The Third Place – it’s a late 90s, done-to-death concept which still works for me – not home and not work – instead a relaxed and pleasant space to hang out in. I say done-to-death, but mean done-badly-to-death. Assembling the ingredients isn’t difficult - newspapers, wifi, coffee and comfy chairs, but pulling it off is, and one of the few places round my way which does is Birmingham’s Urban Coffee Company. Back in the day, my 3rd place in Birmingham used to be the Starbucks tucked away at the back of Borders bookshop. You had to walk past a LOT of books to get to it and, since books are to chavs what sunlight is to vampires, coffee here was a pleasure - all tall windows and views out over Selfridges' iconic curves. But, when Borders UK went into a terminal tailspin last year, it was back to Google for that age-old search - “coffee shop free wifi” and onto the Urban Coffee Company.
A hundred metres North West of the cathedral on Church Street, it’s definitely central Birmingham, but just far enough away from the New Street drag to mean that (on Saturdays anyway) people seek it out rather than just pass by, so you get a clientele which just seems a cut above - I’ve yet to see a truly annoying customer (self excepted, obvs).
They’ve nailed this one. Double doors open into a loft-like space with painted girders, whitewashed brickwork and a floating mezzanine. Solid wooden tables and chairs alternate with leather seats and a handful of jumbo beanbags for the horizontally inclined. I wasn’t sure about the recent off-kilter feng shui realignment of the big, sociable, 10-seater canteen table downstairs, until I realised the new layout put the wall sockets within reach. Quality newspapers, solid wifi and unobtrusive music complete the jigsaw nicely.
The bottom line - the coffee
I hate it. Which is both a complete lie and completely true. Even with my limited palate, the coffee is definitely a cut above. You have to wait for it (bet the business types love that midweek), but the baristas (called Urbanistas at UCC - the only dodgy note in the whole deal) put real pride into their work, and it shows, or should that be "tastes"? What I hate is how it’s ruined other coffee shops for me. My vote for the best cinema in the East Midlands? The Broadway in Nottingham: class films, class venue, crap coffee. And the list goes on – a fortnightly fix of latte love at UCC has landed me with a frankly annoying benchmark of coffee quality.
Snacks and cakes aren’t cheap, so the powers that be need to rock some combo deals into the mix at some point please. But again, it is quality gear - a Saturday lunchtime-treat brownie (£2.05) looked a bit dry and far too rectangular for my liking, but turned out creamy-smooth in the middle and pleasantly under-sweet.
Watch this space
With themed events, lots of social media marketing, monthly book club, an iPhone app in the pipeline and seriously friendly staff, this is clearly a tightly focused business with chain ambitions. Will be interesting to see how they develop through the tail end of the current recession and if they can preserve their USP as they expand.
- £2.50 for a large latte, £2.10 for an Americano.
- Standard loyalty card - one free drink in every ten, with a mystery free gift if you complete 5 cards.
- Urban Coffee Company, 30 Church Street, Birmingham, B3 2NP, 0121 236 0207
- Opening times: M-T, 7:30am - 6:00pm; W-F, 7:30am - 8:00pm; S&S, 10:00am - 5:30pm