Some people love their beers, some people love their wine, and some people love their coffee. For that last group, the last few years in Toronto have been a time to celebrate the wave of independent coffee stores popping up to provide better alternatives. There’s no lack of options now in the city, so we’ve decided to compile a list of our five favourite coffee shops — the places we highly recommend you check out for their perfect blend of amazing java, delicious treats, and cozy atmospheres. So the next time you’re about to step into a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, consider maybe tracking down one of these places instead. You won’t regret it.
BullDog Coffee (Map)
Opened by barista champion Stuart Ross in 2003, Bulldog Coffee helped usher in the city’s third-wave coffee revolution and in many ways paved the way for the rise of a lot of the other coffee shops on this list — which is one way of saying their coffee is really good. That, as Ross told us, was the point of starting his business:
The inspiration to open my shop was simple. There was a better cup of coffee out there that was not being served in Toronto… It was my goal to make the best.
Ten years later, Bulldog is still succeeding at that goal. What’s more, Ross is still there on the front lines, passionately seeing it through. During a recent visit, he was right there, behind the beautiful gold-plated cappuccino machine that anchors the sleek but cozy and modern black and white interior, cheerfully praising the sunny weather and eagerly pouring us a perfect cappuccino.
Bulldog offers excellent takes on all your favourite espresso-based drinks, but Ross strongly recommend the drink that shares the store’s name. “The Bulldog,” Stuart tells us, is “in between a cappuccino and a latte, with two shots of perfectly pulled espresso and steamed milk in a 14 ounce cup.” Given that it’s a mix of two of the most popular kinds of coffee, it’s no surprise that The Bulldog also happens to be a long-time customer favourite.
Those customers come from all over. Thanks to its location — which is a short walk away from Maple Leaf Gardens, the Village, Yonge and Dundas, and Cabbagetown — the store’s customer base is large and diverse. According to Ross, the clientèle equally enjoys his assortment of treats, whose freshness Stuart is particularly proud of. He explains,
We bake throughout the day with an assortment of fresh baked goods. Every morning starts with freshly baked muffins, croissants and scones, and then continues during the day with various scones and biscotti.
If great coffee weren't incentive enough, it’s that delicious wafting smell of fresh baked goods that always makes walking into Bulldog Coffee worthwhile.
Crema Coffee (Map)
With McDonald's, Starbucks, Second Cup, Timothy’s, and Tim Hortons all located in the short distance between Broadview and Pape avenues, the Danforth is certainly not lacking in coffee options. There is, however, only one option for truly great coffee and a neighbourhood experience worthy of Greektown’s “small town in a big city” atmosphere.
Since owner Geoff Polci opened Crema Coffee’s Danforth location in 2011, it’s become a truly embedded part of the local community with its spacious room, comfortable seating, and genuinely great staff playlists providing a relaxed atmosphere for socializing or working. The friendly staff are also excellent hosts for this hub that sees bustling activity all day long. As employee Matt Myatt told us, the store sees waves of demographics coming in and out:
We get the morning rush with the people who just come in quick. Then we have not-working mothers. In the afternoon, we might get some of the mid-20s crowd. And around dinner, we get a lot of servers.
On weekends, you’ll generally get all those groups once and find yourself navigating around laptop cables, baby strollers, newspapers, and the perpetual line of people hopping in to grab a coffee while they’re running an errand or walking their dog.
Just as their customer base is diverse, so too is their excellent drink selection. Crema doesn’t just offer great coffee, but also great teas, and in the summer will even freshly squeeze lemonade right in front of you. If you’re new to the store, Myatt recommends “cappuccino or just an American if [someone doesn’t] like milk.”
In terms of what’s popular, Myatt said their food has really taken off. He told us that their panini are always going quick, and “everybody loves the breakfast burrito.” It’s one of their most popular items and is actually made locally in Toronto. Fresh and local, is in fact, the overall approach Crema has to their delicious foods. Myatt elaborated:
Our croissants come in frozen from a French bakery called Jules. We then bake those here. Then our scones and muffins come from Circles and Squares. Our cookies come from Sweet Flour and some of our gluten-free treats come from Queen Bee pastries and Home Kitchen.
The range of gluten-free options is impressive, but perhaps not all that surprising. After all, a good local hub should be neighbourly and take care of everyone. Crema Coffee on the Danforth does just that, and that’s what makes it so great.
Additional Locations: 3079 Dundas Street W, 53 Bloor Street E
Dark Horse Espresso Bar (Map)
Housed in the Centre for Social Innovation’s gorgeous Spadina building, Dark Horse Espresso Bar’s Chinatown location — which owners Ed Lynds and Deanne Zunde opened in 2009 — is a beautiful bright open space with daylight coming through huge windows, climbing the high ceilings, and settling on the exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. It’s not unlike walking into the work areas of one of those web companies that are regularly featured on “10 Cool Office Spaces” lists. In other words, it’s a great space to be in, with two levels of communal tables and areas, packed with socializing and productive young professionals, independent business folk, students, and artists hovering over a great cup of coffee.
