Escape from Toronto - Chapter Three

Toronto. New York run by the Swiss. Part 3.

altIt is said that writer and humorist Peter Ustinov uttered the words; Toronto, Canada.. New York city run by the Swiss. What exactly did he mean? We can only guess at what he was observing at the time of this utterance. For me, Toronto is like a school teacher of indeterminate age with her hair pulled back so severely and her expression so taut that her mouth is more punctuation than emotion and any signs of age have been stretched into ambiguity. Somehow and somewhere in this stew pot of dullness the quest for a quiet cup of joe has gone seriously by the wayside. This is where we pick up the trail.

Toronto, thankfully, is a grab bag of chain coffee. Tim Horton's, Second Cup, Timothy's
and Starbucks, between the four of them, have about 100 locations within the starched
confines of the G.T.A. and I will say now that this is any visitors reserve chute when
all attempts at memorable bean fail in this city. On my very first trip to the smoke, I
fumbled into a Timothy's (no relation to Tim Horton's) and was immediately repulsed by the cheap cologne smell of the flavored selections. My next stop was Second Cup and without fail, this ubiquitous second fiddle to Starbucks always comes through when there simply is no other choice within a few city blocks.

Second Cup, a Canadian institution, has virtually the same decor coast to coast. It is not like the green machine (Starbucks) -- It is more of a brown, if memory serves me
correctly. They do coffee well. They use real espresso machines with real fresh coffee
and their staff seem upbeat and bubbly to the point of effervescence. Starbucks employees are not exactly automatons but I did meet a female Starbucks regional sales rep who squeaked when she walked. They tend to take themselves and their mission really seriously and on most levels they succeed. Tim Horton's, formerly a Canadian icon (now owned by Wendy's international) is not so much a java place as it is a meeting place with doughnuts, soup, sandwiches and strong coffee. The Tim Horton's hostess taking your order tends to be a husky maven who is, without a shadow of a doubt, mother, grandma or great-aunt to someone you know. Correct me if I am wrong but this could be part of the appeal that is currently sinking Krispy Kreme's near-flaccid incursion into Canada.

Flecks of originality and ingenuity do exist within this caffeinated casserole and like
a diamond mine, you have to dig long, hard and deep to come up with the bright
stars. On one of my first forays into the broad streets of Toronto, I came equipped with
maps, guides, notes, research and really good concrete resistant boots. My Swiss (no, I am not kidding) hiking boots took me down long trails of concrete from Front street, down Yonge Street about 12 blocks and then 16 blocks down to College avenues 'Little Italy'. Payday! I found a little Italian Coffee Roaster (no longer in existence) that served amazing espresso... and nothing else. They sold beans for cafes and home consumption and they had a small bar and about 4 tables. The Probat roaster sat in the back of the shop, bruised, battered and smoke scarred from over 85 years of service. I ordered a straight double-shot and judging by the raised eye-brows and
genuflection of the owner, my not putting 2 scoops of sugar on his rich brew earned me instant points. I had finally come home! Returning to this very spot some years later and finding an empty space felt a little deflating but a sense of hope remained. The area is a rich enclave of tradition and there are more hidden places than I could possibly flush out with just these few attempts.

altBack downtown the task remains to anchor at least a few decent spots for those weary travellers more than unwilling to ride the mystery bus, street-car or subway much beyond the familiar. Enter the historic St.Lawrence Market on Front Street a few blocks East of the train station and the Royal York hotel. In business since the 19 century this is listed as one of the most important markets in the World. Fish mongers, butchers and farmers pitch their wares 5 days a week(Tuesday through
Saturday) and the market is replete with all the basic ingredients for survival and some.

Once the site of a downtown lock-up, the market has its own dark side and more than its share of ghosts. It seems some of the shops on the lower level, the Coffee Roasters included, were once jail houses that would flood in the winter time, sometimes drowning the hapless prisoners as they slept. Ghosts indeed!

Today the market houses a fresh coffee roaster and tea emporium and a little bar for two or three to squeeze in near the drip coffee service. Their selection of fresh origin organics and fairtrade coffees are without compare. They also have a remarkable selection of teas, soaps and some unusual condiments. Business is brisk and the line-ups steady so they must be doing some things right. Oh yes, Sara runs the joint and she helps us from time to time with some of our coffee-house issues.

This concludes this 3 piece snapshot on, at least, one aspect of the Toronto scene. Yes, it is far from complete but we will be returning. Who knows when, or where...

Colin Newell lives and works in one of Canada's most beautiful cities, Victoria, B.C. and is a regular writer on his webpage