A blog about special neighbourhoods, local atmosphere and stellar coffee.

Toronto - Six cafes to hangout and indulge

Toronto is known for its versatile, independent, global food scene. And, as a natural evolution, in recent years the city has taken an invested interest in their coffee too. The revitalised third wave coffee scene and independent roasters mean you are never too far from an excellent cup of joe.

Toronto may not have the most iconographic, world-famous neighbourhoods or landmarks that would pop into mind easily. But as a culinary destination the city is on the ball. The diverse, multicultural population means that the city’s food scene has many different influences and plates from all around the globe. Independent eateries, food markets, juice bars, and taprooms offer various gastronomic adventures and stellar dishes, making Toronto a great foodie destination to explore and indulge.

Adding to this amalgam of culinary establishments, in recent years the city has experienced a new wave of specialty coffee shops and roasters. Many of these are offering expertly crafted single origins, cold brews and pour-overs while commiting to the ideologies of quality and community. There is something for every occasion; tiny hole-in-the-walls, pop up market stalls, local hangouts to stay for hours, and spaces that work almost as extended offices. In a city so invested in food, it is only natural that brunch and coffee go hand in hand. Many cafes now serve visionary dishes and supply from local bakeries and equally, many bakeries have an added emphasis on quality coffee. Here are six places I visited to get caffeinated and indulge in ‘The Six’.

Neo Coffee Bar
161 Frederick St

I love when I unexpectedly find hangouts that make me feel happy on multiple different levels. To qualify, they have to have aesthetic appeal, craft excellent coffee and have a warm and welcoming feel. Neo Coffee Bar was one of these cafes that I found by pure luck on one rainy morning when I was looking for a shelter as well as a little caffeine kick to have a slow start.

From outside Neo is not much to look at; it is hidden between busier roads and located in an ordinary block of flats. But inside it is a modern, harmonious and calm little oasis. The Japanese inspired decor is accentuated by warm wooden elements, minimalist lighting, exposed silver pipes and grey cement walls. The centrepiece is a beautiful wood panelled coffee counter and symmetrical panelling on the wall behind. There are different seating options for individual needs but the dominating characteristic is the transparency and fluidity of the space.

Neo is also a Japanese influenced pastry shop where delicacies are daily created in a small exposed kitchen, enabling interaction with the food. Their trademark is Japanese style roll cakes with fillings such as matcha and chestnut, but if that is not your thing there is a good variety of baked goods and savoury treats. The espresso-based drinks are crafted with La Marzocco Strada, and a special copper coloured station is dedicated to pour-overs. Neo prioritises single-origin beans and Toronto based roasters but also have handpicked guest producers each month to keep the regulars surprised.

There is a particular focus on community spirit and great service. The cheerful baristas were chatting with the customers whilst crafting detailed drinks. The customer profile was a complete mix of solo newspaper readers, young and old couples as well as children who were equally treated like special regulars with their own babychinos. Neo Coffee Bar really had a small community feel, perfect to unwind, and somehow it just made me feel happy in the morning.

Early Bird Coffee & Kitchen
613 Queen Street W

I have a soft spot for places with big industrial windows and whitewashed walls. And so I had to check Early Bird Coffee & Kitchen when I walked past it. I was particularly drawn to the entrance dominated by a big communal table full of bookworms and laptop users; I often like this kind of communal and studious feel. Smaller individual tables were mainly occupied by those catching up, making this a space to get some work done and to socialice. High ceilings, whitewashed brick walls, barren decoration and green plants ensure this narrow space is contemporary and photogenic.

This special attention to detail extends to Early Bird’s food presentation. Although you can pop in just for an ethically sourced coffee, there is a small but creative menu of stable brunch dishes. The food is eye-pleasing, artistic and served in beautiful crockery. I started with a latte that had nutty notes. It could have been slightly stronger so next time I shall order a flat white for a more robust taste. But, the breakfast avocado on sourdough was the queen of the show here. Oh my days, it was a delight and beautifully served with pomegranate seeds, and fragrant microgreens. I could not believe how much extra flavour the microgreens gave. The girls next to me munched Acai bowls and I was contemplating ordering one too as it looked so darn delicious; in retrospect I am gutted I didn't. I really enjoyed Early Bird and importantly, despite the all-round picturesqueness it wasn’t style over substance.

Forno Cultura
609 King St W

Bakeries are my ‘thing’. I find it hard to walk past them and their enticing aroma, especially if the bread display is combined with some of my favourite exterior aesthetic qualities - industrial look, whitewashed walls, cute wooden signs outside. And so I had to pay a little visit to Forno Cultura, an Italian bakery with three generations’ worth of baking expertise and knowledge. Embedded in the Italian baking tradition, they create incredibly tasty treats for the Torontonians. So tasty and easy in fact that these became my stable quick lunch or evening bites - sometimes even both.

Forno Cultura prides itself with quality ingredients, and even most of the Italian meats are house carved. They cover patrons’ needs from early morning coffee and cornetti to late night artisanal pizza slices. With an emphasis on freshness and Italian authenticity, their sourdough sandwiches have amazing flavour combinations and the focaccias are on the right side of fluffy and chewy. Although I always opted for takeaway savories, their display cabinets are filled with scrumptious looking classic pastries and cakes; think biscotti, olive oil cake, and amaretti biscuits. As you would expect from an Italian bakery, they also serve specialty coffee and natural wines.

