Vancouver has long been considered Canada’s coffee capital thanks to its laid-back vibe and its proximity to Seattle—but lately Toronto is giving its west-coast competitor a run for its money. Thanks to its growing mix of popular local chains and quirky neighborhood cafes, Toronto is no longer just a sea of Starbucks outlets, and coffee fans are thankful for it.
The explosion of independent cafes Toronto has seen over the past few years is good news for bean aficionados on the whole, but it also means you have to hunt harder to find the real gems. They are out there, largely concentrated along the popular east and west strips downtown but by no means confined to those areas.
These five shops aren’t the only ones that take the (coffee) cake, but are forces to be reckoned with that will give you the boost you need in a laidback atmosphere as you explore the city.
In this Parkdale cafe, it’s rare to see a patron working on a laptop that isn’t a MacBook and the regulars are walking billboards of hip, but you’ll also often find a toddler playing near the front window, a packed communal table in the back and a friendly dog waiting outside. Capital Espresso’s menu features an assortment of well-priced classic coffee drinks, but in the summer months try the Capital version of an iced cappuccino. The cafe somehow acquired an iced cappuccino machine from beloved Canadian chain Tim Hortons and makes its own version that gives you the refreshing icy texture of the chain original without the sickeningly sweet syrup.
2. Te Aro
Located in the east end Leslieville neighborhood, Te Aro (pictured above) offers much more space than most other cozy Toronto shops. Inside, you’ll find a large industrial room with metal chairs and exposed pipes running along the high ceiling, and on sunny days the garage door in the front opens up to the patio and bustling Queen Street East. The cafe uses local Pilot Coffee Roasters in their rotation of drinks made with direct-trade beans. Give the cold coffee a try—it’s brewed hot, chilled and stored in a nitrogen-cooled keg, and pulled from a tap to serve—and consider staying for lunch and having one of their great sandwiches on locally made bread. Once you’ve finished your drink you can check out the solid selection of locally roasted beans and brewing equipment lining Te Aro’s west wall.
3. Sam James Coffee Bar
Having expanded from its original cafe on Harbord Street, Sam James now has outposts in the city’s financial district, at the Christie subway station, and on the Ossington strip in the west end. Because of their small size and grab-and-go policy, these clean and calm spaces aren’t cafes in which you’d spend hours, but ones to visit if you want a shot of espresso expertly pulled and made with high-quality customized espresso machines.
4. The Abbott
It’s easy to miss this small west-Toronto cafe tucked onto a quiet side street in Parkdale, but it’s worth seeking out. You’ll feel like a local in the small space named for Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, a former neighborhood resident and the first Canadian-born black doctor. Aside from being a rare non-chain spot to get coffee and pastries along King West, it’s also a nice glimpse into local history in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Try out the Americano if you like your coffee brewed strong and grab a healthy snack like a muffin or fruit to go with it. The real draw here is the atmosphere; The Abbott has a friendly staff and clientele, and its historical ties give it a hint of the old Toronto that is becoming harder to find.
5. Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters
Sense Appeal serves up high-quality espresso shots to give you the energy needed to tackle the hipster and tourist-filled trendy Queen West strip. However, their flavored lattes are also worth ordering because they’re made with natural reductions and purees instead of syrups. If you’d like to learn more about what goes into a great cup of coffee, the cafe also offers courses like Analog Brewing and Espresso Extraction. The soups are great too but try to avoid the lunchtime rush as it gets packed.
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.