Canadians love their Tim Hortons coffee (Timmie’s) or Starbucks; and, constantly spend time debating the difference between the two. I prefer to stay out of those conversations because they’re always the same (but with different people) and tend to end with teases or insults. Methinks people need to caffeinate less in these situations.
There are three levels of coffee in Toronto (and Canada):
1. The Chains: The Tim Hortons and Starbuck shops, which litter every block both above and below ground. Grouped in with this classification are the peripheral brand name drip coffee vendors like Timothy’s and Second Cup.
2. The Starters: The “ok” pre-chain places that try to be better than the chains but still haven’t learned their craft. In these cases, the quality of coffee can be really hit or miss, depending on the skill of the barista and the product they use.
3. The Eclectics: The unique, top of the line cafes where the baristas REALLY know their craft and consistently produce a fantastic espresso-based drink. These places generally have a lot of personality and the baristas could talk ENDLESSLY about ph and acidity and temperature and bean quality. The super high-end places will micro roast their own beans.
Below are the top cafe finds from my time in the city that fit into the third category. There are many other great places but were so far out of reach from where we worked that they were inaccessible… thus we were never able to get to them.
5. Sam James Coffee Bar (SJCB): 150 King St W (underground)
This is an underground gem that you can get to before getting on the train (or as you leave the St. Andrew’s train station). They don’t have soy milk, only dairy and almond; and, are cash only, which catches a lot of people off guard. But, they are extremely busy in the morning and are designed for a quick grab and go cafe (no seating).
As an added bonus, next to SJCB is Kupfert & Kim, the wheat-free bakery. So, you can grab a latte and a gluten-free muffin for breakfast from the chatty guy who works there before getting on the TTC.
4. Sorry Coffee Co: 102 Bloor Street W
I found Sorry Cafe via the baristas from Boxcar Social. On the last day that their pop-up cafe was open on Bloor, I asked them what good coffee alternatives exist in the area. They immediately called out Sorry Cafe as being a hidden gem in the area. It is rather hidden from the Bloor side of the fashion district, but for those coming out of the Bay Underground station, it’s a quick stop on your way into the financial district.
When I walked into the cafe for the first time, I challenged the barista to make an almond latte that didn’t taste bitter, burnt or sour. He took on the challenge and made the best almond milk latte I’ve ever had. The other thing that I really like about this cafe is they get different artists to design their cups monthly.
3. Jimmy’s Coffee: 107 Portland Street
Jimmy’s coffee is all about the Jimmy’s you know or don’t know: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Page, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Reid, and the list goes on. The outside of the building contains a massive mural of various Jimmy’s.
This is a great place to work in the evenings (if you can manage to score a table) or just hang out with your friends.
2. Boxcar Social: 1208 Yonge Street
Unique. Eclectic. And really really great coffee. After wandering Toronto for a while and discovering rather meh coffee, I stumbled upon Boxcar Social as a “pop-up cafe.” Pop-up, in this case, means that while the weather is still warm-ish in Toronto, the Boxcar Social guys will man an outdoor cafe on Bloor.
When the weather cools off, they head back to one of their brick and mortar locations where the coffee is completely fantastic and the baristas really know their craft.
1. Early Bird Espresso & Brew Bar: 613 Queen Street W
This place has perhaps the best coffee in Toronto. From the outside, the cafe is completely nondescript and slightly hidden behind a pile of garbage (perhaps on Wednesdays only). However, I got wind of the place via a shop clerk down the street who told me (as one coffee snob to another) that Early Bird has the best coffee on Queen Street.
Regardless of its outside appearance, when you enter you are delivered into a land of people working on shiny Mac laptops, great coffee, great food, and bouncy friendly funny baristas. For me, Early Bird was a welcome reprieve after a long morning of walking and exploring Toronto.
As an added bonus, not only is their coffee fantastic, but half of their baked goods are gluten-free. They also have homemade peanut butter cups that are to die for!