, 12 lines, one to be a Suede lyric. Although Afterlight, appended below for posterity, didn’t win, it was nice to know that Anderson, who was judging, had read it. It was satisfying to find a productive output for my lockdown creativity, to connect with like-minded fans, and to be soothed by the transformative power of music that matters.

I bought a Suede t-shirt too; like my Wolves shirt, it serves as a heraldic banner, signalling my fealty, my tribe, and sometimes I receive a friendly salute from passersby. “That’s quite a strong statement, isn’t it?” said one barista reading the words, ‘it starts and ends with Suede’ on my t-shirt. Maybe he was a Blur fan…

It didn’t have to be Suede and it didn’t have to be Wolves or speciality coffee. The topic is almost besides the point. But the search for knowledge and for human connection is really what has driven these ‘obsessions’ of mine. I want people to feel a frisson when I quote a Suede lyric. I want people to get my Wolves in-joke. I want them to find my coffee and travel features useful. I want to contribute. I want to fit in.


Not a sole cloud taints the burnt orange sky,
Not a soul on the street, no passersby,
An early summer in London town,
An early summer and no one’s around.

I daydream into oblivion
Of a recent time, now long gone,
Where we’d lie on our backs in parks for hours,
Gazing up at featureless towers.

I daydream of you, struggling to fight
The urge to converge in the afterlight,
But as the febrile world mulls its plight,
All the people say, ‘stay at home tonight’.

[The final line is from We Are the Pigs.]

11 May 2020

Lockdown Lit: Five Fab Crime Novel Series

Like many people, my prime time for reading was on my commute, which gave me a total of 90 minutes to two hours per day with a book or my Kindle. I read 135 books in 2019, most of them on the bus, but when the lockdown was brought in in London, I found it hard to motivate myself to read initially. I had so much more time to myself but I couldn't quite tear myself away from the Sisyphean search for scintillating shows on streaming services, or random rabbit holes on the internet.

Part of the problem was that I was being too ambitious. I started re-reading one of the set texts from my Italian degree — Boccaccio's Decameron, which is delightfully bawdy and lockdown-relevant, but also very long. Then I came across Jane Casey's new novel, The Cutting Place, which was being serialised in The Times. But when I realised it was part of a series, I decided to start with the first DC Maeve Kerrigan novel instead.

Well-written detective novels are a great choice for lockdown reading matter. They're gripping and have good characterisation (albeit with a predominance of demon-ridden detectives), and in the case of detective series, they provide a steady stream of literary entertainment. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a fan of the genre and these books feature regularly in my end-of-year book lists. As such, I've picked five of my current favourite series; if you're looking for literary distraction during 'these uncertain times', I'd recommend checking them out.

1. Tana French — Dublin Murder Squad
I've waxed lyrical about Tana French's books many times before but despite an OK, if not outstanding, BBC TV adaptation of the first two books (yes, Cassie Maddox is played by the same actress as Connell's mum in Normal People!), my admiration has not diminished. French writes beautifully and her characterisation is impeccable. In the Dublin Murder Squad series, each book features a main detective who narrates the story, flitting between the current crime under investigating and his or her own, usually troubled, past. There's also a secondary detective who then becomes the protagonist of the next novel, allowing deeper insights into their very essence. French's Dublin is a gritty place and her cast — the detectives and others — often fall victim of their own poor choices. I particularly rate her exquisitely detailed interrogation scenes. These novels are slow burners but if you stick with them, they will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.

Detective demons: 5/5 (average)

2. Sophie Hannah — Waterhouse and Zailer
Sophie Hannah's series, set in a fictional county near Cambridge, features perhaps the most frustrating, and yet still compelling, pair of detectives, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. I first read one of the later books, The Carrier, without realising it was part of a series. I found the terse relationship between the two — and all that was left unsaid — slightly confusing, but it made much more sense once I started from the beginning. The crimes tend to be of the domestic noir variety, but with an apparently impossible puzzle at their heart. If you've ever seen Jonathan Creek, you'll know the sort of puzzle I mean. Sometimes, you have to suspend your disbelief slightly when all is revealed, but that never stops you racing through to get to the solution. Hannah's standalone novels are good too, although I missed the Simon-and-Charlie factor.