There are also great goodies. As we eyed the display case to figure out what delicious baked goods to have with our cappuccinos (and as welcoming staff joyfully lip-synched to Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” on the store’s sound system), a gigantic — and we mean gigantic — muffin stood out. Manager Lisa D’Alessandro explained that particular unique item is one of Dark Horse’s most unique and popular items:
[They’re from] a company called Industrial Muffins. They have these super-healthy mixed berry muffins. Low fat, no oil, no dairy. We always warn people though because they’re not light. People jokingly call them ‘The Beastly Muffin’ or ‘Cardboard Muffin’ or ‘That Big Thing.’
She also noted that their “pretty awesome and cozy” steamed cranberry ginger apple ciders are very popular right now, along with their panini. But D’Alessandro’s real passion came out when we asked her what drink she would recommend:
Have a French press or, even better, a pour-over. These are methods of brewing coffee that really open up all the flavours and oils. [They're] a nice way to have coffee because you have to wait for it. The French press takes four minutes to brew. The pour-over is where someone literally has a timer and a scale and there’s a whole process to it. It’s beautiful, and it just brings out all the flavours.
Needless to say, after that glowing recommendation, we’ve been persuaded to temporarily put aside our love of Dark Horse’s delicious lattes and cappuccinos to try something new the next time we’re there.
Additional Locations: 125 John Street, 684 Queen Street West, 682 Queen Street East
Rooster Coffee House (Map)
There is no java mecca in Toronto with a better view than Rooster Coffee House. Resting right at the edge of Riverdale Park, it has an unbeatable vista of the downtown Toronto skyline right there on the patio. Thankfully, that’s not all that makes this friendly neighbourhood coffee spot great. It’s also one of the most welcoming, comfortable atmospheres in any of the cafés in the city — one that feels like a living room away from home.
Part of that is how the interior looks like a rustic comfy old country farm house. There’s a communal table in the back with board games ready for play, while antique furniture peppers the space, family portraits from the 1920s hang on the walls, and big suitcases that probably once immigrated an entire family sit on top of a fridge with drinks, sandwiches, and milk for locals to buy.
But the Rooster also feels like home because of the culture and community that surrounds it. That’s something co-owner Shawn Andrews, who lives right next door with her partner, Dave, said was very important to them when they opened Rooster Coffee House in 2010:
We fell in love with the community we live in. We wanted to create a soft place for people to land where they can connect and feel welcomed. We have always loved feeling like we were part of a bigger family.
That family is a big one. Andrews describes her customers as ranging from 20-year-olds to 70-year-olds, and represents of “students, writers, musicians, historians, lawyers, and economists and everything in between.” This diversity is something she cites as one of her favourite things about the shop because of the morning conversations it can lead to. Something we’ve witnessed ourselves, such as overhearing an animated 60-something man eagerly discussing a 20-something barista’s upcoming attendance of a science fiction convention, or noticing the frequent neighbourly bump-ins and how-are-yous.
Of course, no community is complete without great food and drinks. Rooster’s treat counter is practically a buffet of goodies wide in both selection and size, including muffins, scones, brownies, cookies, cakes, and daily sandwich offerings. As for drinks, Andrews strongly recommends “our house espresso in a cappuccino,” and taking the opportunity to taste “how amazingly sweet the baristas can get the milk.” She also says they’re particularly proud of their tea lattes — one of their favourites being the “toasty almond latte, made with nut and fruit and vegetable tea.” Their ginger honey latte is also really popular this time of year, as are their Feature Fridays, which showcase different roasts.
Additional Locations: 343 King Street East
SAM JAMES COFFEE BAR (Map)
Blink and you might miss this little coffee shop tucked away on Harbord Street, not far from Christie Pits Park. But with some of the best coffee in the city, Sam James Coffee Bar isn't a place you want to miss.
In fact, despite being somewhat off the beaten path, many people go out of their way to get here for the excellent coffee curated by owner Sam James. The store is frequently bustling with those who’ve parked their bicycles and cars outside for a quick grab-and-go, which is why the store’s die-hard customer base, according to James, tends to be a “pretty eclectic mix of young (30–40s) parents, University of Toronto students, and cyclists either in the neighbourhood or passing through on Harbord Street.”
The store and James (somewhat of a coffee celebrity in Toronto) have such a strong devoted following that when they release a small run of T-shirts and hats twice a year, everything sells out almost instantly. On a more daily basis, the store’s popular donuts disappear quickly, as do many of their cookies, muffins, and croissants. James proudly emphasized their “incredible French pastry, [that’s] as good as [any] you’ll get in the city." He explained, "I went through a number of suppliers before finding the one I felt was best.”
Given the reputation of the Coffee Bar’s cappuccino, it’s not surprising that James says it remains the most popular menu item. That’s because it all comes down to the care, quality, and vision James instills in his coffee, and which was the driving motivation for opening the store in 2009. He told us:
I worked at a lot of coffee shops before opening mine, and always had ideas on how I would do my own differently. Opening my own was the only way to make sure my ideas would be put to use.
His ideas are clearly working. He's opened two additional locations since.