Toronto
6 min

Bean there, dunked that

Test-driving java joints

THE LATTE FACTOR. Drinking one at every pit stop on Church St can get you noticed - or make you twitchy. Credit: Joshua Meles

In six minutes I can strut down Church St from Isabella to Granby, with said strut sending me past, count ’em, five corporate coffeehouses and two independents, all jockeying to java-jolt the likes of you and me.



Now, no one can jolt me like my boyfriend, a non-coffee drinker who still miraculously manages to whip up the best damn lattes I’ve ever had. With that as my benchmark, I tried a little latte at each house along Church St to determine who gets my pretty pennies the next time my guy tells me, “Get your own damn coffee, boy.”



**

Java Jive (585 Church St), $2.60



The coffee shop formerly known as PAMS, Java Jive scores points right away as an independent for a) not trying to be more than what they are and b) staring bravely into the ugly face of the corporate takeover of Church St. Java Jive’s got a full lunch menu, breakfast-y treats coming out the ying-yang, non-coffee drinks and hot/cold coffee specialities, with a couple of fancy options just to be au courant. The staff is the right side of chipper first thing in the morning. Walking by at any time reveals a winterized patio chock- a-block with regulars for whom Java jives – clearly they keep customers satisfied. My latte on this particular day doesn’t rock my world, but it’s still enjoyable. A “small” at Java Jive means exactly that. Three jolts out of five.



**

Lettieri (77 Wellesley), $3



On my way to Lettieri I see other coffee counters fairly bopping, but not this new bean on the tree. The Body Shop turned coffee stop opened in time for Pride, but when I’m there I’m the only customer. The polite lad behind the counter assures me they’re doing well, but as we chat I wonder if the “they couldn’t find a gay-savvy franchisee for this place so I’m running the joint” vibe will draw a queer village overwhelmed by established competition with lots of homo help.



At Lettieri you can get salads, soups, pizza, pasta, juice concoctions, smoothies, fruit tea freezes, organic teas and, of course, espresso drinks. If the latte I get wrapped with a cardboard protector warning, “Caution: hot beverage” is any indication, a hot drink isn’t on the list; the lukewarm brew is also more bitter than the Toronto cast of The Producers.



A friend suggested that instead of the sunken space that was The Body Shop’s, Lettieri should have built the floor up so that you sit at sidewalk level. I agree. Sitting low in the window where the peppermint foot lotion used to be kept is like being at the bottom of a fishbowl. People passing above staring in as I stare out doesn’t make for pretty coffee consumption. Two jolts out of five.



Country Style (501b Church St), $1.12*



Donut shop coffee is beloved by many, so I visited the walk-in closet Country Style shares with a frozen yoghurt franchise. There’s just the one table, so don’t plan on lounging. As for the seating outside Country Style – doesn’t it always seem to be permanently occupied by the same people? Here you’re getting basics with a capital B. They get as Euro as a cappuccino; lattes and other coffee concoctions are not on the menu. My double-double coffee was decent, but not superb – as their sign declares – leaving me to wonder why I see so many people carrying Country Style cups up and down Church St. Two jolts out of five.



**

Second Cup (546 Church St), $2.55



Fearful for my iPod and wallet, I’ve steered clear of the Second Cup since its arteries got clogged with snarly street kids. But entry to what was once “the place” on Church to grab a cuppa is pleasantly effortless. The staffer inside tells me the little buggers are now just an off and on issue. He also tells me it can take months to earn the smart title of Certified Coffee Specialist. I’m impressed that he is actually knowledgeable and not just decorated to enhance my coffee experience.



You can get sugar-shock sweets here that’d make Atkins fall and hit his head a second time, but Second Cup’s focus is on the coffee: three different decafs, nine exclusive blends, six light and medium roasts, four estate blends, 13 iced drinks and 10 European options, such as my small latte. How small it is – a to-go cup that must be the demitasse of the Styrofoam world. But I’ve always enjoyed the lattes at the Second Cup and once again they give good java: rich tasting, hot, with just the right amount of foam. Keep the kiddies away and clean up all the sticky littered tables and this Second Cup stands a chance at returning to its former glory. Three jolts out of five.