Detective demons: 4/5 (Charlie), 5/5 (Simon)

3. Elly Griffiths — Dr Ruth Galloway
The protagonist of Elly Griffiths' books is a forensic archaeologist rather than a police officer, but she is brought into regular — professional and personal — contact with the local Norfolks constabulary, including DCI Harry Nelson, as a consultant on murders new, and less new. Ruth is a fantastic character — stubborn and spiky, but clever, fiercely independent and kind. I often recommend this series to people who aren't in the mood for the bleaker, darker crime series I enjoy. Don't get me wrong; here be murders most horrid, but there are lighter, more humorous and quirky moments too that balance things out. Griffiths' descriptions of the North Norfolk coast also make me want to visit, although I didn't get round to it before lockdown.

Archaeologist demons: 2/5

4. Cara Hunter — DI Adam Fawley
It was the Oxford setting of Cara Hunter's first novel, Close to Home, that attracted me. I grew up in the city and I always enjoy seeing its representation in books and films, especially those that look beyond the glitz, the glory and the honeyed-stone buildings of the university. Domestic crimes feature heavily, with DI Adam Fawley and his team brought in to investigate. The latest book, All the Rage, set in North Oxford, features what sounds like a fictional version of my school (and the same fictional name I use in my own fiction). If you're in need of a quick crime fix, these suspenseful novels are real page-turners and although there are some continuations of the detectives' storylines between books, it isn't quite as essential to read them in order as some other series.

Detective demons: 4/5

5. Jane Casey — Maeve Kerrigan
The first novel in Jane Casey's series about DC Maeve Kerrigan hit home perhaps a little too hard, featuring, as it did, a woman called Rebecca, who worked in PR, lived near Tower Bridge and went to Oxbridge! Nonetheless, I was quickly charmed by the brilliant and outspoken young Irish DC, a rising star on a high-profile Metropolitan Police murder squad. The rich tapestry of London, from grand houses in Wimbledon to north London council estates, comes out in this series — like the others on this list, the setting and sense of place are important characters. It's hard not to root for Maeve, even as she remains her own worst enemy. DI Josh Derwent, brash and sexist but an adept detective, serves as a good foil, as much of a bad influence as a mentor.

Detective demons: 3/5

6 April 2020

AeroPress Go Review

Eight years ago today, I published my review of the AeroPress, which I discovered after breaking a couple of French presses in pre-caffeinated exuberance and seeking a more robust coffee maker for the office. Before long, I loved using the AeroPress so much I bought a second one for home use, and it became my default weekday brew method — I soon flipped to using the inverted brew method. (At the weekend, when I have more time, I tend to experiment more with my V60s and Kalita Wave, or even my Sage Barista Express espresso machine.)

When AeroPress Inc. announced last year the upcoming launch of an even more portable version of the coffee maker, dubbed the AeroPress Go, the news was met with some degree of scepticism. The original AeroPress is already well adapted for travel, so was a slightly smaller version — even one that cleverly packed all of the essential brewing accessories inside a tumbler for brewing and drinking — really necessary?

As I'm the target market for the AeroPress Go, I thought it would be worth trying out, although I do appreciate the irony of reviewing a travel brewing product at the time when no one is going anywhere! I travel a lot and I also travel light, usually taking a backpack that fits under an aeroplane seat for long weekends or a cabin-size suitcase for trips of one week or longer. I also like to visit a lot of coffee shops when I travel and don't want to spend all day brewing coffee, especially while on holiday. This means I only take enough kit to make my first coffee of the day, and I'm not pedantic about the brew. 

