Downtown Bureau

Hamilton's Café Scene Heats Up

I've noticed a common thread about cities that have thriving, vibrant downtown cores - an amazing café scene. It will vary from city to city, but I've yet to find a "cool" city without great coffee.

By Jason Leach
Published January 14, 2005

By no means am I a world traveler, but I've been all through Canada and the U.S. and have taken many 'virtual tours' of Europe while sitting in front of my iMac. During my travels, both real and virtual, I've noticed a common thread about cities that have thriving, vibrant downtown cores - an amazing café scene. This scene will vary from city to city depending on the clientele, but I've yet to find a "cool" city without great coffee.

Hamilton is home to Timmy's, that wonderfully cheap cup of joe that thousands of Canadians pour down their throats every day. Unfortunately, Tim's isn't the coolest place in town to relax on a Friday night (I've always wondered why they don't develop some 'urban, artsy cafes' in downtowns across the country).

In fact, until recently there weren't many hip cafes in Hamilton. Of course, I realize that my definition of cool will be different than the next guy's, but hey, I'm the one writing this.

There are many signs that downtown Hamilton is in the early stages of a full-blown revitalization and one of the strongest is its new and improved café scene. We've all heard a lot about the many loft and condo projects underway downtown, but rarely do we hear about the spinoff effect that all these new residents are having in the form of new restaurants and cafes. (Restaurants in the core are a topic for another day, but believe me, that industry is rolling along just fine, thanks.)

By no means do I promise to mention every café in this article, rather, here is a quick sampling of my favourites.

Bad Dog café, Locke Street South

http://www.baddogcafe.ca/

Can anyone say 'atmosphere'? This place has it. Cool tunes, great food, comfy wicker furniture and exposed brick and wooden beams. There's even an attached art studio with many samplings hung in the café. And of course, the main attraction – the coffee.

My tastebuds have changed incredibly since discovering the world of fair-trade, organic coffee a few years ago at The Staircase (more to come shortly). To put it simply, I've found real coffee. No more of the chemically processed stuff that most chains sell – this is without a doubt the best coffee around. And thankfully it's becoming very popular in Hamilton.

One complaint about the Bad Dog: the hours. No evenings or Mondays, but very popular during the day and on weekends.

The Staircase café and Theatre, Dundurn Street North

http://www.staircase.org/

Cool, cool, cool. This place is amazing. They've transformed an old hydro-electric station into one of the best cafes you'll ever see. Several hundred art and entertainment events take place here each year and the menu is very reasonable and very healthy (and tasty!). Again, fair-trade is the coffee of choice and it's wonderful.

The Sweetwater café, Dundurn Street South

Recently renovated, this café is very relaxing and inviting with smooth tunes and many community events. Again, a unique and satisfying menu with fair-trade coffee. In fact, in the world of fair-trade blends and brands, these guys have some of the best you'll ever taste. Now if we could only get some trendy lofts in the old warehouse next door.

Infusions, Gore Park

These guys 'upped' the ante several years ago when they opened this New York style café right across from the Gore Park fountain. I had an architect friend from New York visiting recently and he was very impressed with this place. No fair-trade, but a great menu with awesome sandwiches and chilli! Yes, chilli. The Irish Cream coffee is heavenly and the place is always hopping late into the night, every day of the week.

The Junction café and Lounge, King William and Ferguson

http://www.thejunctioncafe.ca/

One of the best restaurants and cafes you'll find in any city anywhere. This old railway switching station has been masterfully transformed into one of Hamilton's dining treasures. Live jazz takes place in the upstairs lounge on weekends and the menu is like none you've ever seen. It's gets even better when the food comes out. Along with live jazz, there are monthly literary events. Info can be found at http://www.lit-electric.com/.

The Bean Bar, Westdale Village

http://www.beanbar.ca/

Another Hamilton treasure. Amazing desserts, great coffee and of course, that cool vibe. The Bean Bar has become a heavyweight in the Hamilton café scene and continues to be a local fave. Live jazz some weekends.

The Second Cup, Westdale Village

I know, I know. How can a bland chain operation like the Second Cup be included in a list of our city's coolest urban cafes? Quite simply, this location sheds the cookie-cutter feeling that hundreds of Starbucks and Second Cup locations in North America have perfected and does its own thing. Local artwork hangs on the walls. There are frequent music and literary events and a wonderful street patio complete with a full-wall mural. Other chain operations could take a cue from this place (being near a major university helps) and spruce up their vibe.

As someone once said, "As the coffee goes, so goes the city." If Hamilton's burgeoning café scene is any indication, we are heading in the right direction. The next time you're craving a night on the town, be a part of the cool vibe taking root in the heart of the city and make one of these hotspots a part of your plans. You won't be disappointed and you just might find your favourite new hangout.

As for me, it's time to grab a cup of coffee.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.

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By acid (registered) | Posted None at

As a lover of coffee,I had no idea Hamilton had that many quality coffee houses. Good work.

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By ranallig (registered) | Posted None at

Jason, Notably absent in your item on cafes was the Locke Street Bakery. This spot boasts a great location, terrific bagels baked fresh daily and other treats with their coffee. It is quite a good hang-out for people-watching on a nice warm Saturday morning. My only complaint is that they do not carry even one pot of Fair Trade coffee and have so far resisted our requests to do so (I am a member of St. Joseph's Church Social Justice Committee and we try to promote the use of Fair Trade products in the community or at least offer some in addition to the regular line. To their credit, even Fortino's now carries some Fair Trade product on their shelves). Grant Ranalli Hamilton

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By jasonleach (anonymous) | Posted None at

As mentioned, the article was meant to be a sampling of my favourites, not a comprehensive list. In fact, I stop at LSB about 3-5 times a week! And FYI, they do carry fair trade coffee on the weekends now (so I've been told). I'm thinking of doing a follow up story with some of my other faves....and some new cafes that have just opened or are coming soon. But you're right, Locke Street Bakery is a Hamilton hotspot... Jason

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By mrmusic4ads (registered) - website | Posted None at

A well written article Mr. Leach... I'll keep these places in mind looking for a good cup o'jo. - http://www.adsmedia.ca

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By Weaver (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2008 at 09:31:42

Global Village Market in Westdale is also a fantastic place to go for fair trade coffee (and chocolate, tea...). It also sells fair trade products like bags, tablecloths, and music from all over the world. They always have fresh baked goodies and great staff!

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