By Jeremy Foote
I’ve got a couple questions for those of who you drink coffee. Have you ever had a craving for a bit of style with your drink? Are you tired of trudging to (shudder) Coffee Time in the mornings? Have you ever felt that coffee is about more than just roasting beans and pouring it in a cup? If so, then read on, because you are about to be introduced to the indie coffee trade of Toronto. From converted garages to hipster cafes to circus gymnasiums, this is the place to pick up a double shot of culture, art, and of course, some stylish coffee, from Main Street all the way to Roncesvalles Avenue. The plan? Start at the East End and work my way westward. Before I begin, however, I would like to say one thing: this column is a review of the atmosphere and vibe of these independent spots. I’ll leave it up to you to judge the coffee itself.
The first stop on the tour is Grinder Café (168 Main St.), which used to be a part of a chain called Mercury Coffee. I entered the narrow beige space with a red accent wall to the chime of two very friendly baristas. Before I could even take a gander at their chalkboard menu, the two pleasantly chirped suggestions paired with a comfortable serving of weather chitchat on the side. Now, this place is a bit of a trek to anyone west of the DVP, but if you’re in the area, you would not be wasting your time (or money) visiting the quaint locale. The coffee is nice, but what really sold me was the affection. You can tell that everyone here cares about what they are doing (not to mention that pretty much everyone working here is cute). One of Grinder’s main limitations is that it is a bit on the small side, but they’re working on a renovation that will nearly double the space. My advice? Give it six months to a year.
Next up is a venue called Sideshow (1300 Gerard St.), a tiny location in Little India. This place definitely has an alternative vibe going on. One wall of the shop has been stripped of all its paint and covered in faux 1900s circus art. In the background, Beats Antique, an experimental electronic/fusion band from California pulses. Then the owner shows me the back room, which turns out to be a massive theatre, converted into a fashionable (albeit poorly lit) gymnasium, complete with trapeze and a wall of mirrors. So of course I drank my filling, fair trade brew in the back seats while watching gymnastics practice. Besides the few small tables and (my personal favorite) the little nook by the large windowed storefront, the limited seating is extended by the benches out front that are perfect for enjoying the warmer weather and striking up conversation with friendly strangers. If you live near the East End and haven’t been here yet, shame on you.
From there, I walk up the street to Te Aro (983 Queen St. East), a much better known coffee scene. Also located on Queen Street, it has been converted from a garage. With massive, glass sliding doors and a spacious seating area, this café is quite open, which I enjoyed. The staff members are amazing, polite, considerate, and know more than a little about the coffee they brew. One of the ladies helped me to set up a coffee journal, so that I can record every cup I drink. They even have a massive roaster in the back corner, hooked up to a boiler, so the coffee is always fresh. The only problem I had with this place is that it is somewhat loud, and occasionally the cacophony of chatter and chairs gets to be a bit much. However, this is to be expected. Te Aro is a much more social coffee shop, complete with gorgeous hand-carved tables intended for large groups. Everyone here is incredibly enthusiastic about coffee, so it’s a good bet you will be too.
The first leg of my Coffee Crawl concludes in another popular spot. It’s called the Merchants of Green Coffee (2 Matilda St.). Almost as well known as Starbucks, it stands in a little side street, overlooking the fume-ridden majesty of the Don Valley Parkway. This is, however, probably the coolest coffee shop I have been to yet. The interior is, for the most part, a tasteful wooden décor, with (somewhat cheesy) nature art. I can definitively say one thing about this joint: it has all the perks. The live piano player, the large table where staff host oven and pan roasting classes, and the little art boutique in the back are more than enough to warrant some good press. Now, combine all of those with the fact that the roasts they make here go to a lot of the other indie cafes, and you, sir, have yourself a shop! Merchants of Green Coffee is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of Bohemian independent coffee culture. This is by far the coolest place I have seen so far, but it’s still early. Who knows what else I’ll see?