Forno Cultura has a few locations in Toronto, but I only visited the one on King Street that was conveniently open till late evening. Although located on a lower street level, the bakery is surprisingly light and airy. It has an open concept that makes it an involved experience; the customer space is separated from the open commercial kitchen by glass partitions and racks of freshly baked goods are visible from every angle. This store is essentially a working bakery, supplying goods to their other, more cafe-like locations. The seating is limited to one long communal table and so this is not a place to take your laptop or catch up for hours; Forno Cultura is all about watching the bakers creating the freshest goods while simultaneously munching these.

Saving Grace
907 Dundas Street W

Although I love sipping coffee, there comes a time when the body has had enough caffeine and it is time to munch some nutritious soul food to balance the system again. This is how I found the aptly named Saving Grace. Located on the quieter stretch of Dundas Street, its cute pastel blue facade and healthy-looking bowls tempted me in.

The café itself is very homespun with aspects of recycled secondhand charm. Mishmash plates, cups and furniture reminded me of a student accommodation. Perhaps because of this folksy, informal atmosphere Saving Grace felt more chilled than many other cafes in the area. However, as they are open only until 14:30 and the place is well known among brunch lovers, it can be a mission to get a table, even during a week.

Although the decoration is humble, stuck out of time, the food is contemporary and innovative. Healthy, soul-filling veggie and egg dishes stood out but they also offered naughty treats such as waffles and French toast. In addition to the stable menu they have rotating daily specials. I had a filling, colourful salad with many of my favourite ingredients such as poached eggs, lentils, beets, goat cheese and tahini, served with artisanal bread. The presentation was not very refined but what matters is the taste and this was darn good. I wouldn’t go to Saving Grace only for a drink; the place is all about food and the drinks are a secondary accompaniment. It was a great place to nourish the soul before continuing the coffee odyssey in this vibrant part of Toronto.

The Green Wood
1402 Queen St E

The Green Wood, located on the outskirts of Leslieville neighbourhood, is a bit of a trek from downtown. But don’t let this put you off. There are various quirky shops and booming specialty cafes along Queen Street East for a little browsing or a caffeine kick before brunch. And, once you reach The Green Wood, you will be rewarded with some seriously good nourishment.

This eatery nicely blends modern aesthetics and a casual, warm neighbourhood feel. Located in a narrow space a few steps below the street level, The Green Wood has done a brilliant job in transforming this into an inviting, light place. The bar counter and the floors are tiled in matching salmon pink tones, giving continuity and a refreshing contrast to the whitewashed brick walls. The place is enveloped in green foliage, complementing the fresh atmosphere.

The Green Wood has a good ethos of offering healthy and sustainable food while using local ingredients as much as possible. The menu consists of tried-and-true brunch classics revamped with a contemporary, creative twist. Expect plates such as salmon rosti, Middle Eastern eggs and French toast. I steered towards the classics with my poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, avocado and fried breakfast potatoes. It tasted fresh, comforting and the spuds had nice crisp skin without being greasy. Pretty much everything is homemade here, even the condiments. I would recommend trying their ketchup even if normally that isn’t your thing. It tasted nothing like the bottled stuff from a supermarket and instead it was fresh, acidic, and with a burst of ripe tomato flavour. Although a proud, silver coffee machine sits on the counter, I skipped this integral part of brunch, as I already had a strong coffee on my way here. Nevertheless, this did not make the experience any less whole. My brunch and the neighbourhood atmosphere was definitely memorable and worth the little trek from downtown.

514 King St East

It is hard to believe that Odin Coffee is located on a lower level of a condo as this cafe looks as if it was set in a modern Nordic museum. On entering customers are greeted with an asymmetrical white coffee bar, reminiscent of an iceberg. This arctic, majestic form together with other cold materials such as concrete floors is contrasted with a warm wooden angular ceiling. Made of wooden slats, the ceiling drops down in the middle, making it the focal point of the space. These slats are also used to create sheving behind the coffee counter, giving symmetry to the space otherwise dominated by asymmetrical lines.

I like hybrid cafes where you can both socialise and get some work done. Odin seemed to act as a calm morning respite for many where chores, socialising and caffeine coalesce. The space is subtly divided in two by communal tables made of concrete blocks. On one side is the coffee counter and high bar stools, apt for socialising and people watching, and on the other individual tables dominate. These were mainly taken by customers hunched over laptops, and even a small business meeting was held on a table next to me.

Odin is known for its coffee and it had a regular flow of patrons collecting their morning pick-me-ups. The coffee is created by Modbar, and this simplification of coffee preparation and hidden tabs worked well in this design-focused space. Odin’s Heritage Blend is provided by Toronto-based Pilot Coffee Roaster. With notes of toffee, my latte was creamy, sweet but sharp. There was a limited selection of pastries and cakes but these were a bit too sweet and heavy for my liking, especially in the morning. Although Odin Coffee is not located in the centre of the action, it is worth a little stroll for its calm atmosphere, good brew and eye-pleasing architecture.

One of the key reasons I would love to return to Toronto is the food scene. And as someone who likes to sit in coffee shops, Toronto worked well for me. Although I often find that the best local hangouts are outside the central hubs, what really struck me was the abundance of specialty cafes even in the central Toronto where I stayed. It may get cold in the winter, but the cosy, comforting cafes will keep you warm and offer prime spots to watch the world go by in this multicultural Canadian metropolis.