Xi’an was our first port of call in China, so gave us our first impressions of the country. And the first thing that struck us was the proliferation of big brand names everywhere you looked.
Gucci, Prada and Vuitton for clothes in flashy high-end stores sit next door to extraordinary car showrooms for Lamberghinis, Maseratis and Porsche. (And we did actually see some of these cars on the road so some people can afford them somehow…).
The equivalent ‘big’ brands for coffee in Xi’an were Starbucks, Pacific Coffee and The Master (more on The Master shortly!). But it was very hard to find small independent coffee shops in Xi’an. The nature of China’s aspirational society means that for the moment a foreign brand (or at least foreign-sounding brand) is more attractive than some one-off family-run business.
Our desperation for coffee took us to the corporate coffee shops on our first day in Xi’an. Pacific Coffee had lovely décor and relaxing feel, but the weakest excuse for coffee I had tasted in a long while. Starbucks tasted pretty much like Starbucks anywhere in the world.
But The Master was our early favourite and our choice in Xi’an if we were left with just the chains for coffee. They are basically a bakery, specialising in Taiwanese cakes (very popular in mainland China, it seems), and we found both their name (with its Dr Who connotations) and their philosophy bringing a smile to our faces…
“The Master bring you joy and laughter. Master skill will be delicious, the perfect show to you. Meet you all good”
I watched the young barista prepare the cappuccino and he didn’t do a bad job, carefully grinding then tamping nicely and steaming the milk fairly professionally. I looked around for sugar, guessing that the coffee quality might be a bit on the poor (bitter) side, but couldn’t find any, so braced myself for my first sip… only to find that the cappuccino comes ready (and heavily) sweetened, so beware of that if you go to The Master for coffee.
It’s not a bad brew, but was hardly what we were looking for to put up on the Fancy a Cuppa website.
So we were delighted to find Nono Café on Dong Moutohi Street, not far from the Bell Tower in Xi’an. I’m not normally a big fan of Lavazza, but after the coffees we’d had at the chains, this was a real treat.
Nono has a retro décor, a bit 1950s, though I’m sure it hasn’t been there that long. When a slap-up meal for two costs about a tenner, coffee and cake for about the same seems a bit steep, which is possibly why most of the people we saw having cappuccino and cake were western visitors like ourselves.
They’re targeting a younger clientele with their offer of tiramisu coffee (we gave that a miss) and peanut butter smoothies, but I wonder how many teenage kids come in here.
That said, for a central Xi’an cuppa, Nono Café definitely gets our vote, and I think the big Dutch family sitting behind us felt the same.
If you’re willing to go a bit further out, and hop on a bus to get there, the Wan Books store has a rather lovely space for coffee upstairs. (Xiaojai Street East, not far from the Shaanxi History Museum)
This is a beautiful book shop. Although we found no foreign language books, it has a fabulous stationery section with great notebooks, cards, placemats etc. And just a nice space for people to sit around and read.
In fact, from the coffee shop upstairs you can look down on the readers, sitting on their (shop provided) straw mats leafing through the books (not something you see much in Waterstones).
The Julius Meinl beans from Austria made for the best coffee in Xi’an, at least from our limited stay there. Beautifully prepared by a young barista who had just graduated from university but said she had decided to try for a career in coffee, this was a lovely experience, and well worth the trek from the centre of town.
Don’t expect to get a big cake or muffin with your coffee, mind. The only food offering here was a packet of crunchy – and small – biscuits. But I was so enjoying the oasis of calm from Xi’an’s noisy, hectic streets, and so loving my quality coffee, I actually didn’t mind.
So Wan Coffee (They claim their website is wancoffee.com, but that takes you to a roaster based in Edinburgh so something completely different) is our top tip for coffee in Xi’an, and we wish that young barista all the best with her career – a sound choice, I reckon, in an industry that is really only just starting out in cities like Xi’an.
The scene felt a bit like coffee in the UK about 10-12 years ago, when you’d mostly go to one of the big chains for a coffee and the independent coffee shop idea had barely started. So hopefully this blog will help other visitors find some decent coffee in Xi’an, but if you’re reading this some years down the line, I’d expect lots of new places to have sprung up to challenge those Masters, Pacific and of course Starbucks…