If I know there will be a kettle at my destination, I might take my smallest V60, but otherwise my travel coffee kit consists of my AeroPress, my Made by Knock Aergrind (pictured below inside the AeropPress) and a cup for brewing (usually my 8 oz HuskeeCup or 8 oz KeepCup). On weekend trips, I usually pre-grind my coffee and leave the Aergrind at home. The AeroPress has a relatively small footprint and it's also a relatively forgiving brew method, especially if you don't have scales or a pouring kettle.

There are times, however, when even the AeroPress feels like it's too big for my bag — if I've got work kit or hiking gear, for example. And this was the appeal of the AeroPress Go. I've been using it for a week now, and have carried out some direct comparisons with its less petite sibling.

Brewing with the Go was pretty similar to the original AeroPress experience. Using the inverted method and 15 g of coffee (an Ethiopian from Outpost Coffee during my testing), I was able to add about 210 ml of off-the-boil water to the Go; the official capacity is 237 ml, compared to the 296 ml capacity of the original, but I don't fill to the absolute max as I'm always worried about spillages.

After plunging, I added a further 40 ml of water to the cup to make up the ratio. I found the cup relatively pleasant to drink from, but its large, 444 ml capacity dwarfed my 250 ml brew. The coffee tasted almost identical to the same coffee brewed through the regular AeroPress.

My main issue with the Go is the brewing cup. The product is cleverly conceived, with the stirrer folding up and slotting into the plunger along with the compact 14 g scoop. The whole AeroPress then fits inside the cup, sealed with a rubber lid that also holds a slim filter-paper holder). But the cup is so big that the Go isn't actually much smaller than the original, although it is shorter and squatter. That being said, I usually have to take a separate cup with the original AeroPress, so overall, the Go kit takes up less space.

Will the AeroPress Go replace the original in my travel bag? It depends. On occasions when space is at a real premium, I would consider the smaller size of the Go a good trade-off for the faff of having to add additional hot water to the brewed coffee (not always easy in kettle-less hotel rooms). I would leave the cup at home, though, and take my HuskeeCup instead — which I'd also use for any take-away coffees during my trip. As I travel a lot both domestically and internationally — in normal circumstances, anyway — I am confident I will get good use out of my AeroPress Go, and can now retire one of my two originals, which I've had for nearly eight years and which is finally starting to suffer.

If you don't already have an AeroPress and are interested in buying one, I would still recommend buying the original model unless having the smallest possibly coffee-making kit is extremely important. If you already have kit for brewing coffee at home/work and are in the market for a very portable brewing device for travel, the AeroPress Go may be worth considering. AeroPress have published a detailed side-by-side comparison if you're still not sure which would be best for your brewing needs.

Disclaimer: I bought the AeroPress Go myself and as always, all opinions here are my own.

30 March 2020

City Break in Seattle: Bex's Guide

[[I wrote this blog post soon after returning from New York and Seattle one month — and a lifetime — ago. At the time, COVID-19 hadn't yet been declared a pandemic, although the World Health Organization had declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern a month earlier, and several cases had been confirmed in the Seattle area. It didn't feel right to publish this post at that time. I'm not advocating that anyone travels anywhere now — quite the opposite, in fact, as we should all be staying at home as much as possible. But some day we'll be able to travel again and if, like me, you're dreaming of your travel bucket list or looking for armchair inspiration, I can recommend Seattle as a great destination for future trips. Its coffee shops, restaurants and other small businesses will certainly appreciate your visit. Read on for my city guide.]]

Seattle 101 walking tour
I often like to take free walking tours when I travel — some are better quality than others — and so, it seems, does Seattle Free Walking Tours founder Jake and his wife Rebecca. They spent their extended honeymoon travelling the world and its walking tours, and incorporated the best elements into their own pay-what-you-think-it's-worth Seattle offering. There's a two-hour Seattle 101 tour and a one-hour Pike Place Market tour, among others. I took the former, which Jake ran and which was funny, informative and irreverent, and a great introduction to the city, its history and its culture. If you prefer tours of a subterranean nature, you might also like to check out Beneath the Streets.

