Caravan Caravan (£)
Branches in King’s Cross, South Bank, Exmouth Market and Cannon Street
Summary: a popular and busy choice for weekend brunch, due in part to its excellent coffee, an interesting menu, and a lively atmosphere at their massive King’s Cross restaurant (although I prefer the quieter branches). The food is good but not incredible, the baked goods a little hit and miss, but overall it’s above average and definitely worth a visit. Verdict: 8/10
Value for money: 7.5/10
Practical details: no reservations taken at the weekend for groups of less than 6 people, so be prepared to wait at the bar at peak times. The various branches have subtly different menus, so worth taking a look online to see if one menu in particular appeals to you. Expect to pay between £15-20 per person for a filling brunch and a couple of drinks (more if you’re drinking alcohol).
I discovered Caravan coffee before I discovered the food. Funnily enough, I first tasted it at Sunday, and it was the best latte I’d had: smooth, mellow, and sweet. It was Caravan’s Daily blend, which ironically they don’t serve in their own restaurants (they serve the slightly punchier Market blend instead). Since then, I’ve been to the roastery, bought the beans (which I keep in stock at home for use in my favourite iced coffees), worn the jacket, and so on…
Caravan does coffee and food, both quite well as it happens. The original Caravan restaurant opened in Exmouth Market in 2010, and were part of the wave of Antipodean-influenced restaurants and coffee houses which have revolutionised how we Londoners drink coffee. Since then, they have expanded to another three restaurants, including a massive warehouse-style site in King’s Cross Granary Square (also housing their roastery), and their most recent opening in the City, opposite Cannon Street station. All offer (a very popular) weekend brunch, and an all-day lunch and dining menu – consisting of small plates designed to share, pizzas, large plates, and a dessert menu – along with speciality coffee and baked goods including interesting items like kimchi savoury buns and mini Crosstown doughnuts. The chances are whatever your mood or appetite, you’re likely to be covered.
Each restaurant offers a slightly different menu e.g. different pizzas, so it’s worth checking out the menus online if you’re a planner like me (I’m a big fan of detailed online menus with prices, and Caravan is a ‘tick’ here).
If you’re wondering where Caravan fits on the cool scale, it’s kind of right up there, to the point of appearing almost intimidating: the staff are achingly cool, with standard issue tattoos and piercings, wearing mum jeans and shorts with socks and trainers with panache. However, start talking to the person taking your order or serving your table, and almost always they are friendly, approachable and helpful – it’s only at the King’s Cross coffee bar where I have found them to be somewhat glacial.
The King’s Cross restaurant has a distinct vibe from the other Caravan restaurants, due to its size, location and the fact that it is one of the best known locations: a kind of cavernous warehouse-rave meets eatery, often packed with diners and hip coffee drinkers, with loud music blaring out. If it’s a nice day, you can sit outside in the lovely seating area overlooking the fountains in Granary Square.
Walk past the large dining space to the back (and you can peek at the frenetic kitchen on your left as you do), where you will find the coffee ‘bar’, where they serve alcoholic drinks and coffee. This is also where you buy your beans to take home. There’s a large communal table right at the back where you can sit and sip whilst catching up on some work. Overall, it’s not a good idea for a first date or a cosy night out, as you probably won’t be able to hear each other (sometimes that could work out quite well), but it’s perfect for group meet-ups and a casual night out.
I have a few gripes with the coffee bar concept: I get a little irritated that I have to order coffee like an alcoholic drink, and wait around until somebody notices me and takes my order. I’ve also found some of the staff there to be surly: I once asked one of the baristas – a girl with endless legs wearing super short shorts only few could get away with – for liquid sweetener for my iced latte, and she looked at me like I was being ridiculous, when in fact I would expect it as standard in a specialty coffee place. So I’m not a fan of the bar, but I am a fan of the coffee, and if you find a friendly face they are knowledgable about the coffee and can advise on your beans or what to drink there. I also found the service in the restaurant to be much better than at the coffee bar.
