Cafe Cities of the World – Vancouver

Nestled in the lee of the majestic snow-capped Coast mountain ranges, Vancouver is a stunning city.  it’s situated on a scenic harbour, protected from the harsh elements of the Pacific ocean by Vancouver Island, just offshore. Its location ensures a relatively temperate climate (although it will rain anytime of the year and frequently does) and one which Vancouverites enjoy in their myriad year-round outdoor activities; cycling, skiing, boating and hiking, just to name a few.

This love of the environment is also reflected in Vancouver’s drive to become the ‘World’s Greenest City’ by 2020; it already boasts the smallest carbon footprint of any city in North America and is leading the way with new ideas in green building, planning and technology.

But the region hasn’t always enjoyed such enlightened thinking, with a history steeped in fur trading, gold mining and sawmilling, its pioneering people oversaw the steady deterioration of its natural resources for much of the 19th century. But that’s history and today, for the visitor, it’s an excellent city to explore by foot, with a user-friendly metro system and plenty of walk and cycle-ways to keep the cars at bay as you enjoy the crisp air and beautiful surroundings.

Vancouver is also recognised as one of the world’s most liveable cities; cosmopolitan and sophisticated, it has an excellent array of restaurants, bars, galleries and shopping to keep you sated. Although home to a modest 2 million people, it has a ‘big city’ feel with a surprising density of high-rise apartments downtown and a diversity of ‘neighbourhoods’ as you venture out from the downtown area.

And of course, urban exploration was exactly what we had in mind. We already knew that Vancouver was home to Canadian barista champions both past and present, but how deep was the vein of serious coffee-culture in this city, and how often would we find it coming to the surface? As we began to plan our cafe-crawl itinerary, we pondered on our hypothesis that cafe life reflects the life of the city – what would we find in this multi-faceted jewel?


Our first destination was Cafe Medina, located in a refurbished heritage building on Beatty Street, at the edge of the Downtown precinct. Vancouverites love to ‘do brunch’ and it’s not uncommon to see a queue of people happily chatting outside as they wait for a table to continue their conversation inside. Cafe Medina is a foody destination and a definite favourite with the brunching locals from the nearby condo apartments. Once inside, the decor is stylish with warm lighting setting a relaxed and cosy atmosphere. The menu is eclectic with Belgian waffles and middle eastern inspired bistro- fare to tempt you; we had the poached eggs with spicy Moroccan meatballs and hummus served on grilled foccaccia, which was to die for. We were pleasantly, but not entirely, surprised to learn that there was an Australian behind the espresso machine as we moved on to sample the coffee. Choosing to pass on their signature ‘lavender infused latte’ we enjoyed a smooth medium bodied, organic blend espresso, custom roasted by local roasting house 49th Parallel.
This is a great cafe experience which reflects the stylish and urbane side of downtown Vancouver but be prepared to queue; it’s all part of the experience and well worth the wait.

Feeling the need to walk off our indulgent brunch we headed over to Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest and most historic neighbourhood. In 1867, an enterprising Englishman by the name of Jack ‘Gassy’ Deighton rowed his boat into the strait between Vancouver island and the mainland with his wife, dog and a barrel of whiskey onboard. He knew the nearest drink for the sawmill workers was 20km away and so announced that if they helped him build a tavern, the drinks were on him! Within 24 hours the ‘Globe Saloon’ was built and in business. It wasn’t long before a village surrounded the saloon and the name ‘Gastown’ was given to the settlement in honour of its publican. This settlement went on to become the town of Granville and is the area where modern day Vancouver was born. With its cobbled streets, heritage buildings and of course a good smattering of bars, Gastown still harbours a somewhat seedy underbelly, but is also a magnet for visitors with shops and restaurants aplenty.

One wine bar that took our fancy, and one that we were to return to that evening, was Salt Tasting Rooms’. Obscured from view, half way down the perilously named Blood Alley, its minimalist brick and polished-concrete interior belies its decadent dedication to the pairing of wine and cheese. Make your own selections from the huge handwritten whiteboard or have one of the uber cool charcuterist /somelliers select the pairings for you;  heaven on a tasting plate!

Next day we set out early to discover the Commercial Drive precinct. Renowned as the city’s melting pot of immigrant and cultural diversity, it’s the neighbourhood of choice for many student, gay and otherwise hip bohemian Vancouverites. The first cafe to capture our attention was JJ Bean, an indie-style cafe chain with a long queue of caffeine-needy folk patiently lined up inside, out the door and onto the sidewalk for their morning takeaway. Two grunge-beanie baristas were working two 4-group machines flat out to keep the queue moving. Finding a seat inside, we decided to wait out the morning rush, enjoy the aromas and take in the warmth of the timber beamed interior.  JJ Bean is a locally born stable of 10 coffee houses, roasting 6 days a week out of their micro-roastery in East Vancouver. We know we’re in a good spot as we sit at a wooden bar surrounding  a vintage Jabez-Burns four-barrel sample roaster, taking an understated pride of place in the centre of the cafe. Once the rush has passed and the baristas have taken a breather, we order a couple of piccolo latte’s – the locals call them a macchiato – the coffee is full-bodied and sweet with a lively finish on the palate. We find out it’s one of JJ’s signature espresso blends of El Salvador Santa Rita, Panama Boquete Classico & El Salvador Organic Las Marias .. no wonder it’s a favourite with the locals.
As we continue to stroll along Commercial Drive we pass many old-style European cafes with elder gentlemen seated outside chatting and passing the time of day, traditional delicatessens and fresh fruiterers set amongst the restaurants, bakeries, vintage clothing and natural food stores. It’s an engaging visual potpourri with an array of aromas and flavours to match.

