The first coffee houses in Europe were centres for great debate, politics, philosophy and, in some cases, brothels. These were the first private clubs for social interaction. Today, there is a proliferation of coffee “shops” in Toronto, and the only debate is which ones are the best. Where can we go that does not seem like an extension of a university library with laptops on every table, and hip young hired hands who think making good coffee needs only the push of a button? We hope for baristas who understand all the delicate variables involved in achieving the desired level of quality in every espresso. While the big-city tradition of coffee has generally been a utilitarian one of grabbing a cup-a-Joe on the way out the door for a perk before work, fortunately there are quite a few really good places to go now – too many to list – where the experience, rather than the caffeine, is emphasized.
The modern barista delights in all they have to tell us about our beverage and the beans right down to the farmer who harvested them. Here is a sample of the variety of cafés that we have enjoyed discovering, and that reflect different categories of coffee houses brewing across Toronto.
Fahrenheit (www.fahrenheitcoffee.com, 120 Lombard St, Toronto, ON, 647-896-1774).
A seasonal rotation currently includes three coffees on tap: a single origin from Brazil, a single origin from Guatemala, and a blend of Guatemalan and Mexican beans. East African, Indonesian and Tanzanian beans are also sought. Sameer Mohamed, owner and award-winning barista, chooses from any region that produces top-quality beans. He emphasizes textures and temperatures, and loves the challenge of a single origin espresso, and of the cortado he makes for me, of equal parts espresso and steamed milk. He loves to challenge his customers to think about their coffee, as well as enjoy it. I like that when he asks me what I want, he’s listening for what I need, and he makes suggestions, and explains all the notes, nuances and complexities as though he were a sommelier. Everyone here seems to respect that we all appreciate quality and the care required to maintain it, one cup at a time.
Merchants of Green Coffee (merchantsofgreencoffee.com, 2 Matilda Street, Toronto, ON, 416-741-5369).
There is a rule here: you must like coffee. Upon entering this off-the beaten-path former jam factory, I immediately feel transported, and almost forget I am in Toronto. Derek Zavislake demystifies coffee for me, and his passion is contagious. His selection of green and roasted beans from all over the world is entirely fair-trade, and he emphasizes integrity in the supply chain, as well as the quality of the bean, freshness of the roast, and proper brewing technique. There is a very cool vibe here, and cupping classes and coffee events make this a hub of activity. Anyone who walks through the door can get a private tutorial. I select green beans, roast them myself, grind them, and then pour clean water at the precise a point through a cotton filter, for the freshest cup I have ever enjoyed.
Jimmy’s (www.jimmyscoffee.ca, 191 Baldwin St; 107 Portland St; 82 Gerrard St West, Toronto, ON, 416-901-2289).
Have you ever met a Jimmy who wasn’t cool? Photos from Hendrix to Page line the walls and set the personality and culture for this hip, unpretentious coffee house. In the heart of Kensington Market, Jimmy knows how to pick his spots. The patio in the back is a coveted perch in summer, while inside along the bookcases we mingle and recline into conversation. The Hoffa blend is for espresso; the Dean is for coffee. Hot chocolate is creamy and frothy, and my regular Americano is bright and outgoing, like the service and the ambience. It’s about having high-quality product, and making people feel good. That’s what makes Jimmy’s a local favourite hangout at each of its locations; and why I can escape here with a book and a chocolate chip espresso scone, and relax.
Dineen Coffee Company (dineencoffee.com, 140 Yonge St., Toronto, ON, 416-900-0949).
Located in a Toronto heritage building, our experience begins at a leather banquette, wondering about history and architecture as we marvel at the elegant design and floor-to-ceiling windows. From teas to pastries, they make it all, but I’m interested in their espresso. Their blend of Mexican and Brazilian beans (which they also sell) is richly layered and complex. It’s not just the quality of the product, though. The uniformed baristas here take pride in what they do, and with each serving, I watch them clean and brush their portafilters with care. The cleanliness and respect for each cup make all the difference. There is an old New York vibe here. It is social, unpretentious and professional. We’re right downtown, and yet I feel no rush.
Boxcar Social (www.boxcarsocial.ca, 1208 Yonge St., Toronto, ON, 416-792-5873).
A group of friends with passion and business acumen determined to shake up the coffee scene. All the pieces are in place, from organic ingredients to a patio in the works out back. The option of coffee flights intrigues me: one flight is of three different coffees; one is of the same coffee prepared in three different ways – espresso, macchiato, and filtered; and the other is prepared with whiskey (liquor license pending). The “recipe” they use refers to technique, not ingredients. I watch my barista bloom the coffee while beautiful amber trickles through. We sense notes of strawberries, apples and cocoa. What is really special is the recognition of the source – coffee begins with the fruit, not with the bean, and through that understanding they nurture each step of the process, and share their discoveries with the rest of us. Their care of coffee is evident, and can be tasted in each cup.