Articles abound for tourists and residents alike about how to experience Toronto like a local. What many of these miss is that each neighbourhood has it's own quirks and you really need to venture far off the busy streets to find the hidden gems. Riverdale, and its coffee scene, is no different.
There are undoubtedly many cafes to visit along well-known avenues such as Danforth and Queen East, and many of these spots have also been written up in all sorts of neighbourhood guides for years. But if you're actually looking for a good place to work, relax, and sip some splendid coffee from independent businesses, you'll have to look further than merely the Insta-famous hotspots. Riverdale itself is not a coffee mecca, nor has it ever pretended to be. If Riverdale is anything, it's real. Locals aren't interested in the newest latte fad or any sort of BlogTO hipster trend that graces any number of visitor guides or fleeting social media explosions. What we want is solid coffee, good, friendly people, and a chilled place to read a book or work on an essay. Of course, it never hurts to have an Instagram-ready aesthetic either!
Chances are that if you're familiar with the east end, you will have heard of our favourites already. If not, get ready to be let in on a local secret. Picking from the offerings in Riverdale is not exactly an easy thing to do, but the fact that we aren't over-saturated with identical types of cafes is actually what gives us an edge. While there are some similarities to west end, downtown and uptown cousins, Riverdale's cafes have something unique that just oozes both the comfortable, laid-back attitude of local residents and the constant aim to give people the best experiences (and coffee!) possible, even east of the Don Valley.
Scattered throughout the neighbourhood are Rooster Coffee House on Broadview, Hailed Coffee on Gerrard, and Riverdale Perk Cafe on Logan. Needless to say, there are even more small shops around but these three really seem to encapsulate exactly what makes Riverdale so unique and so beloved.
Rooster Coffee House
This is possibly the more recognizable name on the list, partly due to it's more central sister shops on King East and Jarvis. It's also the only coffee shop with an overlooking view of Riverdale Park, and the downtown core on a clear day. Opened in 2009, the flagship location still boasts a bustling crowd of regulars and visitors alike, and you'll be lucky to catch a free table in the gorgeous summer patio season because there is no other shop on Broadview Avenue with a view like this. In fact, there are no other cafes on this stretch of Broadview at all which makes Rooster not only a hot commodity for java addicts but a busy meeting place for locals of all kinds: parents with kids, young 20-somethings, grandmothers, business people, and everyone else in between. It's no surprise that locals flock to Rooster in great numbers. Ample seating inside and out—including a large table for working groups and huge armchairs for those who are staying a while—accommodate everyone easily. And there are plenty of tables to prop up a laptop or newspaper, all in the vintage-meets-class vibe.
With an expansive coffee bar and spread of all sorts of delectable baked goods, everyone at Rooster looks like they genuinely enjoy what they do. The vibe is immediately welcoming and the whole space is energized but without that overwhelming buzz of fakeness that can come with some coffee shop experiences. The staff know their beans, and can make anything you throw at them. So, it's not just the great location that has led Rooster to success; it's also the love for the roasting and brewing craft, and the owners' sincere love for the neighbourhood and its people.
And why wouldn't they have love for Riverdale? As owner Shawn Andrews says, "Riverdale is our home." Not only does she and co-owner Dave live just next door, most of the staff is within walking distance as well and it shows.
We all need a soft place to land once in a while and this neighbourhood has embraced that feeling which we have been able to bring forward to our other shops too.
Keeping it close to home, all the fresh, daily-made baked goods and foods are from Toronto chefs and bakers, like partner Village Juicery who provides Rooster with "organic, cold pressed juices and elixirs along with organic plant-based salad boxes to balance out the brownie-stuffed cookie binges!" Whether you're after something healthy or something to satiate that sweet tooth, Rooster has anything you could want to go accompany a coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or juice.
Most of all however, the focus is the coffee. In partnership with Toronto-based Pilot Coffee Roasters, Andrews is extremely proud of Rooster's specialty grade beans and the direct trade model—and the alternatives to the usual caffeinated drinks.
