04 July 2016

The Caffeine Chronicles: Vagabond @ Trade Union

UPDATE (April 2018): The whole Trade Union complex, including the Vagabond coffee shop, has permanently closed.

The St Katharine Docks, nestled next to Tower Bridge's eastern flank, are lovely and lively at the weekend but Thomas More Square, a few blocks further east, tends to be much quieter. Although it's only a 25-minute walk from home (and houses my closest Waitrose), I've never had much reason to go there, save for the odd meeting with journalists.

The arrival of new all-day venue Trade Union changes all that: now you can go for coffee, lunch or cocktails, buy flowers and even have your hair cut all under the same roof. Friday was their first full day and coincidentally, I had the afternoon off work. I was too late (or early) for lunch or dinner and not quite ready for a cocktail, but I was keen to check out the coffee shop, which is run by north London roaster Vagabond. I've heard great things about Vagabond but rarely find myself in Finsbury Park or Highbury, where there first two locations are based.

The lobby at Trade Union is large and high-ceilinged with d├ęcor that marries industrial chic with art deco. I turned right and headed to Vagabond, which occupies a long and attractively decorated space that was bathed in natural light on the sunny afternoon of my visit. A long wooden bench runs along the length of the wooden counter, which is accented with white geometric designs, a monochrome menu and pops of vibrant yellow.

It is the gorgeous Conti espresso machine sitting in pride of place at the head of the counter that you first notice when you walk in, however. The back of the machine is fitted with a transparent panel so that you can see its inner workings. Very cool indeed.

Espresso-based drinks dominate the coffee the menu. I saw a Chemex on the counter but I don't think it was in use. Instead, I ordered a piccolo (£2.40) and a huge slice of banana bread (£2), and chatted with the baristas for a few minutes before taking a seat. There were a few other customers but it was fairly quiet, which I quite enjoyed. I can imagine that once business takes off, it will be hard to find a seat there during the week — very nice for the local workers to have an infinitely more interesting place for a coffee break than Pret. The soundtrack was very cool too: it was the first time in ages that I'd heard a great song called Chamakay by Blood Orange.

I forgot to ask what was in the hopper — Vagabond roast their own coffee — but in any case, my piccolo was made with great care and it tasted great: chocolatey and very smooth. The banana bread was also nice, although could perhaps have done with a few more minutes in the oven; it was, however, very moist and fruity. A wide range of sandwiches and salads are also available — again, the perfect antidote to endless cycles of Pret lunches — and the prices are reasonable.

On my way out, I peeked over at the restaurant and bar. The former is serving salads (including one called Kale, Caesar!), pizzas, and a few large plates (burgers, steaks and fish). The cocktail menu also looked impressive, both in its design and its contents. Trade Union is a really interesting concept and I hope it does well. I am, of course, delighted to have another speciality coffee spot just across the river.

Vagabond @ Trade Union. 3 Thomas More Street, London, E1W (Tube: Tower Hill). Website (Trade Union website). Twitter. Instagram.

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