Pour London into a bowl and stir in two tablespoons of Dublin. That’s the capital of Northern Ireland—or at least for anyone who’s been to both cities before visiting Belfast.
Velvety maroon brick buildings, bookshops that look like they could have fortune tellers seated inside and thick accents seem as at home here as the seagulls perched on the railings along the River Lagan. Belfast is comfortable in its skin and hums to a consistent rhythm. The late eighteenth century architecture and chain outlets on street corners smirk with a sure-but-not-condescending attitude that's characteristic of London. Dublin, however, shows in the city’s more independent streak, which is visible in London too, but only to those who go looking for it.
Nothing whispers independence louder than alternative coffee shops among a well-spaced cluster of Starbucks outlets. Most eating and drinking places in Belfast are concentrated either around Cathedral Square or Botanical Avenue. I managed to find an independent coffee shop in each area. They’re alive with chatter from both friendly staff and guests, of minimalist aesthetic, and have come to be identified with “hipster cool”.
Established Coffee (along Hill Street), a vision on entering, looks similar to a Brooklyn artist's house. Airy, all glass facade, parapets along windows. Lightbulbs hang over the communal tables, lighting both food and Kindle screens. The coffees are experimental and the snacks imaginative. I was fortunate to be able to try a honey cardamom cortado, which was on the menu whilst I was in the city. Ingredients usually reserved for tea made the coffee more relaxing than a regular cappuccino. Keeping with the tea theme, a chocolate and bergamot cookie also turned out to be very pleasing—moist from the chocolate and slightly powdery from the bergamot flavouring.
If I were to buy suspended coffee anywhere, this café would be my first choice.
I was too full from lunch to order a snack at my next stop (in Botanical Avenue), but the cakes and muffins on display were going fast. Kaffe-O advertises itself with the tagline "Nordic coffee" on its name sign. Scandinavian influences are also evident in its design—white and clean, with pops of colour—and the breakfast, lunch and dinner, which includes smørrebrød (buttered Danish rye bread). The place serves smørrebrød with classic toppings like smoked chicken, smoked salmon, and even smoky black beans (no discrimination there, vegetarians). Coffee aroma wafts from behind the counter to the front of the café, growing fainter every time the front door is opened and someone walks in to order a cup.
My flat white was served to me in a dainty, white porcelain cup with no handle. I noticed that variations of the same cup had also been displayed for sale, along with a porcelain milk jug that was designed to look like a milk carton, and also colourful beanies. But that seems to be all that outright commerce is confined to. I sat at a table between a man reading on his tablet, and a couple with a baby. The bright posters on the wall in front of me had Danish quotes printed on them. I couldn't decipher what they meant, and found myself making no effort to understand either.