Pike Place Market.
As you'll see from the food and drink section below, and my Seattle coffee guide, I spent a fair bit of time at Seattle's historic Pike Place Market, which dates back to 1907. The market is a multi-level labyrinth of food stalls, shops and eateries, with views over the Puget Sound. I enjoyed visiting by night too, strolling through the deserted, neon-lit hallways that contrast so much with the hustle and bustle of the day (especially weekend lunchtimes). Keep an eye out for the sculpture of Rachel the Market Pig, and the somewhat gross curiosity that is the Gum Wall.

Pioneer Square. This square — and the surrounding neighbourhood of the same name — is claimed by some as Seattle's oldest neighbourhood, dating back to 1852. However, the square also hosts a statue of Chief Si'ahl of the Duwamish tribe who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, and from whom Seattle takes its name. There's a totem pole in the square — the original was allegedly stolen from a Tlingit, and later destroyed. The second version was gifted to the city, but if you look closely at some of the carvings, you may be surprised, and some believe this may be a shame pole. Close to the shiny glass buildings and skyscrapers just a few blocks further north, Pioneer Square has some historic and characterful architecture. Don't miss Waterfall Garden Park, also known as UPS Park, on the site of the original UPS building, a most zen of retreats.

Museums and galleries.
I was in Seattle during Museum Month, where visitors staying in downtown hotels can get half-price admission to many of the city's museums and galleries. If you don't have a Museum Month pass, the $99 Seattle CityPASS, which includes admission to the Space Needle and four other attractions, is very good value.

Although I had heard good things about the Seattle Art Museum, I was more excited to visit the gallery and garden dedicated to the work of local glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. I loved every room and the garden, at the foot of the Space Needle, with its impressive, colourful sculptures. I particularly liked the Persian Ceiling and capturing golden hour reflections of the Space Needle in some of the glass spheres in the garden. The nearby Museum of Popular Culture was fun too, with current exhibitions including: tattoos, fantasy and sci fi, Nirvana, Hendrix and Pearl Jam.

Two of the evening receptions for my conference were held at the Pacific Science Center, in Seattle Center, and the Burke Museum, which made for some fun after-hours viewing. The former had some cool science-based interactive exhibits (and dinosaurs in the fountains outside), while the latter is a great natural history museum, whose collections include a T. rex skull. After I had finished all of my meetings on the Sunday, I stopped by the Seattle Aquarium, where I was won over by the darling sea otters, especially Mishka ('little bear') and a giant red octopus called Hugo. Alas, Hugo was "not super-interested in his shrimp" during the octopus demo session. My Museum Month pass got me half-price admission, but they got their money back from me in the gift shop!

Sunset at Kerry Park
I decided not to pay the $37 to go up the Space Needle, instead seeking a viewpoint that would include the iconic 184-metre structure in the skyline view. Kerry Park, a short but steep walk up from Seattle Center in Queen Anne, offers great views of the downtown, the bay and even Mount Rainier on a clear day. I was lucky to have two beautiful sunny days in the city and was treated to glorious sunset views from Kerry Park, as the sky turned pink and then black, and the city lights came on. If you don't fancy the walk, the park is a short bus ride from downtown. For another observatory that is higher and cheaper than the Space Needle, the Sky View Observatory near Pioneer Square is a good option.

Boat trips
With an unexpectedly sunny morning on my first full day off in the city, I decided to take Argosy Cruises' one-hour harbour cruise, with views of and commentary on Seattle, its port and the Puget Sound. It was interesting, if chilly (despite the sun), and I took dozens of photos of Seattle's beautiful skyline.

Later that day, however, some friends from the conference told me about their trip out to Bainbridge Island. You can take a public ferry that takes about 35 minutes and costs about $8 one-way (the return journey is free). Although you don't get the commentary, the views are just as good. I spent about an hour on the small island the following day, walking along the waterfront, visiting Eagle Harbor Book Co and stopping by the small but fascinating Bainbridge Museum. If you have more time, there are diverse eateries and wineries too.

