Of late, like towns and cities across the country, Ipswich has suffered an invasion. A plague. An epidemic. For a great wave of identikit cappuccinos, dubious frappes (Nero is currently proudly proclaiming to have ‘the iciest coffee’ – what?!) and overpriced paninis has swept through the town, leaving non-branded coffee quaking in its wake.
It might have hit Suffolk a bit later than elsewhere, but the cult of the chain café has done its damage here too. Despite spending too many of my formative years ensconced in the sofas of Ipswich’s first Nero, whether it be gossiping, revising (from A-level geography to the finer points of the Faerie Queene) or, lately, knitting and being nosey, now even I’m slowly moving away from my favourite haunt. In the last five years, the grip of the chain café has just become too strong.
The worst victim is the poor old Great White Horse Hotel, which has now been colonised by a Starbucks. It’s admittedly one of the more elegant ones, but the fact that the other half of the building is home to a fly-by-night shop selling diamante and sequin covered handkerchiefs masquerading as skirts slightly detracts from its supposedly classy image. Together with the Carr Street Costa and the original Nero, it forms a Bermuda Triangle of mass-market coffee shops, all within about twenty paces of each other.
But now, finally, Ipswich is fighting back. It’s always had a few old-fashioned, tea-and-bun style establishments, like Pickwicks, or Blends in the Buttermarket, but nothing to tug a younger generation away from the lure of Starbucks.
Not so now. Every time I come home, there’s another shiny new café, brimming with good coffee, individual touches and an optimism which will hopefully sustain them through the recession.
In the last few days I’ve managed to fit in two visits to Caffè Basso (being a soon-to-be-employed journalist is tough). It’s been around for more than a year now, but, shamefully, I’d never been before – now I wish I had.
It’s great. Glass-fronted and sleek, if it wasn’t for the unavoidable view of the Co-op car park, you could almost forget you were in England. They’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible, and apart from the jarring note of a bottle of Smirnoff Ice in the fridge (what?!), they succeed . Italian radio plays in the background and even the toilet pays homage to Basso’s roots – one of the walls is decorated entirely with Italian newspaper pages, covered in glass. In other hands it could have been tacky, but everything is done lightly and elegantly, so it’s classy rather than kitsch.
The coffee list is refreshingly to the point, with some new names to add to the familiar list, including a Corretto (which I’d never seen before), a coffee with an added shot of sambuca. Maybe not for breakfast.
But the coffee – even sambuca-less – is really very good. Their cappuccino was small, with just the right amount of tight-bubbled creamy froth rather than the shaving foam beloved of some places, and the coffee was strong without being bitter.
It’s licensed, so you can have my current favourite pairing – an espresso with a beer. The cakes displayed behind the beautiful curved glass counter look gorgeous – my friend’s ‘americano’ (New York-style) cheesecake was generous and creamy, her only complaint the lack of a proper biscuit base (‘it’s the best bit!’). They also do a mean-looking tiramisu, a couple of tortas and, unusually for Ipswich anyway, delicious ricotta-filled cannoli.
Their food menu is different, too – we had a flatbread filled with goat’s cheese and spinach, and although the filling could have been more substantial, the bread was great, with a bite and chewiness very different to dull pre-packed panini.
With free wi-fi, the day’s papers lying about, reasonable prices (£1.40 for an espresso, £2.05 for a cappuccino) and plenty of space, it’s the perfect place to relax and read in peace without being harried along. And there’s not a Starbucks logo in sight.
There’s loads more Ipswich independents to add to this list, including the gorgeous Museum Street Café, Saints, St Nicholas Stores and the Napoli Deli, and I’ll be writing about them in the next few days, but I’d love to have some more recommendations for the best independents in Ipswich – please send me your suggestions!