One of the things I love most about visiting America is the nation's supremely civilised culture of combining coffee shops with bookstores. To browse the shelves then sit down to examine potential purchases over a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie is to spend one's time in the most pleasurable way. And I have been delighted to witness this marriage of books and cafes filtering over here to London. My favourite local cafe, Rustique, near my flat is a literary cafe, filled with secondhand books (all for sale) and people tapping away at laptops or scribbling in notepads. Even chain coffee-shops such as Costa are getting into bed with bookshops, setting up cafes within Waterstones branches across the capital.
Some establishments are going a step further however, and in the last couple of weeks I have both wined and dined amongst books. One of my favourite museums, the V&A, has recently established an outpost on the newly pedestrianised Exhibition Road, called the Reading Rooms. The Reading Rooms is my idea of heaven. It is a book shop, groaning with beautiful titles on everything from design to tiaras, and London to glassware, but it also has a bar. Here one can peruse the papery merchandise with a cold glass of wine in one hand, or meet an Accidental Friend for a whole bottle, sat giggling amidst the stacks of books.
And if you want a three course meal surrounded by books, I have been introduced to the perfect place for that too. Swan & Edgar occupies an old pub in Marylebone, in an odd quiet side-street on which one would not expect to find an upcycled restaurant. Yet here is Swan & Edgar, where books feature even on the facade of the building in which the restaurant is housed, running in an exposed band beneath the swinging pub sign. How do they survive the rain I wonder?
Inside the old pub has been cleanly and simply refurbished, with nary a hint of sticky floors or crisp-ground chairs, yet retaining a distinctly pub-y feel. Solid wooden tables and benches are surrounded by chairs covered in pages torn from old newspapers and books, and candles twinkle in odd vintage tea-cups. The restaurant covers two floors, the second being reached up a staggeringly steep, narrow staircase, that the experienced staff sprint up and down carrying trays of drinks and food. The upstairs room is wall-papered in sheets of what looks like the Encyclopedia Britannica, and lined with stacks of books, lit by angle-poise lamps; travel-writing, angling guides, paperback novels, autobiographies and collected works of poetry.
Even the floor of the loos is covered in Scrabble tile lino, lest you forget that this place is really all about the printed word when you leave your table. And the food is really rather good too. Well done classic mains such as tasty rib-eye steak and rosti potatoes were followed by desserts which were too tempting to resist, like chocolate mousse-cake and bread and butter pudding. Should you get bored as you wait for your food - although the service was excellent, so you may not have time to do so - you can simply pluck a book from the wall and entertain yourself for a while. I could pass an entirely happy afternoon or even day in such a place. And maybe I will when I next have a free weekend. But not for a while alas...India here I come!
*** alas, the Reading Rooms were only a temporary pop-up venture, and Swan & Edgar has also now closed ***