Although I had only two full days of sightseeing, I had plenty of opportunities while I was working to enjoy some of Seattle's splendid eateries. I covered some of my speciality coffee experiences in this post.

A crucial fact about Seattle that I only learned after getting there is that there are a lot of happy hour deals. This is because most Seattleites don't live downtown and thus bars and eateries want to keep commuters in town as long as possible before they head back to the 'burbs. Happy hours often run from 3–6 pm, although they can start as early as 10 am, and some establishments have a second late-night happy hour. I wouldn't have been too excited by this until I found out that many happy hour deals also extend to food, from snacks to entrées, if you sit at the bar. If you're on a budget but keen to sample several restaurants in one evening, you can hop between them, enjoying a bite at each. Do bring your passport in case you're in the lucky position of being IDed — I only had my UK driving licence and wasn't allowed to sit at the bar in one establishment, even if I switched my order to a mocktail.

Pike Place Market is a good starting point for a culinary introduction to Seattle. I ate at several of its eateries, including East Coast-beating chowder in a sourdough bowl at Pike Place Chowder. It was worth the 15-minute wait in line! For a quick mid-conference lunch, I headed to Pasta Casalinga for some delicious homemade pasta with pistachio, kale, pesto and crème fraîche. On my last night in Seattle, I treated myself to dinner at Matt's in the Market, a restaurant run by a former market fish thrower, which sources most of its ingredients from the market. Having failed to save room for dessert throughout my trip to New York and Seattle, I didn't make the same mistake here. After some bread and a superb roasted salmon with cannellini beans, I loved the decadent deconstructed millionaire's shortbread that was the candy bar square. The cocktails and service were excellent too.

I also ate well on the stretch of First Avenue south of the market, towards Pioneer Square. At Heartland Provisions, I got one of the city's best deals in the form of the $10 happy hour burger, with gruyère and aioli fries. Perched at the counter, I got to watch and chat with the chefs, who offered me a few small samples, including of the jamón iberico being carved up. I wish I had had time to return to try some of the other dishes on the menu. Another great burger can be had at the wonderfully named gastropub Damn the Weather. It was a beautiful day when I stopped by, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment! Meanwhile at Japonessa, a sushi spot with Latin American influences, I had two sushi platters — one with six very fresh nigiri and one with 10 pieces of the Seattle roll (salmon, avocado, cucumber, tobiko) — for a total of $20 during happy hour.

Over in Capitol Hill, I had an unexpected take on a classic British dish at popular brunch spot, Olmste(a)d. It was toad in the hole, Jim, but not as we know it: French toast with a hole cut in the middle that was filled with braised chard, melted white cheddar and egg, with home fries on the side. I loved it! Strolling down Broadway, I happened upon the Capitol Hill Farmers' Market, where I might just have acquired a fried-to-order bakewell tart doughnut from 9th and Hennepin. I spotted Stateside on the way to brunch at Olmste(a)d and decided to return to the Asian-influenced restaurant one evening. I had the duck rolls, followed by pork collar on rice vermicelli (from which I could make some DIY rolls), along with a piña colada with an Asian twist.

As most of my budget went on food and coffee, I was mainly window shopping in Seattle. I picked up a few gifts from museum gift shops — those at Seattle Art Museum, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and Seattle Aquarium were particularly good. I also did some gift shopping at local chocolatier, Frans Chocolates, and at Pike Place stationery store Pike St PressWatson Kennedy is great for gifts and homewares, while Capitol Hill has a superb independent book store in Elliott Bay Book Company.

I spent two nights at the wonderful Hotel Theodore, a boutique hotel close to the convention centre. My room was small but comfortable, stylish and thoughtfully designed, with decorations inspired by the Museum of History and Industry: a patent for the Seattle Space Needle, a patent for the original Eddie Bauer down jacket and a photo of the Starbucks founders adorned the walls. There is a free cocktail hour every day in the lobby, and even though I showed up at 9:00 am, long before check-in, I was able to check into my room. I booked direct during a Black Friday sale to get a good rate.

