Atlas Espresso Bar: The Unexpected Urban Oasis

DSC_0269I have two personalities – one before and one after coffee. It’s amazing how much happier a good cup of coffee can make me. The emphasis of course is on GOOD. With a healthy coffee culture in Toronto, indy coffee shops are popping up all over the city. A few weeks ago as I was driving across Front Street West, I noticed that a new, much needed coffee spot, Atlas Espresso Bar, opened just west of Portland Street.

 Zion Forrest Lee and Sandrine Kwan

Zion Forrest Lee and Sandrine Kwan

Last week, as I stopped in to satisfy my caffeine addiction and my curiosity, I chatted with the co-owner, Sandrine Kwan, about Atlas, the neighbourhood and the coffee culture. The team behind Atlas is no stranger to coffee or great neighbourhood hangouts. Sandrine opened the spot along with Bruce Dawson, co-owner of Handlebar, and Mercury Espresso Bar’s Zion Forrest Lee. So why Front and Portland? “The space fits what we were looking for,” Sandrine says.

DSC_0274The space is open, simple and bright. It feels like I stepped into someone’s kitchen. Espresso machine is off to the side, next to a low serving counter with a variety of pastries by Dale Fraser Foods and Café Jules Patisserie to accompany the coffee and assortment of fresh juices. Plenty of bright orange bar stools to pull up and enjoy a drink or a snack. What’s refreshing? No tables, and no laptops. This is more of a social spot, rather than a secondary office space. “We want to create a sort of an urban oasis,” Sandrine says, “where people can drop in for coffee or a quick bite and maybe run into a neighbour or catch up with a friend.”

The idea here is to create a European vibe, and I kind of get it. The espresso-based drinks are only sold in standard sizes, because really that’s all you need. And the coffee itself doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s rich, medium roast with a hint of chocolate and caramel. After experimenting with a few roasters, Atlas has developed its own roast with Trebilcock Coffee Roasters and it seems to have developed a following. They even have a line of exfoliating bath products made with their coffee grinds.

But Atlas is about much more than just coffee. With Dale Fraser as the collaborator behind some of the baked goods as well as the food specials, Atlas is a drop-in spot for a quick brunch or lunch known at Atlas as ‘Live’ brunch or lunch. “We’re not set up like a restaurant so we like to create meals off the cuff,” Sandrine tells me. You might find a salad prepared from local farmer’s market goods, salami and provolone sandwiches or fresh summer pasta. It’s quick, ease and all about quality.

It’s interesting that owners of the other two venues, one in Kensington and the other in Leslieville, chose this location for Atlas where new businesses are only now beginning to pop up. But with young neighbourhoods like CityPlace across the bridge, Fort York just down the street and Portland Park Village around the corner, there’s no doubt that the café will quickly grow in popularity. The few times I visited Atlas, I saw people chatting over a drink or stopping by with their dog. Sandrine knew the name of most of them….and the dogs’, too. “It’s not just about coffee, it’s more about a good vibe,” Sandrine says, and she’s right. Even though she says they don’t think in terms of competition, I think THAT already sets them apart.

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