Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America and the (multi)cultural centre of Canada. The city has become an incredibly diverse melting pot for food and drink culture driven by individuals inspired to share their traditions and ideas. But in a city that prides itself on its eclectic offerings, there is one industry that has been a bit late to the party: coffee. In a province that is dominated by large coffee chains, enforcing notions of convenience over quality, it has been difficult to convert this coffee-drinking populace into specialty coffee consumers. The average customer has no problem spending a premium on a higher quality meal or a higher quality beer but has hesitated to try out the shop around the corner serving single-origin espressos and handmade pour-overs. Thankfully, things are starting to change. The shops listed here have been on the forefront of educating their city about specialty coffee for years and are providing flavors and experiences that live up to Toronto’s lofty reputation. It has been a long road to success and popularity, but the hard work is finally paying off, as these cafes are just a few examples of the ever-growing number of shops around Toronto serving up some fantastic coffee.
Pilot Coffee Roasters
Pilot opened in 2009 and was originally named Te Aro Coffee Roasters, after owner Andy Wilkins’ upbringing in the neighborhood by the same name in his native Wellington, New Zealand. After visiting shops around New Zealand and the US, the ownership group was inspired by businesses roasting and serving coffee with complete transparency throughout the process. Once opened in Toronto, they quickly became an industry leader in the city and have since scaled up their business to be a major player in the Canadian market.
After eight years in their former location called Crafted, the cafe and team have moved a block south on Ossington Ave into their brand new digs. The space feels very open with natural light flooding in the large front windows. The most striking design feature are the geometric ceiling accents that resemble the brand's logo of a paper airplane. A shiny Modbar array stretches the length of the shop and includes bar seating to encourage interaction with customers during the pour-over process.
The roaster plans to release a single-origin coffee processed three different ways near the end of this year as well as coffee bags for steeping. And with the goal to announce more retail locations in 2019, Pilot is continuing its status as a heavy hitter in Toronto.
Sam James Coffee Bar
For both industry professionals and casual coffee drinkers, Sam James Coffee Bar is a name that quickly comes to mind when talking about Toronto coffee. It’s not just because they serve great coffee, but also because of a style and culture that fits Toronto as a city.
Owner Sam James comes from a background in the skateboard industry and brought much of that inspiration and culture into his business. What has worked so successfully in Toronto is the marriage of coffee and street culture. As an example, James partnered with clothing company Stüssy to open a collaborative retail location in Chinatown in 2017. A similar vibe can be felt at each of the cafe's locations, with subtle, minimalist design.
Although functioning through a different brand, Sam James also roasts under the name Cut Coffee. The idea was to develop a brand alongside Sam James Coffee Bar, but keep the same energy within the overall business. Having recently celebrated their nine-year anniversary, the original Harbord St location still remains the heart of their business and the best representation of what the company stands for—a modest space entrenched in its community and serving up delicious brews. As James said, “it's just a super-simple coffee shop. Espresso machine, grinders, the works. Everything you need, nothing you don't.”
Neo Coffee Bar
Neo was first featured on Sprudge back in 2016 and two years later, they haven’t missed a step. Still considered by many to be a contender for best shop in the city, their quality remains consistently high and their space is always buzzing. Although technically a multi-roaster, they have partnered with Toronto’s De Mello Palheta Coffee Roasters to make them available as a permanent offering. The partnership has been so successful that De Mello even roasts an exclusive Neo Espresso Blend. Alongside the rotating selection of De Mello, Neo will also feature other local and international roasters. Currently Tokyo’s Onibus Coffee is available both for retail sales and on bar.
Aside from their coffee, Neo offers a tantalizing display of handmade cakes, pastries, and sandwiches. All are prepared from scratch in-house with locally sourced ingredients and similar to the coffee program, are Japanese-inspired, like the Neo Heavenly Banana, a sponge crepe with white chocolate cream steeped with heavenly cream tea from Sloane Fine Tea Merchants.
Neo's message from day one has always been about fostering a sense of community and creating a space for social interaction. For this reason, you'll find Neo laptop- and tablet-free on weekends and statutory holidays between 12:00pm and 4:00pm.
For Toronto’s home brewers and for anyone who loves to try new coffees, there may be no better place than Boxcar Social. Now with four locations around the city, this multi-roaster is serving up the likes of Phil and Sebastian, Lüna, The Barn, Monogram, Sey, and Transcend, to name a few.
The idea for Boxcar came from a gap in the city for a place that could provide great coffee and great wine. “We wanted to contribute something different to the Toronto coffee scene,” said Alex Castellani, one of four owners of Boxcar. “We care a lot about food in Toronto, but we need to care more about coffee.” Each of the owners brought their own fields of expertise into the company and this targeted approach has led to a well thought out and beautifully executed business. The only other thing that can match their coffee, wine, beer, and whiskey offerings are the spaces themselves, as the owners have expanded to strategic locations around the city. Starting in their Summerhill location, and furthered by newer cafes like in Riverside, they focus on finding spaces and neighborhoods with character and want to “exist in the history of an urban space,” said Castellani. No matter your drink of choice, Boxcar Social will be serving it at its highest potential in a stunning location.
The Library Specialty Coffee
“This is a place to learn about coffee, about beans, about roasting. A resource for those who want to learn more. That’s why I called it The Library,” says owner Jeffrey Ji. Ji first came across specialty coffee while studying in Melbourne over a decade ago. After working with and learning from roaster St. Ali and Matt Perger for six years, Ji returned to his native Shanghai and opened one of the city's first specialty coffee shops with the city's first La Marzocco Linea PB. His coffee travels have delivered him to Toronto, where Ji wanted to bring his Australian and Japanese influences, along with his experiences in Shanghai, to the Canadian market. Upon arriving in Canada he noticed locals were drinking a lot of coffee but weren’t as concerned with, or aware of, the quality. Enter The Library Specialty Coffee.
With education and quality being the top priority, Ji designed the shop to have the espresso bar near the front for quicker drinks and a slow bar in the back for those looking for a more in-depth experience. Ji even roasts in the very back on a Diedrich IR-2.5. After only eight months in business, The Library has already established itself as serving up some of the best coffee in Toronto.
Peter de Vooght is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Read more Peter de Vooght on Sprudge.