No matter the city you visit, you can tell a lot about it by the coffee culture it has fostered. In a city like Hamilton, Ontario, though, the locals would rather you didn’t judge them entirely on their 80-plus outlets of the ubiquitous Canadian coffee chain, Tim Horton’s. One thing the iconic chain, birthed in the city in 1964, has done for Hamilton was highlight the need for a local and independent shop providing a quality coffee experience.
Since 2011, Hamilton has earned a spot on many people’s radar for its affordable rents and developing neighborhoods. So much so that Canadian media outlet CBC asked if Hamilton was turning into the next Brooklyn. While no one is quite decided on that claim, the rise of rent prices in Toronto found many restaurateurs and cafe owners taking the 45-minute drive westbound to stake their claim in a newly flourishing culinary scene.
Fueled by the arrival of younger residents purchasing homes and starting their own businesses, the city has transformed. From roasters to cafes, the Hamilton specialty coffee scene began to pick up steam with an abundance of opportunities for cafe owners to create successful spaces that rivaled nearby Toronto. Popping up across the city to serve new and old residents alike are cool, hip, and affordable cafes in developing areas that give people a space to taste and participate in the city’s developing coffee revolution. For this guide, we selected five cafes that have been championing the coffee culture in Hamilton.
In this teeny tiny storefront located downtown, you’ll find Smalls Coffee. The small takeaway counter owned and operated by Ian Walker and Jess Glegg is simply designed: standing room only, with stark white walls and splashes of black. What the cafe doesn’t offer in the way of space, it offers in heart. Because of the…small…nature of the shop, you’ll be hard pressed to find a barista here who doesn’t already know your name or order by heart. Using a La Marzocco Linea Classic and Mazzer Robur, the shop proudly brews coffee from local roaster Detour Coffee Roasters as well as De Mello Palheta Coffee Roasters for espresso and drip coffee.
The shop is known for its perfectly poured flat whites—which a customer on my visit assures me are the best in town.
Saint James Espresso Bar & Eatery
One of the great things about cafes in Hamilton is that unlike Toronto, most of them offer table service and a curated food menu. Case in point, Saint James Espresso Bar & Eatery, co-owned by David Barhouma and David “Rocky” Ricottone (formerly of Toronto’s Dark Horse Espresso Bar). The 600-square-foot restaurant/cafe is sleekly designed with finished brick walls, large windows and a large open kitchen for visitors to peer into. Behind the bar, they work exclusively off the La Marzocco GB5 and Mahlkönig EK 43 grinder, and a Marco Jet. Their roaster of choice is Edmonton’s Transcend Coffee, while tea comes from Montreal-based Camellia Sinensis. Customers are also able to order coffee brewed exclusively on the shop's Alpha Dominche Steampunk machine, one of only three cafes in Ontario offering the unique device.
In the kitchen, Ricottone has created a roster of seasonal takes on classic dishes that has people talking. The handwritten menu, scrawled across a roll of kraft paper, has rotating daily specials and everyday favorites, like their Drive Thru sandwich, which is a take on a Sausage McMuffin with a hash brown inside. You'll also find things like burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, and shawarma on the lunch menu.
Salty Espresso (formerly The Pinecone Coffee Company)
For many baristas visiting from Toronto, a stop into The Cannon—one of Hamilton’s first Third Wave cafes—is necessary. On any given day, you can find owners Anne Cumby and Cindy Stout behind the bar taking orders and making recommendations on their menu. To say that they take their coffee seriously would be an understatement: Cumby has placed in the top five during both the Eastern Canada division of the Brewer’s Cup and the Central Regional Barista Competition. From the outside, the neighborhood coffee shop may look fairly unassuming. But once through the doors, you’ll find an incredibly welcoming space featuring a wooden community table with bright yellow chairs, huge windows offering a perfect street view from their corner unit, and a lighting installation by Toronto designer Enoch Khuu.
Behind the bar, shots are pulled off a La Marzocco Linea Classic machine using Hamilton’s own Detour Coffee Roasters. For filter coffee, they batch brew on their BUNN brewers using Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters and Reunion Island Coffee. Visitors can also treat themselves to a fresh filter coffee brewed using a Chemex or a tea by Hamilton’s own Short and Stout.
If you’re hungry, the cafe prides itself on its waffle sandwiches, including the grilled vegetable or the Black Forest ham sandwich—to name a few. But if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, doughnuts from Donut Monster and house-made scones, muffins, and cookies are also available.
About a 15-minute drive from the downtown Hamilton core is Dundas, Ontario, the home of Detour Café. Co-owned by Crystal and Kaelin McCowan, the cafe is an offshoot of Detour Coffee Roasters, which started roasting coffee in 2009 from the back door of the same building that houses the cafe. Like many of the other cafes, Detour serves up fresh food using locally sourced ingredients and has earned an official FeastON certification which ensures 25% of the food served is from Ontario. On the menu are classic comforts like mac and cheese to quick and easy avocado toast.
The decor is cozy with a hint of retro feel with rows of wooden tables, big windows, and an adjacent patio for warmer days. Behind the bar, baristas work on the La Marzocco FB80 and Mahlkönig K30 to pull shots of the latest roasts that Detour Coffee has to offer. Though it's not in Hamilton proper, Detour fuels so much of the city's best coffee that it's always worth a visit to the source.
Cafe photos courtesy of Kailee Mandel. Top photo courtesy of Hamilton Tourism Board.