We are very proud of the quality of our coffees. We have a unique partnership with Pilot Coffee Roasters which has us going on origin trips to meet the farmers that produce our incredible coffees that create our signature Rooster blends. When you are just coffee’d out and in need of a healthy boost we created our turmeric "latte" using all organic turmeric, ginger, Himalayan sea salt and cracked pepper which you can have with any of our 5 milk alternatives.
And speaking of signature blends, they're available for take-home purchase as well.
When speaking with Andrews, it's hard to imagine Rooster beginning anywhere else because everything she holds dear about the cafe is the same stuff that makes Riverdale itself so charming. The idea to treat people with "down-home human kindness" really comes through in the absolute care put into every drink. It's not just one of many Toronto neighbourhood's to Rooster's owners, staff, and patrons.
What Riverdale means to us is a small town in a big city. Where only minutes from the electric energy of the down town core, you'll find kids playing ball hockey on the streets—"CAR!"—and neighbours sharing a glass of wine across their porches. It's really a tight and warm community.
The newest coffee shop on our list, Hailed Coffee on Gerrard Street East, may not be the first place you'd think to find a Western and Middle Eastern fusion cafe. But it's here and it's the perfect blend of diversity that Riverdale is known for. Just a few doors down from the corner of Logan and Gerrard, Hailed draws on the modernist aesthetic that asks a visitor to focus first and foremost on the coffee. That isn't to say that it's a blank slate; the bright and white walls give off a feeling of freshness and are complimented by a local photographer's exhibit—which currently is Steven Evans eye-catching industrial offerings. This lightness is a necessity in contrast to the sometimes dreary storefronts of Hailed's neighbouring businesses, effectively making Hailed a bright haven in an otherwise nondescript row of old East Chinatown shops.
And while many may not think of that intersection as a particularly buzz-worthy space to grab a cup of morning joe, it has a constant flow of happy patrons and plenty of seating to accommodate someone looking to do some work or a parent bringing some kids around for a bite. It's quickly become one of the best and most popular parts of the more westerly strip of Gerrard East with residents.
It's specifically this dedication to its Arabic roots that puts Hailed one step above many other places in the area. While you can pick up a regular latte or flat white, the flavourful twist of cardamom is what becomes the "must try" of any visit. It's so important to the cafe, in fact, that many may be surprised to learn that "hailed" translates to "cardamom"!
General Manager Marjorie McCallum is most proud of this aspect of their shop and vision.
That is our specialty, everything cardamom! An ancient pairing in Arabia in the version of Arabic coffee, infusing espresso beverages with our signature Hailed shot is our signature touch. Try "Hailing" your favourite beverage to get a feel for how this ancient pairing translates into a perfectly prepared cup.
It's one of only a few cafes in Toronto that provides authentic Arabic coffee, as well as a huge selection of pastries and biscuits, many of which employ the ubiquitous flavours of dates, also a staple of the Middle East and perfectly baked to pair with any number of signature drinks at Hailed. These are not imported treats but carefully crafted locally and with attention to the perfect balance and blend of sweet, spice, and savoury. If dates without all the gluten are more your thing, there is a nice range of unique date varieties to sample.
This corner of Riverdale is, according to McCallum (and many others), "a truly unique spot in the city." Her suggestion to getting the most out of a visit to the east end, and Hailed specifically is to "grab a couple friends, get a dallah (pot) of Arabic coffee, enjoy it with complimentary dates and sit back and enjoy the beautiful Steven Evans art exhibit on display until December!" Hailed is more than a cafe; it's a rare experience in Toronto overall.
Like everything else in the Riverdale neighbourhood, community is the most important aspect of life here. After hunting for a long time for the perfect locale, Hailed chose the area for many reasons that locals can attest to.
Riverdale is a rich, vibrant community in Toronto that has historical depth and a warm communal feel. We know our customers and their kids. We love to make them their coffee while we catch up on latest news.
