An Aussie cafe has added a touch of Fitzroy to the flavours of London
THE first time I visit Lantana it’s a dank winter’s morning, the sky slate grey, the precipitation determined. But inside all is golden glow and arresting aromas.
Its Australian founder, Shelagh Ryan, has created a bolthole in this corner of central London that would be very nice but not unusual in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, but here in what is commonly called Fitzrovia it’s a palace of coffee excellence and brunch nirvana.
Time Out magazine, the British capital’s weekly bible for what’s on and what’s hot, named it best new cafe when it opened in 2009 and the following year gave it the supreme accolade in its annual publication of top destinations, naming it best London cafe.
‘ ‘ Under-promise but overdeliver’’ is Ryan’s motto and this laconic approach seems to work a treat.
A humble bacon sarnie features home-cured meat from HG Walter, voted Britain’s best small butcher since 2005; the organic bread is made by a local artisan baker and the tangy tomato sauce is concocted on the premises.
Ryan says she has learned to move gently in her aim to expand the horizons of the locals, for whom a cafe breakfast still means a ‘‘full English’’ fry-up or poached eggs on toast. ‘‘If you put some of the fusion flavours and dishes you see in Australia on an English breakfast menu, you spend half your morning explaining them, from honey blossom labne to dukkah,’’ she says.
Her regulars are now wolfing down baked eggs, corn fritters with lime aioli, home-made baked beans, baked ricotta with mushrooms, banana toast and fruit compotes. It may be staple fare back home but even in this groovy corner of London, once the haunt of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, it’s still exotic nosh.
As I sip an excellent flat white, someone looking remarkably like the novelist Ian McEwan settles down at a corner table. I later hear that, alongside literary types, intellectual pop star Jarvis Cocker also hangs out here when in town.
Brought up in Queensland in a family of gourmands who endlessly ‘‘obsessed’’ about ingredients and dishes, Ryan says food is in her blood. Nevertheless, with a nagging feeling she might be in the wrong profession, she carved out a successful career as a policy adviser in Canberra for the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts and then for Multimedia Victoria.
It was her sister Caitlin’s repeated complaints about the dearth of good cafes in London, where she and her husband lived, that prompted Ryan’s worm to finally turn, and in 2007, aged 34, she headed for England.
After a year learning the business in Notting Hill at Tom’s Deli, owned by Tom Conran, son of design guru and restaurateur Terence Conran, it was time to set up on her own.
Caitlin and brother-in-law Michael Homan came in as coinvestors and they looked around for the perfect location. Ryan believes she’s found it in this little alley just north of Oxford Street and Soho, a stamping ground for arty and media types.
She’s toyed with the idea of opening for dinner but feels that for the present, while there are plenty of good evening eateries around, she has enough on her plate filling the glaring gap in the market for good, inexpensive breakfast and lunch spots.
It’s a seven-day week, with an overwhelmingly Australian crowd at weekends, who travel from all corners to loiter and feast in a familiar brunchy atmosphere.
It’s called Lantana, she says, because the climber is ubiquitous in her native Queensland and she wants to emulate its tenacity and vigour. In homage to the plant, a huge black and white mural by Australian designer Kat Macleod dominates the back wall, tendrils and exotic blooms languidly curling round toadstools, insects and butterflies.
Ryan’s laid-back philosophy and menu of hybrid flavours seems to be entrenching itself very well in this London backyard. She has already expanded, employing 14 (mainly Australian) staff and taking the lease on the store next door for takeaways, leaving more room for the pale wooden tables and chairs of the main cafe, with its newspaperstrewn counter and huge front window, another Aussie touch.
The impact of her Time Out award was dramatic, she says. Queues formed at the door and regulars became very grumpy that their secret and quiet cafe had suddenly become a heaving hot spot. ‘‘We’re victims of our own success,’’ she says with a grin.
Lantana thrives with its laid-back philosophy and hybrid menu