I used to go to the King’s Cross restaurant a lot, but always braced myself for loud music, lots of people, and queues at the weekend for brunch (they don’t take reservations for less than 6 people). Then I discovered the Southwark branch just behind the Tate, and I exhaled. It’s quieter, cosy, and the staff are excellent and friendly. The Cannon Street branch is also very good, and I’ve been told the original Exmouth Market branch is also very nice, so my personal preference is to go for these quieter branches rather than the rather hectic King’s Cross one.
The important stuff. I’ve already raved about the coffee – they take it very seriously, I think it’s the best around, and I love it – and I’ve also been for brunch and dinner – plus I may have tried some of their baked goods too, so here is the breakdown…
I went for brunch on a Saturday afternoon, hungry and not keen on any kind of wait. Although I was told on the phone I could sit at the bar or wait about 45 mins for a table, when I got there at around 2pm, I was told it was a 20 minute wait for a table, and was actually seated in 10, at a lovely table outside.
My hangry me was impressed: the menu looked interesting, and I was happily ogling other diner’s dishes. I ordered the jalapeño cornbread with tomatillo salsa, smoked pimenton cotija, and poached eggs (instead of fried), with an iced latte.
My coffee was perfect, and exactly as I had ordered it: single shot, minimal ice, with a small jug of agave to sweeten (I had to make a special request for the syrup as they don’t do sugar syrup).
My meal arrived, and the hungover French girl (who didn’t look hungover at all, but confessed to me that she was) sitting next to me commented how amazing it looked. It did: a small tower of cake-like cornbread sitting in a moat of pinky soft cheese, topped with two poached eggs, red onions and pickled cucumber.
I tucked in.
The food was good, but not incredible. It was done well, but I didn’t get enough complexity of flavour I was expecting from the different layers of textures and temperatures. The pickles were delicious, and lifted the whole dish. My eggs were perfectly poached, as I would expect. The cornbread was spicy and sweet in turns with the jalapeño and sweetcorn. I found myself thinking of the courgette fritter dish from Sunday (see review here) and comparing the brilliant layers of flavour there to this dish, and this didn’t quite match up. This was decent, though, and nothing about it was done badly. I think the niggle was that it didn’t leave me satisfied like I want a weekend brunch to be. I ate it, and I was still hungry.
I was eyeing up the baked egg and flatbread dishes as they floated by on their way to other diners’ tables, and they looked good and filling.
Second round – brunch dessert and baked goods…
There was only one thing for it: I needed to order some more. This was the perfect segue to perusing the baked goods menu, and the girl attending to my table was incredibly helpful in showing me what was what and answering endless questions (I’m curious). I went for a fig scone (£3) and, in a moment of adventure, a hot chocolate rather than another coffee.
My fig scone arrived with a little pot of jam and butter. It was not warm (I asked; they said no, they don’t have the facilities for it), which was a minor irritation, but it actually didn’t matter because it was a) huge; and b) delicious, light, fluffy, and generously studded with figs. This is a scone of the hearty Irish variety.
My hot chocolate was a revelation: it’s made with their house-made ganache, and was absolutely delicious. Crap, this means from now on I’ll have the agonising choice between a coffee and hot chocolate – or maybe just go for the mocha…?
A quiet contentment descended on me. Sitting outside, the pleasant rush of the fountains behind me, magazine open, sipping and biting chunks of delicious sweetness, the critical beast in me fell silent. I was satiated, and could now roll out of the door satisfied. With even some scone left over for later.
Note: I have tried a few things from the baked goods menu, and the pricing is on the high side and a little hit and miss. The scone was more reasonable for its size and quality, but I tried a chocolate cookie on another occasion (also £3) and it was a real disappointment: dry, crumbly, and not very impressive.
For about £15, you can have a filling brunch here and leave satisfied, probably in two parts of savoury and sweet – which in hindsight is not a bad thing. My main dish wasn’t incredible, but I would happily eat it again, and I would go back again to try more of the menu. I love the coffee and hot chocolate, I like the food, I like the atmosphere overall (preferring the quieter South Bank branch to the noisy King’s Cross one, but the latter is convivial and lively in itself), so this is an easy choice for a weekend brunch. Definitely recommend.