In the past four years an estimated 100 new independent cafés opened in downtown Toronto. Although I won’t deny I’m a Starbucks Gold Level card holder and I do enjoy the occasional Caramel Macchiato from the store located conveniently next to my office, when I’m in serious need of a well-made espresso-based-cup-of-something, meeting a client before a showing or catching up with a friend on a Sunday afternoon, the independent coffee spots are the perfect choice. The fact that these places have held their own against the attack of Starbucks and the unstable economy says a lot about our demand for quality…and, let’s be honest, free WiFi. In fact, many of these independent cafés have evolved into mini-chains, thanks to us the urbanites, and made the access to a spot at the common table with free WiFi less a privilege and more like an urban right. Here are my TOP 5 in downtown Toronto, but I’m sure there are many more out there, so feel free to keep the conversation going.
1. Jimmy’s Coffee – located at 107 Portland Street, just north of King Street West and next to Gusto 101, is a little hidden gem of King West, other than to those in the neighbourhood. The traffic coming through this revamped space of an old rowhouse is never ending and no wonder, the coffee itself has a toasty chocolate-like flavour that fades into a caramel finish….it’s delicious as a latté, cappuccino, or just a fast shot of espresso. The space is quite narrow and small but utilized well for seating with two seating areas, a small patio far balmy weather (which could be used in the winter with if the owner added a few heating lamps – just a suggestion) and benches at the front entrance. This is definitely one of my favourite spots in the city.
2. Le Neuf Café – this is a pretty and charming spot at 9 Clarence Square, an unexpected but perfect place for a café. It reminds me of a Parisian café but without the noise and ridiculous prices. It must be because the owner is actually French and spent years operating a bar back in Paris before she got married and moved to Toronto. Not only is the coffee smooth and rich in flavour but goes exceptionally well with pain au chocolate, macarons and other delicious baked goods prepared by a French baker. Because it’s tucked away from the rattle of Spadina Streetcars and traffic noise, it’s a perfect spot to relax and escape with a cappuccino, buttery pastry, crepes, or any other delicious french-inspired item on the menu.
3. Day & Night Cafe Lounge – this spot located in Liberty Village is new to the coffee scene but quickly gaining a following by the neighbourhood locals. I discovered it a few months ago while waiting for a client and look at a few condo units in the area. The weather was miserable so I was happy to pop into the café for a cappuccino while I waited for my client to show up. It was one of the best cappuccinos I’ve had in a while. They serve Te Aro Artisan coffee from one of Toronto’s best coffee roasters and it was perfectly executed. The shop also offers a good selection of baked goods and salads, it has a tapas menu for those evening with friends when you don’t want to commit to dinner, and it’s licensed to sell alcohol if you’re looking for something a bit stronger than java.
4. Dark Horse Espresso Bar – this place has been around for years now and with four location around the city it’s no secret that they’re doing well serving up top-notch coffee. The baristas at Dark Horse are serious about a well executed cup of coffee and take pride in their creations…the foam art says it all. Their Americano is bold with a sweet and smooth finish. Pair that with one of the baked goods from local bakers like Desmond & Beatrice and you have a winning combo. Although Dark Horse attracts coffee connoisseurs, this place is anything but serious. It has a great vibe – friendly and mellow, and that energy rubs off on the customers because quite often you’ll find yourself chatting with someone at the bar or the communal table. This place will put a smile on your face.
5. Sam James Coffee Bar – Sam James is somewhat of a celebrity in the Toronto coffee scene…I guess you would have to be if you could make coffee taste like blueberries. The original location of this self-titled coffee bar at Harbord St. and Clinton St. has been open for a few years and now a third location in the PATH is serving the downtown core crowd. Sam James Coffee Bar is a place for true coffee connoisseurs and on days when I’ve been driving around looking at a house after house to a point where they start looking the same, I manage to make my way to the Annex for an Americano that goes down so smooth that the caffeine kick comes out of nowhere, and off I go again. Just like other cafes, this coffee bar offers a variety of local baked goods, but for me the coffee is the real treat.