Made from Arabica and Robusta beans, espresso is usually a dark roast ground up finely, although lighter roasts are used according to taste. About 40 coffee beans are used to make this sensuous black liquid, and because of its diminutive size (1.5 ounces), it contains about a third of the amount of caffeine as regular coffee. An Italian inventor, Luigi Bezzera, came up with the very first espresso machine by the start of the 20th Century. Many innovations have been made during the ensuing decades, but espresso is almost always made using a blend of coffee beans the Italians call miscela.
To make espresso, pressurized hot water is forced through the beans to make what many consider to be one of the finest coffee extraction methods. The pressure is nine bar, or nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level, and the water is heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, espresso should have subdued acidity, and be heavy bodied but sweet enough to balance out the bitter and acidic elements, although there is a little latitude in the blending process. With the invention of more compact and inexpensive models in the late 1970s, home-based espresso making proliferated and became more popular.
If you prefer the café experience however, Toronto has a variety of fantastic espresso bars to its credit. We've chosen five we feel are the very best across the city.
CAPITAL ESPRESSO (1349 Queen St. W.)
Celebrating its fifth year in business, this Parkdale staple is a welcome café getaway from the travails of life. The La Marzocco espresso machine that lies beyond the all glass façade of the old Vice magazine office on Queen St. W. dispenses espresso made from beans from the Origins Coffee Co., a roaster based out of Granville Island on the west coast. The co-owner, Damien Zielinski, won the 2014 Brewers' Cup Competition, so you know you're in good hands with him and his knowledgeable staff.
The exposed brick, ample harvest tables and hardwood floors add to its appeal, while the white walls and hanging pot lights make it bright and airy. Like a good wee dram of Scotch, we like drinking our espresso neat, with no additives or fillers. The espresso here is quite excellent, and well worth the $2.25. Aside from showcasing the work of local artists, there is also a zine vending machine, selling local art. They're open from 7am to 8pm weekdays, 8am to 8pm on Saturday, and 8am to 6pm on Sundays. Sharon E. from Toronto raves: "Really good cappuccinos—their espresso blend is strong and balanced." Sean Shapcott, also from Hogtown, echoes her sentiments. "Best latte and carrot muffin in Toronto."
EARLY BIRD ESPRESSO AND BREW BAR (613 Queen W.)
Shiori M. from Toronto is effusive in her praise for the espresso at Early Bird Espresso and Brew Bar. "Amazing! One of the best cortados [a blend of espresso and steamed milk, popular in Spain] I've had in the city. Perfect balance of coffee and milk, no bitter or sourness here, just straight up goodness. The cappuccinos were also quite lovely....."
Open from 7am to 7pm daily (8am on weekends), this lively Queen St. W. location, owned by Bani Taghaboni and Farshid Sahami, is the perfect spot to "work from home" or to start that book you've been putting off reading. There is also an outdoor patio upstairs, great for the nice weather. An enormous chalk board, exposed brick walls and roughhewn wood comprise the bar area, with several metal stools to sit at the bar. Across from it, a plain white wall offsets the relative dark hues of the bar area. Local art and a neon sign that spells out "early bird" with a large exclamation point punctuates this plainness. A good half dozen or so tables and chairs stretch out to the front picture window, which opens right up in the warmer weather. Not a good idea this time of year, even with a hot espresso.....brrrrrrrrrrrrr! Overall, Rachel Grierson from Toronto was impressed with the Early Bird. "Great little spot, cappuccino was perfect, Wi-Fi worked, enough seating for everyone....can't ask for anything else."
JIMMY'S COFFEE (107 Portland St.)
The chalkboard sign outside Jimmy's with a chalk figure drawn in winter gear and the byline "toque weather" says it all about this time of year in Canada. What better way to get warm than with an espresso from their imposing looking Nuovo Simonelli machine? Just off King St. and a few strides north on Portland, the tasteful wooden sign with gold lettering beckons you in from the cold into this converted Victorian era townhome. Since 2009, it has been a popular café, and owner Phil Morrison and his staff can take great pride in their accomplishment. It is open from 7am to 8pm through the week and Sunday, and 7am to 6pm on Saturday. There are two other locations at Kensington Market and on Gerrard St. W.
The ample pictures of various Jimmys (Hoffa, Stewart, Hendrix, etc.) adorn the walls, and the thick planked wooden floors provide a rustic feel. Despite a long line-up, the staff was engaging and friendly. One of the baristas, Sarah, went out of her way to take orders from people in line so the wait didn’t feel all that long. What great service! A gigantic wall painting of Jimmy Hoffa in the back room is colourful and quite well done. It provides an interesting view while drinking your espresso, made from beans from Vaughn’s Classic Gourmet Coffee. Miam M. from Toronto likes how Jimmy's executes everything from the espresso drinks to the baked goods, and proclaims "the best Americano [a blend of espresso and hot water] I've had is from Jimmy's."
TANGO PALACE COFFEE CO. (1156 Queen St. E.)
Facebook page: facebook.com/pages/Tango-Palace
This Leslieville staple has been around for over 20 years, and this establishment, owned by Jeff Marsh, never fails to impress. Ensconced in the art district beside Leslie Grove Park, the outside is evocative of a general store from yesteryear, with its awning and large picture windows. In the nice weather, there's a patio out back and several Muskoka chairs out front to relax and enjoy your espresso.
Inside, this cafe's exposed brick, hardwood floors and dark copper ceiling make it a little dark, but the lighting and the varied work by local artists counteracts this and gives off the feeling of home. The bar with the brass railing and the mirror behind it is reminiscent of an old-time pub, but instead of spirits, espresso and other coffee drinks are on tap when you saunter up to the counter. It is certainly a nice touch. Hale Roasters, a local micro-roaster, provides them with the beans for their espresso, and it is incomparable in its freshness and complexity. Isabel M. from Toronto calls it the best café in Toronto; "They do the best espresso/Americano I have ever had outside of Tuscany!!!"
THOR ESPRESSO BAR (35 Bathurst St.)
You don't need to be hit over the head with a ... well, you know ... to realize Thor Espresso Bar has some excellent espresso, and espresso based beverages. Located on the SW edge of the King West/Fashion District at Bathurst and Niagara, it is known locally as NoLa (north of Lakeshore on Bathurst). Their high quality beans come from a partnership with local roaster, Pilot Coffee Roasters. It lays claim to having Toronto's only Slayer Espresso Machine, a beautifully unique $16,000 creation. The espresso is of the finest quality and really quite delicious.
Thor Espresso Bar is open from 7am to 6pm through the week, 8am to 6pm on Saturday, and 9am to 5pm Sundays. This small space, located at street level in the ZED LOFT building, delivers an exceptional café experience for your senses as well as your palette. Paula Desjardins, the chief concierge at the Thompson Hotel, calls their cappuccinos "divine," while Jeff L. from Toronto is even more adamant in his praise: "One of the best coffee joints in Toronto. Grab an Americano—you won't be disappointed."
Jet Fuel Cafe
Of course, if you want to find me almost every morning, and you relish abuse with some fun, and a great community vibe, drop in to the Jet-Fuel Cafe' at 519 Parliament Street. There is always lots of bikers, (the non-motorized kind) and walls filled with Art. It is a staple in my life and an acquired habit that is hard to break.
View from Jet Fuel Cafe, photo by Anna K.
Jet Fuel Art by Slavisa M.
This good old-fashioned artsy cafe is a true Cabbagetown heritage. It's been opened in 1992 and serving great coffee with a side of rock'n'roll since then. It might seem a bit chaotic at first sight, but it's a true place for regulars. It's like Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name!