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Café culture in Riverdale

It’s easy to stay for more than a quick coffee in these bustling east-end shops

Mad Dog Café Credit: Adam Coish

I don’t drink coffee. I’ve tried it all sorts of ways: creamy, sweet, flavoured, mocha, fruity and even boozy (a particularly useless attempt since I don’t drink alcohol, either), but I still cannot fathom how anyone would choose to imbibe something so bitter and nasty. Then again, Joan Rivers still has a job, so what do I know? With the love of the bean forever eluding me, my assignment to profile Riverdale coffee shops seemed more than a little ironic. What on earth would I write about?

Well, for starters, the food. Given my home’s proximity to Starbucks and the Second Cup, I’ve become used to the requisite croissant, banana bread and muffin offerings that are both uninspiring and, generally, stale. Well, my non-caffeinated friends, we have been missing out on a whole new level of delicious when it comes to the fresh-baked goods available at some of these independent beaneries.

Mad Dog Café
I start out at the Mad Dog Café, located at the corner of Logan Avenue and Gerrard Street. This little jewel lies in a row of vintage storefronts that were the epitome of grime and decline until owner Johnson Yeh bought the building a few years ago. Now they’re cleaned up, with Yeh’s café a welcome haven on this lonely stretch of asphalt. “It was a dump when I bought it,” Yeh says, laughing. “I’ve always been handy, so I did pretty much all the renovating. There was a lot of work to be done, but it turned out pretty good.”

Better than good, I’d say. The café is bright and clean, with a wall of garage-door-style windows at the front that open up in warmer months. The colours are natural and neutral, with beautifully aged exposed brick and heritage floors. There are several customers nursing espresso and lattes as I read the menu board in search of some lunch. I’m sorely tempted by the heavenly smelling chili and the huge turkey baguette being devoured by a lad seated nearby, but I decide to order the Cobb salad, an unexpected find at a place catering to the coffee crowd.

I’m not disappointed. The lettuce is crisp and fresh, with perfectly ripened avocado, chopped egg, tender chicken breast and just the right amount of blue cheese. The dressing is light with a touch of tangy sweetness. For dessert, I snag one of the large butter tarts. The sheer size of the thing makes me think it might end up being one of those bready, heavy doorstops that look great but hit your stomach like a brick. Instead, it is feather-light and flakey, the kind of pastry you make by hand, with chilled butter, ice cubes, patient hands and the occasional act of god.

Yeh does the cooking himself, often leaving the front of house serving to a cast of, frankly, beautiful male and female staff. This may be where Abercrombie & Fitch models come to pay for college. Yeh and his workers clearly get on like a house on fire; they tease each other, and there’s a lot of smiling and laughing in the professional yet laid-back atmosphere. “I used to be in corporate work,” Yeh says. “It’s so very structured, but this is more fun. I really like cooking and being around people. Even with my staff, I’m not like a boss. We all work together.”

The switch from corporate to coffee life was quite dramatic for this Taiwanese-born Canadian. But Yeh grew up in the neighbourhood and food played an important role in his family, so he feels right at home behind the counter.

“My grandma would take me to the market,” he remembers. “She’d help out with the neighbours, and we spent so much time together cooking. They were very special times for me. And who knew you could make a living out of it?”

Mad Dog Café is located at 817 Gerrard St E.

The Rooster Coffee House
Snuggled in a cozy bend of Broadview just across from Riverdale Park, The Rooster is one of those cafés that always seem to be bustling. It’s packed to the rafters the afternoon I visit. Hipsters, students and young moms lounge in the comfy leather chairs or gather around the massive harvest table, slurping from steamy cups and chatting. Classic Canadian music plays overhead (Neil Young and Burton Cummings), and the staff is friendly and solicitous. I’m not rushed to a decision, despite the many people clamouring at the counter, and when I finally decide on a mug of hot chocolate, I am delighted to be asked if I’d like it with or without marshmallows. Just like mom used to make, but without the shame and vitriol.

I perch at a long, natural-timber counter and people-watch. It’s a snug little place, with lots of rustic, homey touches and a friendly neighbourhood atmosphere. The hot chocolate is perfect: rich, thick and frothy without being overly sweet. I nab a fresh-baked cookie on the way out and immediately return for one more. If oatmeal raisin had tasted like this when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have sucked back a metric ton of Oreos before adolescence.

The Rooster Coffee House is located at 479 Broadview Ave.

Riverdale Perk
My last stop is the Riverdale Perk, located smack dab in the middle of what appears to be mostly residential houses. Where the Mad Dog has its urban cool and The Rooster its rustic hominess, this place feels like a cozy old bookstore, with rich dark walls and a quiet ambiance. Still full from my lunch and hot chocolate, I order some lemon herbal tea while spying on my neighbours’ lunches. Expecting a standard tea bag floating in yellowed water, I am pleasantly surprised by the delicate sachet that arrives, cleverly looped around a wooden stir stick so it sits neatly in the hot water. The tea has a beautiful fragrance and a clean, strong lemon flavour that makes Celestial Seasons taste like bathwater in comparison.

I’m so enchanted by this attention to detail that I end up ordering the same soup as the university-student-type guy next to me. It’s an intriguing blend of butternut squash with spices that bring out the sweetness while adding a nice touch of heat.

The pastries are made on the premises, light as air and fragrant. I bite into a citrus confection, completing my lemon-filled trip with a healthy dose of cake and icing. The soups are also made in-house and feature exotic creations like parsnip, apple and cheddar or garbanzo beans and eggplant stew — the perfect light meal while reading or browsing the web.

Given its focus on family life, it’s not surprising that Riverdale’s cafés seem child- and even pet-friendly. There’s certainly a less-hurried vibe to these places, with nary a raised eyebrow at customers who linger over a single coffee while indulging in free WiFi. Something to think about the next time you’re being circled by table vultures at Starbucks.

Riverdale Perk is located at 633 Logan Ave.