This sense of belonging can happen anywhere but it particularly pronounced in diverse, residential neighbourhoods such as this. Locals already know the secret, and the rest of Toronto has yet to fully catch up on how attractive it really is, but Hailed has got in on the ground floor.
That is what our dream cafe is: a warm, welcoming hub in the heart of a loving community and it makes what we do all worthwhile.
Riverdale Perk Cafe
The oldest coffee shop on our list, and possibly one of the first genuine cafes in Riverdale proper, Riverdale Perk Cafe is tucked away on a tree-lined corner of Logan and Withrow, amongst old Toronto homes and just steps from the sprawling Withrow Park. Unless you know where to look, you may miss it altogether because it's not the sort of place that is known to outsiders. While almost a secret to most of Toronto, it's incredibly popular with locals, especially nearby residents. So much so that you're lucky to find a seat at peak lunch times since unlike many coffee shops in the area, it serves up a full menu of soups, sandwiches, hot and cold plates.
Adorned with a cosy yet glamorous sort of ambience, there are sofas, armchairs, tables and chairs to choose from depending on your preference. Outside is an umbrella-lined patio perfect for taking in the occasional passerby or spend an hour dog-watching as the pups make their way to the large dog park just north of the cafe. Or bring your dog along as well! Riverdale loves dogs.
It's a small shop comparatively, but fits with the overall vibe of being hidden in plain sight—if you know where to look, that is. Staffed in mornings with one highly-attentive barista, often owner and chef Danielle Quayle, it's exactly what you'd expect to find in the neighbourhood: coffee with personality and a sweets selection, showcased like jewels to water any appetite. For the best selection of local baked goods to choose from, arrive early in the day or you're likely to be beaten to the delicious punch by those in the know.
Riverdale Perk is truly an example of a "locals only" affair but not out of any sense of snobbery or exclusivity; it's merely a fact of life when you're not located on a busy street in Toronto, and it's something that adds to the warm community feeling. It doesn't matter if it's your first or 30th time stepping through the door, you're welcomed as if you've been there forever. There are no bustling, angry caffeine hounds on their impatient hunt but just a quaint, yet classy, sense of having a sit in a friend's living room. You'll hear conversations all around, friends sharing stories or the gentle clacking of a laptop as someone plugs away on an email.
It is the sort of place that tourists search for: an authentic experience of a local neighbourhood.*
But that's sort of the feel of Riverdale overall. Each one of these cafes is expressly unique with experiences widely different from each other yet all are inherently Riverdale—which itself may actually be the definition of the neighbourhood. All sorts of people come together to relax, live, and enjoy life. Whether it's stopping by for a cappuccino and the vista of Toronto at Rooster, taking a much-needed break to savour ancient flavour combinations at Hailed, or grabbing a bite to eat and a brew at hole-in-the-wall Riverdale Perk, this neighbourhood is all about connection with others, no matter who you are or where you're from. One of Riverdale's greatest strengths has always been it's acceptance of vastly different people and cultures, all coexisting in respect and appreciation of one another.
We know where to go, and we know how to support our own. While a visitor may be tempted to play it safe by visiting always-popular Riverside or Leslieville for a latte, or would rather stick close to the subway line on Danforth, you'd really be missing out on the true experience of one of Toronto's best and most welcoming neighbourhoods. Give one of these independent cafes off the beaten path a try instead. Chances are good that you'll be won over by the east side.
* Vivian has approached Danielle from Riverdale Perk with questions about the coffee shop, but hasn't received any response. We decided to publish the article without quotes after all considering Riverdale Perk is indeed a neighbourhood staple, but we were sorry not to hear back from the coffee shop.
Meet the photographer: VIVIAN LYNCH
Vivian is a photographer, surfer, travel junkie, and fungi enthusiast living in Toronto and capturing life in all its many forms. After living abroad and graduating in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto, she decided to combine her love of the natural world and appreciation of culture with her life-long passion for photography. On her days off you can find Vivian hiking with her dogs, and during the night, she's shooting live music in dark clubs. Find out more at vivianlynch.com