**

Starbucks (485 Church St), $2.80



As an anti-American, I avoid as best I can companies like Starbucks which smack of the good ol’ US Of A. So it’s been a while. Back when I was a Bay St finance guy, Starbucks was the example I’d use to explain to investors the profit-ability to be found in the “experience economy.” Starbucks’ success is based on more than coffee, espresso, frappucinos, desserts and juices. They offer communal living rooms with cozy leather chairs, folk music, mags and the dailies. Staff are all called baristas. You speak Starbuckese, not English here, where grande means medium, not large, and where tall means small. On-site marketing speaks of “living our values” and “commitment to origins.” If you’re interested in a job, it’s not just pouring coffee, it’s about “creating community” and “warmth.” But if you just want coffee, experiencing the Starbucks experience can be a grind.



Personal prejudices in mind, I made sure Starbucks got a shot at objectivity by arranging to meet a pal there who is a true devotee. Ryan loves Starbucks’ coffee and finds it admirably consistent. Alas, that afternoon I find my latte burnt-tasting and weak, like warm milk with a whisper of coffee flavour. Ryan is also big on the atmosphere created by the community of regulars at the Church St location. While it is nice to pop into a place where everybody knows your name, Starbucks tries too hard and inevitably brings out the cynic in me. Two and a half jolts out of five.



**

Timothy’s (500 Church St), $2.99



No doubt Timothy’s success is due in part to its location and its timing. Opening right when the Second Cup was falling prey to the aforementioned crack babies, Timothy’s was like a caffeinated bosom into which the coffee klatch community could seek shelter. Plus its territory on Church is kick-ass: grab a mug and sit at one of the many sheltered tables, on the long rows of steps or around the corner where the sun shines bright and hard.



Timothy’s has got it all going on inside: a full product line of coffee paraphernalia, hot coffee specialities, iced ones, custom blends, dark roasts and a carboholic’s dream of muffins, scones, loaves, cookies and squares – is my ass getting fat? Yep, they’re one of the corporates, but this location remains community-minded, sponsoring events and offering up wall-space to local artists. The staff is amazing. Any time I’ve ever gone in more than twice in a row, the chatty guy who works there remembers what I like, and holy cow did he and his fellow friendly female staffer ever do an entertaining yet efficient job handling a dude-tweaking- on-meth the morning I was there. The latte was just right, and as Timothy’s is also where many of the men’s men of Toronto hang, it’s like a gift with purchase that makes a coffee extra excellent. Four jolts out of five (but they lose a half jolt if they don’t hurry and re-cover the tatty upholstery on those wingbacks inside).



**

Bull Dog Coffee (89 Granby St), $3



Younger is sometimes better and such is the case with the baby of all our coffee shops. Bull Dog, another enthusiastic independent, is well worth the walk to Granby St. Round the corner off Church and before you’re even inside you’ve got planters overflowing, armloads of willow branches standing tall in silver metal buckets, a chalkboard menu promising to “satisfy your oral fixation” (not possible), and handmade benches and tables awaiting under the shade of trees. Can you say, “Fags in charge”? Bull Dog’s tasteful style is a comfortable relief from the uniformity of the corporate coffee scene. Inside the place is spotless, and can seat about a dozen people at tall cafĂ© tables. The menu is simple and streamlined. My latte is delicious and practically perfect. The usual suspects are also available: cappuccinos, teas and a small selection of treats like biscotti and Nanaimo bars. They also whip up authentic Italian ice cream sodas. Extra points for not going all rabid when I walked in with my dogs. The owner will compete in 2005 to become the country’s top barista, and then wants to dethrone the guy in Italy who currently holds the world title.



This adds up to make Bull Dog my first choice when I can’t con my boyfriend into hauling it to the kitchen first thing in the morning. Four and a half jolts out of five.