Amano Cafe

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I found this terrific place in London and it became an everyday stop for me. It's called Amano Cafe, and if there were one here in Orlando I'd probably there every day too.

I discovered it because I was looking for a place with free wi-fi near the flat I was staying at overlooking the Thames next to Southwark Bridge. I knew I’d be working each day and checking e-mail and the flog, so having a convenient spot to connect to the Internet was essential. After some preliminary searches before leaving the States, I came across Amano on Clink Street, just over the bridge and between Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Borough Market, about a 12 minute walk. Perfect.

(Clink Street, by the way, leant its name to the prison that was located on that small thoroughfare, which in turn leant its name generically to all prisons, i.e. “throw ‘em in the Clink.” The original prison is a tourist attraction, replete with Gregorian chants for some reason.)

I could best describe Amano as a cross between a Starbucks and a Panera Bread, though slightly smaller than the latter. Like both, it has a counter where you order your food and beverages and a seating area with regular tables, banquettes, and “living room” setting with couch and a counter. There is also a small outdoor seating area.

The floor-to-ceiling windows made the place bright and cheery, even with the construction of the church next door mucking up the view. I would order a cafe Americano, which is essentially an espresso with more hot water added, and the staff would print out a ticket with a password for an hour of Internet connection. That was usually enough to do what I needed to do, but occasionally I would have to buy another cup or a sandwich.

Whenever I  would arrive in the morning the staff would be making the sandwiches that would go in the cafes “grab and go” cases, so I could see that the sandwiches were stuffed full of the various meats and cheeses, and most of them made with breads baked fresh that morning in the cafe’s brick oven. (One sandwich I enjoyed was a wrap version of the traditional full English breakfast, an unusual twist.)

All of that is very common, but what fascinated me was that Amano took on a completely different feel in the evenings, becoming more of a neighborhood bistro or trattoria than a coffee and sandwich shop.

I discovered this on my first day in London when I returned in the evening to check for replies to e-mails I’d sent earlier. I couldn’t believe I was in the same place I had been in that morning. The place was packed and buzzing with laughter and conversation, and the people were drinking wine and eating pasta dishes and pizzas, also cooked in the brick oven, of course. That oven gave the place a warm glow.

I also liked the staff, who were all as friendly and accommodating as can be. I had been in the U.K. for about a week, and while I had my daily -- sometimes twice daily -- visits to Amano, I had been away for three nights visiting Cambridge and York. I got back to London late evening, and because the Internet on the train from York was not working, I ran over to Amano to have a glass of wine and get a log-on ticket. It was 10:20 and the staff was getting ready to close for the evening. I asked the young man at the counter how long they’d be open and he said they closed in 10 minutes but that he’d be happy to sell me some food for take-away. I said I really had just come in to check my e-mail. He said, “Aw, that’s fine. Come on it. Take your time.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Sure, you’re a regular.”

That made me feel terrific. In London less than a week and I had a place where the staff considered me a regular.

Anyone considering opening a cafe in the States -- or anywhere else -- would do well to hop on a flight to London and visit Amano. Copy the warm and comfortable feel of the decor, put some effort and quality into the food, and teach your staff to be welcoming and attentive. Seems such an easy thing.

There are three Amanos in London, though I visited only the one. It’s at Victor Wharf, Clink Street. The phone number is 202 7234 0000. Here’s a link to their Web site, which, frankly, is a little overproduced.