CoffeeBeer >> Double Shot Buzz >> Previous Coffee Columns >> 5 Motorway & Train Coffees
It's been a long time since I've written about motorway coffee, probably because after I moved back to a city I found a plethora of cafes and coffeehouses to review. But as I've been too busy for the past few weeks working and taking care of the tedious details of life, I haven't had the chance to try a new coffee venue. So this is a chance to catch up with coffee consumed over the past year while in the act of travelling.
Even though the CoffeeBeer website features a tour of the typical British roadside family restaurant chain, I have to admit my vision evolved from what I had heard and not from any personal experience on my part. Growing up in America I gained a familiarity with quite a few chain family restaurants including Denny's, Friendly's, and IHOP; but it was only very recently that I finally lost my British family chain virginity.
One recent morning we were driving from Sheffield to Norfolk with plans to stop for coffee and breakfast when Andrew suddenly turned off the A57 and into the car park of Little Chef. I thought something must be wrong with the car for this sudden action, and I instinctively sniffed for the smell of burning rubber. But the car was fine; this was to be my initiation to the British version of Denny's.
The Little Chef chain, whose restaurants are usually found on A roads, was founded in 1958 and the headquarters are located in Sheffield. At its peak the chain had 440 restaurants but is currently down to around 175. For some reason most of those are located next to a Burger King and/or a Travelodge.
This particular Little Chef, located on the junction of the A57 and the Great North Road (aka the A1) has the distinction of being the only architecturally important Little Chef in Britain. Designed in the late 1950s as a petrol station, it transmogrified into a Little Chef in 1989. The architect, Sam Scorer, designed it as a hyperbolic paraboloid structure, which means a mixture of cones and curves. At one point preservationists managed to get the building listed to prevent it from being demolished.
When we walked inside my first impression was of cleanliness. This was definitely a place to which parents could feel safe bringing their kids, knowing that even if the toddlers rolled around on the floor they'd be unlikely to soil their clothes. And the staff were very friendly as well. It was almost as if we'd entered the Magic Kingdom, except for the lack of rides -- and, of course, we didn't have to pay any entry fee. We sat at a table by the window with a grand view of an outside picnic table beyond which high-speed cars and lorries rumbled by.
As the Little Chef menu has been revamped by renowned chef Heston Blumenthal, the breakfast menu featured some pleasing alternatives to the standard fry-ups including kedgeree and smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I went for an omelette with cheese while Andrew had the usual full English. For some inexplicable reason they charge £2.10 for a glass of orange juice but only £1.99 for a glass of orange juice with toast. And of course, since this is Britain, they charged an extra 99p for the cheese in my omelette.
Before we noticed the push-button espresso-crappuccino-latte machine we had already ordered cafetieres of coffee, which was probably a better choice. The coffee was fairly standard and extremely weak, as you would expect, but at least it was made in a cafetiere and not in the usual electric filter machine with hotplate that enables the constantly overheated coffee product to develop that unique flavour of sour soap. So as opposed to the usual greasy-spoon coffee that I find impossible to drink, I was able to consume an entire cup. Although the 99p worth of mild cheddar that filled my omelette was so overly abundant that it was unable to consider melting, at least the rubbery eggs were free-range. It was comforting to know we weren't consuming barn-restricted rubber eggs.
Last summer on the way to Wales we stopped at the Costa Coffee at the Elton Services in Chester. Our double macchiatos were served in oversized cups and the coffee itself was a bit wimpy tasting suggesting the roast wasn't very dark. Considering the customer who preceded us ordered a "black tea and a normal coffee, one shot", we decided that perhaps the people around these parts just aren't into strong-tasting coffee. The Elton Services are pretty much like any other motorway services; but because it was Elton we made a point of trying out the Elton johns. (I especially enjoyed the rocket-launch hand dryers.)
A few weeks later on a short excursion through Teesdale we found ourselves at another motorway Costa Coffee, this one at the services in Scotch Corner. As we were suffering from Weak B&B Coffee Syndrome we were desperate to sit down and enjoy a leisurely caffeine boost, but we inadvertently found ourselves in the Paper Cups Only queue. The place was extremely busy and the staff were quite slow, so we ending up taking our portable double macchiatos back to the car. As the lids hadn't been fitted properly on the cups, the navigation from cafe to car resulted in painfully hot lahars of brown foam dripping down our cups and burning our hands.
Fortunately our double macchiatos, although not very pretty by this point, were better than some Costa macchiatos. This is the problem with each individual Costa Coffee franchise: you never know what to expect. It may be absolutely brilliant or it may be disappointing. I don't find the same inconsistency with Caffé Nero.
A month earlier I went on a day trip with some friends to Hampton Court. We arrived at the Sheffield train station early in the morning with plenty of time before our train. Three of us bought coffees at the station's Caffé Ritazza and took them to an outside table to bask in the morning sun and enjoy the mist from the fountains. As Lulu and Olly sipped their Americanos I was happy to discover my double macchiato was properly made and strong, which is important at 8:30am on a Monday morning after one has awakened with a head full of fresh cold. The fact that it was served in a small paper cup instead of a china cup didn't bother me at all, because it was a travelling day when a travelling cup of coffee is appropriate.
In contrast, once we were on the Midland Mainline train enroute to St Pancras in London, my Kenco Cappio "cappuccino" came in a massive paper cup with unearthly insulative properties, as the liquid within seemed capable of poaching an egg into a piece of granite in a fraction of a second. To be fair, a warning on the paper cup read, "Caution! Contents May Be Hot!", complete with exclamation points. Perhaps my fresh head cold was a blessing, as after a sip of the contents I realised I wouldn't be able to enjoy eating for a few days thanks to the half a tongue's worth of taste buds I'd just burned off.
The Kenco Cappio "cappuccino" cup also says "sweet and frothy". Sweet, yet -- it tasted like instant hot chocolate. Frothy, nooooo... To be fair, I suppose it might have had a bit of froth when it was still hotter than magma, but at that time I wasn't going to risk opening the lid and scalding my face in a geyser of steam to find out.
As I sat in my seat enjoying the passing countryside, I eventually noticed the asterisk on the "Cappuccino". The footnote at the bottom of the cup said, "instant cappuccino". Instant or not, now that we were halfway to London and it was finally cool enough to drink, I found the scalded taste worse than any instant coffee or espresso I've tasted. In fact I would describe the "Kenco Cappio 'Cappuccino'* (*instant cappuccino)" as saccharine-sweetened Nestle's Quick mixed with a bit of very stale bog-standard instant coffee.
I almost wish I'd burned off all of my tastebuds...
Speaking of travelling and stimulants reminds me of a quick e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from a year ago:I've learned 2 interesting facts recently: