The Starbucks on the south side of Russell Street in Covent Garden is much like any other Starbucks. There's no hint when you walk in that you've entered the place that was once the most talked-about coffee house in London ... where the most famous writers of the day hung out together under the watchful eye of the celebrated Lion's Head that Joseph Addison installed in 1713 to encourage contributions to his daily paper The Guardian.
The golden Lion's Head is said to have been attached to the western wall of Button's Coffee House – on the right as you came in the door – so our artist's impression below shows where it might be if Starbucks were able to return the wonderful lion to his rightful home.
When we popped in to the Russell Street Starbucks we saw visitors doing exactly what people were doing in Button's 300 years ago. They were catching up on the latest news, they were sharing stories with their friends, they were getting into passionate discussions.
But, unlike the noise and bustle of the old coffee houses, with cries of "What's the news?' as people came in through the door, it was a lot quieter. There was just a tap-tap-tap on keyboards, or pings and dings and whooshes as notifications let individuals know their messages had gone, or their friends had mentioned them. The same enthusiasms, the same passions, the same heated discussions were there. But they were being playing out in the online world – not in the room where so much happened in the 1700s.
When we spoke to customers and Starbucks employees about the history of the site – and the story of the Lion's Head – they were intrigued and keen to learn more. One group of American tourists said they couldn't believe there wasn't a blue plaque or memorial to let people know about the importance of the site.
One thing customers at Starbucks in Russell Street are probably much happier about than the their predecessors at Button's is the quality of the coffee. According to historian Dr Matthew Green, customers in the 18th century described the drinks that were served in London coffee houses as resembling ink, soot, mud, damp and, most commonly, excrement!