For work, I stayed at the Seattle Sheraton, which was right next to the convention centre and which had a very good conference rate. My room was large and quiet, with views over the downtown. There was a small gym and pool on the 35th floor, which I used a few times.

Arriving and getting around. From Sea-Tac Airport, the Link Light Rail costs about $3, departs frequently and takes just over 30 minutes to get to the downtown Westlake station. During my trip, there was construction work that meant changing at Pioneer Square, and taking the journey time to about 50 minutes. To save time on the return, I took an Uber, which cost about $32 and took just over 30 minutes. Within the city, many of the key attractions are within walking distance. The Light Rail is currently limited, but is in the process of being extended. There are plenty of bus routes — I took one to get back from Kerry Park ($2.75, cash only, no change given) — and although the Seattle Center and its museums are only a mile or so from downtown, I took the monorail, because it's fun to do so!

Money. Credit cards, contactless and Apply Pay are widely accepted — I only used cash for hotel staff and walking tour tips and on the bus. Some Seattle restaurants include a 20% service charge, which is what I tend to tip in the US anyway. Alas, the current exchange rate with the British pound, plus tax, means eating out can be quite expensive, even at fairly low-key venues.

2 March 2020

Thirteen Speciality Coffee Shops To Try in Seattle

A conference for work last month meant I was able to make a long-awaited visit to Seattle. The city's long-established and varied coffee scene was one of the main reasons I had been so keen to visit. I was working for most of the six days I spent there, but luckily, the Washington State Convention Center, where I was based, is very central, with lots of good coffee options in close proximity. A few early-morning jogs and two days off at the end of my trip meant I was able to visit a baker's dozen of speciality coffee shops during my stay. I've left plenty more for my next visit, but read on for my thoughts on the places I sampled (my very favourites marked in purple in the map below).

Anchorhead Coffee (Downtown)
I was delighted when the organiser of one of my meetings suggested we rendezvous at Anchorhead Coffee, a large coffee shop a couple of blocks from the convention centre on Seventh Avenue. Located in the lobby of the 1600 Seventh skyscraper, Anchorhead was incredibly busy when I arrived, with the queue snaking around the edge of the room; I suspect a fair few conference attendees had the same idea as me! This meant I had some time to choose among the ten single-origin Anchorhead coffees available on pourover.

I opted for a Guatemalan El Limonar filter coffee, which had blood orange and melon flavour notes. I also realised soon after I ordered that my 'barista' for the morning would be the automated Poursteady machine that stood next to the gorgeous blue espresso machine on the counter. The coffee tasted even better as it cooled, and my colleagues were equally impressed with their espresso-based drinks. A colourful spectrum of retail bags of beans was also available to purchase.

Anchorhead Coffee is located at 1600 Seventh Avenue nr Olive Way. Website. TwitterInstagram.

Capitol Coffee Works (Capitol Hill)
Capitol Coffee Works and its three sister locations, each of which takes the name of the neighbourhood it occupies, like to celebrate diversity and uniqueness. I had planned to visit Seattle Coffee Works downtown but happened upon the cafe in funky Capitol Hill instead. The cafe is fairly small, although there is also a small seating area upstairs that overlooks the main area. It was busy when I arrived on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon, but I managed to nab a table near the coffee bar. It's a bright space, with minimalist décor, a beautiful Synesso machine and stunning ceramics.

There was an impressive choice of single-origin coffees and brew methods available. Having just had a couple of espressos, I switched back to filter coffee and ordered an Ethiopian Addisu variety. Brewed through the Aeropress, the cherry and hibiscus notes came through nicely. They also sell coffee beans and kit.

Capitol Coffee Works is located at 907 East Pike Street nr Broadway (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Cedar & Spokes (Belltown)
I saw an A-board for Cedar & Spokes near Pike Place Market and followed the short trail to the bright, airy cafe in the southern part of Belltown. Although they were serving pourovers brewed in the Kalita Wave, I was about to head back to the airport and short on time, so I ordered a cortado.

