This is a good brief – being a fly on the wall at Otto’s.

A few sessions in the coffee house, scattered over a couple of weeks, should be enough. And I’ll have a chance to track down a useful magazine article which I’ve seen in Otto’s before (more of which later).

This gig suggests I’m being voyeuristic. Maybe I am. But mostly I’d call it observing.

The first morning in Otto’s (a cold and cloudy Friday) is warm and steamy. Two city professionals (both male) are volleying global markets jargon like it’s a tennis match. I can’t keep up. It’s all about market volatility … equity risk … negotiations … monetising. Their energetic spiel, amplified by body language, makes them hard not to notice. They order more coffee – this can only get better.

On the other side of Otto’s sit two women and a well-mannered dog. Their talk is quiet, almost subdued. It’s like they’re the Yin to the city guys’ Yang (the latter are now discussing the merits of various far-flung travel destinations so enthusiastically – Borneo or Bali – I’m wistfully taking notes unconnected to this spy-like post).

Someone runs in to drop the daily papers on the window bench beside me – Nigel Farage’s name is in bold, and Donald Trump’s face stares out. I don’t feel like holding his gaze.

Instead, I rifle through some old National Geographic magazines stacked in the corner, and strive but fail to find the article I remember seeing here before – an insight into the Teenage Brain. Another parent must have got here first.

You see, Otto’s is that kind of place. You feel you can stop by, at any time, to search ancient magazines for wise words on dealing with troublesome teenagers. A warm welcome always awaits, and combined with a coffee (roasted in-house), you tend to feel you are winning.

Even on the day I go in, ready to spy upstairs, and find no-one there. Drat. But then the offbeat sound of background reggae music begins to relax me, and I drink my coffee in delicious solitude. I note a pretty painted ceramic plate on the wall with a small sign saying: “Mum’s work. £20.”

Over the weeks, I watch all sorts drop by Otto’s: young and old, couples and dogs, mothers with their identikit offspring, and loved-up teenagers from the local school fuelling up at break time. Often there are creative types perched by the windows, scratching their heads as they think, working through ideas to tap into their laptops.

Some rush in for takeaway drinks, others linger over coffee in the cosy upstairs … then stay on for brunch. I see runners speed by, then turn back to stretch in the small garden next door, before being tempted inside for a frothy coffee reward.

And I like that a local figure, a simple soul, can walk in and be served his customary cup of tea at his usual place without even having to ask.

The chats people have can be intriguing:

  • A foodie’s fondness for vacuum-packed frankfurters.
  • A daughter’s daily routine of dyeing vegetables and lying with cucumber slices over her eyes.
  • Monetising air miles (guess who said that?).
  • The oddness of OCD.
  • I’ve lost my friend – have you seen her?” says one lady, putting her head around the door.

One Saturday, the morning after Otto’s tapas supper club, I go in with my son. The place is buzzing – people are standing or sitting with market day shopping bags, laughing and calling to one another. Have we joined the tapas after party?

Jack greets us, in his element, “Hey there! Everyone’s here!” And the music begins to play.

The  Armchair

Not once during my visits do I bags the coveted Armchair. It’s leathery-old, well-worn and occupies pride of place by the front counter and its heaps of cakes. From here you can see everything and everybody, and you can hear the percussive rhythm of coffee being made – the pouring of coffee beans and the hiss of water, followed by “Service!” – all washed down with its beautiful aroma.

In The Armchair, you can simply be.

Off-duty (from being a voyeur) I visit Otto’s with a friend and her dog. It’s busy but The Armchair is free. A chance to observe at my leisure, interspersed with great chunks of gossip. The more we talk, the louder we get, and when another friend walks in, it becomes a small-scale cacophony. We discuss work, friends, travel plans. I talk teenage angst. My friend orders a bespoke bacon bagel and asks for her coffee to be made just so, so I tell her she’s like Sally Albright from When Harry Met Sally. 


I don’t notice the man by the window with a notebook. Not until it’s time to go, and he’s watching us rise from our seats. He has a smile on his face and a pen poised in his hand. I wonder if he’s waiting for The Armchair, or is he scribbling lines about overly loud middle-aged mums as material for his next piece?

Perhaps both – perhaps the tables are being turned.

The teenage brain for those in need:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2011/10/beautiful-brains/



Author: Becky Matthewson



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