The espresso was a single-origin Guatemalan coffee, which was brewed by the friendly barista and which paired nicely with a little milk. Sitting in one of the window seats, I enjoyed soaking up a few last moments of sunshine before returning to grey London. Cedar & Spokes is open until 7 pm and they serve wine, beer and cocktails too (if you're on a Seattle happy hour crawl, Cedar & Spokes' is 4–6 pm).

Cedar & Spokes is located at 2125 Western Avenue nr Elliott. Website. Instagram.

Cherry Street Coffee House (Downtown)
As well as the original location — on Cherry Street, funnily enough — there is a veritable orchard of other Cherry Street Coffee Houses in Seattle. I visited the one nearest the convention centre, on Olive Way, for a pre-conference breakfast one morning. The macchiato, brewed with Counter Culture coffee, was very good, and my egg and cheese breakfast bagel.

Cherry Street Coffee House is located at 509 Olive Way bet. 5th and 6th Ave (and other locations). Website. Instagram.

Elm Coffee Roasters (South Lake Union and Pioneer Square)
I was able to visit both of Elm Coffee Roasters' Seattle cafes, starting with the location on Ninth Avenue North, a few blocks south of Lake Union. The coffee shop is located in the entrance of an office building, occupying a light, high-ceilinged space with a marble counter and green tiling. I knew they served a one and one here, but when I spotted the 'one of everything' on the menu, that was always going to be my order. During my visit this involved a split-shot espresso and macchiato with a single-origin Colombian 9 Swans coffee, and a batch-brew filter coffee with a different Colombian variety, the Yorgeny Torenz. Everything tasted great, but the espresso drinks were particularly well brewed.

On my last day, I stocked up on beans at Elm's other location near Pioneer Square. The gorgeous coffee bar is pictured below. I was lucky with the weather, but the light was particularly lovely. I sampled an Ethiopian Guji coffee as a filter coffee, which I enjoyed so much that I bought a bag of the beans, roasted on site, to take home. The forest green packaging of the retail bags was very classy too.

Elm Coffee Roasters is located at 240 Second Avenue South at South Main (Pioneer Square), and 230 Ninth Avenue North nr Thomas (South Lake Union). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Espresso Vivace (Capitol Hill)
One of Seattle's longest-established independent coffee companies, Espresso Vivace has been serving up quality espresso for over 30 years. I visited the large, bustling cafe–roastery on Broadway East in Capitol Hill, which also doubles up as a live music venue. There's also another cafe and a kiosk. As I was in Espresso Vivace, I knew I had to order an espresso, and as it was single-origin Sunday, I decided to try the Sulawesi single-origin coffee from Indonesia. The coffee was good, the staff were welcoming and the atmosphere was great. Espresso Vivace is a must-visit for anyone interested in Seattle coffee culture and history.

Espresso Vivace is located at 532 Broadway East nr E. Mercer. Website. Instagram.

La Marzocco Cafe (Queen Anne)
It was a chilly, grey morning after a late night reception at the Burke Museum, but my motivation to run up along the waterfront to Seattle Center was high. I was excited to visit the La Marzocco Cafe, a spacious cafe inside KEXP radio station. With many small tables and some comfy seats, I can imagine it's often very busy, but early on a Sunday morning, it was fairly quiet, giving me time to explore the mini museum of La Marzocco espresso machines and coffee kit available for purchase. I wasn't quite persuaded to impulse-purchase a Linea Mini, but I was up for some breakfast.

During my visit, they were serving coffee from Five Elephant, one of my favourite Berlin roasters, and I had an impeccable piccolo brewed with Five Elephants' Dancing Goats blend, which was smooth and sweet. I enjoyed some banana bread too before putting my gloves back on and running back out into the cold.

La Marzocco Cafe is located at KEXP, 472 First Avenue North nr Republican. Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Monorail Espresso (Downtown)
Minutes after checking into my hotel in downtown Seattle, I walked past a hole-in-the-wall coffee counter on Pike Street. There was a long queue and several customers sitting at one of the two benches on the sidewalk. When fellow coffee lover Coffee & Content recommended I visit Monorail Espresso, I realised that the coffee shop, whose original coffee cart was set up in 1980, was the popular spot I'd spotted earlier. I returned another morning for an excellent macchiato and a good chat with the barista. There is also a tongue-in-cheek 'directions menu', so bear in mind the small supplementary charges when asking the baristas where to find the monorail (it's very close!), Nordstrom or REI!

Monorail Espresso is located at 510 Pike Street nr Fifth Ave (and other locations). Website. Instagram.

Slate Coffee Roasters (Pioneer Square)
I visited Slate Coffee Roasters' cafe on Second Avenue, a couple of blocks from Pioneer Square, though the roasting company, founded in 2011, also has branches in Ballard and near the university. The Pioneer Square cafe is long and slim, with most of the small tables and seats along the wall opposite the counter. With monochrome décor and a selection of freshly roasted single-origin coffees, it made for a pleasant visit on a quiet afternoon.

Sheltering from the drizzle, I warmed up with a Ugandan Sipi Falls natural coffee brewed as a pourover in the Kalita Wave. The raspberry and dark chocolate flavours made for a sweet, well-balanced brew, and I regretted my failure to buy any beans after I didn't manage to return to the coffee shop.

Slate Coffee Roasters is located at 602 Second Avenue at James (and other locations). Website. TwitterInstagram.

Storyville Coffee (Downtown)
Rather slicker than some of the other coffee shops in town, Storyville Coffee's Pike Place Market cafe has a mesmerising curved coffee bar at its centre. I enjoyed my cortado, but if you go, promise me you'll try one of the frosted cinnamon rolls, one of the best incarnations of this decadent treat that I've tried.

Storyville Coffee is located at 94 Pike Street (top floor) nr First Ave (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Victrola Coffee Roasters (Downtown)
Less than two hours after touching down at Sea-Tac airport, I was sipping a delightful pourover coffee at Victrola Coffee Roasters' sleek Pine Street coffee bar. I had been eyeing up some natural Burundi Mpanga beans on the retail shelf while I was waiting to order, so I was happy to hear that was the coffee they were serving as a hand-brewed pourover. I sipped my coffee at the long table facing the futuristic coffee bar, enjoying the juicy blueberry and plum notes.

Victrola Coffee Roasters is located at 300 Pine Street nr Third Ave (and other locations). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

Zeitgeist Coffee (Pioneer Square)
Another Seattle coffee mainstay, Zeitgeist Coffee has a real sense of community with friendly baristas, local artwork on the walls and retro décor. Serving Italian espresso-based drinks and pastries, the doppio macchiatos and almond croissants here came highly recommended, so that was my breakfast. The coffee was strong but smooth, and the pastry was delicious.

My walking tour guide told me that Zeitgeist and Espresso Vivace regularly top polls of locals' favourite coffee shops and while there are certainly coffee shops in the city that are more modern or higher tech, a tour of Seattle's coffee scene wouldn't be complete without a visit.

Zeitgeist Coffee is located at 171 South Jackson Street nr Second Ave South. Website. Instagram.

A note on Starbucks...
The first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in 1971, and whatever you feel about the company, its impact on the coffee scene of Seattle, and the world, is impossible to ignore. As of 2019, there are over 130 Starbucks in Seattle. The original Starbucks relocated slightly and is now based at 1912 Pike Place, just opposite Pike Place Market. The store features signage and other items from the original store, and it's always busy. Had I had a bit more time, or fewer independent coffee shops on my list, I might have lined up for an espresso at the place where it all began...

The original Starbucks Reserve Roastery is also based in Seattle, at 1124 Pike Street. The mammoth store is impressive with areas dedicated to roasting, brewing, consuming and retail. It was extremely busy even late on a Sunday night. I had had my fill of coffee for the day, but there was a nice-sounding Guatemalan single-origin coffee on the brew bar. Some of the merchandise — mainly the coffee-making and -drinking kit — was nice too, although rather expensive.