Further along, on the corner of the Drive and E 4th is Prado Cafe. With its floor to ceiling windows, it’s a great place to watch the passing parade. The interior is minimalist with wooden tables and metal chairs; perhaps, we think, in an effort to showcase the gleaming white La Marzocco on the counter. The coffee at Prado is again by 49th Parallel and is a medium bodied roast with a slightly floral flavour and a clean aftertaste. As we chat, comfortably seated at the window, we realise we’re the only ones not immersed in an ipad or mac laptop! An interesting counterpoint to the customers at JJ Bean’s just up the road, Prado’s definitely seems to attract a different clientele; further credence to the cultural diversity that is Commercial Drive.

And so, off to Granville Island, as we headed back on the metro then hopped aboard an Aquabus Ferry to take us across the water. Reminiscent of a sideshow bumper-car, these mini-boats putt happily around the harbour, ferrying their passengers and astutely avoiding each other at the sometimes congested wharfs; stopping, turning and reversing on the proverbial dime. Granville Island is a fabulously buzzy destination with fresh food markets, restaurants, craft studios and artisan boutiques, buskers and jugglers all mixed together on a peninsular of land looking back over the city and mountain ranges. With elegant yachts bobbing languidly at their moorings below, it’s an easy place to settle in and enjoy a long lunch and a few glasses of wine before deciding where to go for dinner!

Just to the south of Granville Island is the neighbourhood of Kitsilano, a funky fusion of light commercial, residential and upmarket retail, not unlike Sydney’s Alexandria. This is a cafe hothouse nurturing a number of new espresso bars. Whilst we had experienced excellent coffee offerings so far, we were excited by the prospect of visiting some of the ‘new-kids-on-the-block’ and seeing what they were doing. But that would have to wait until tomorrow, as we were still kicking back with our glasses of wine on Granville Island, watching the boats and still deciding where to go for dinner!

Feeling the need to freshen up on the way back to our hotel, we just had time to stop off at Caffe Artigiano on West Hastings Street, a short 5 minute stroll from our downtown hotel. An iconic Vancouver coffee destination since 2000, Caffe Artigiano has been instrumental in setting the standards for coffee connoisseurs in Vancouver.  With, as its name would suggest, a distinctly Italian-style, it now has a number of stores across town which offer espresso blends as well selected single origins; in fact it’s almost become a ‘chain’ in its own right. Now coffee has come a long way from the days of Italian supremacy with the ‘waves’ of espresso culture showing us just how amazing and delicate coffee can be. Having been spoilt as we are in Australia, we found the dark italian-style roast at Caffe Artigiano a little disappointing, but for no other reason than to experience where popular coffee culture really began in Vancouver, it’s worth a visit.

Next day, back in the heart of Kitsilano, we made our way along W 4th Avenue to sample first- hand the coffee by 49th Parallel. This local coffee roastery is somewhat ubiquitous in Vancouver with a large part of their business going toward custom roasting for Vancouver’s cafes and restaurants. Its own flagship cafe, resplendent in the trademark pale blue hues of the label, is a shrine to all things coffee. With a stunning Mirage on the bench and a line-up of siphons at the back of the counter, this it’s almost an espresso bar ‘supermarket’, with various brewing methods on offer and you can choose from a menu of in-season blends and single origins. We chose their iconic ‘Epic’ espresso blend and it was a great way to start the day with a strong fruity sweetness and great body, there were also tones of caramel with a lasting aftertaste. 49th Parallel strive to set the bar higher for the coffee consumer in Vancouver and will continue to pave the way.

Feeling like we were beginning to shake off the excesses of the night before, we then headed back toward the Granville Bridge, making our next stop at Elysian Coffee on W 5th Ave. Just back from the corner of busy Burrard street, it’s a simple espresso bar with a few tables and chairs both inside and out and a glass cabinet filled with tasty treats. Serving the Black Cat Espresso Blend by US based Intelligensia; the coffee was full-bodied, sweet, with a warm chocolatey finish.

Intelligensia seem to be making a move on Vancouver as we heard of two other cafes, Wicked and Cafe Bica, which had also recently opened up in the area using the US coffee. We unfortunately  didn’t make it to Wicked but Cafe Bica, in the “Armoury District’ of Kitsilano – the name given to the area in deference to Seaforth Armoury [one of Vancouver's many landmark buildings] – seemed like a good place to stop by for another shot.

Cafe Bica, on Fir street, near the corner of W 2nd Ave,  is very much in the centre of an emergent nucleus for designers, architects and upmarket interior design retailers, just west over the bridge from Granville Island.  And with its sleek interior decor and modern cafe fare, it seemed very much in keeping with its style-conscious surrounds. The coffee at Bica, whilst not as good as Elysian, was still well-made with the same smooth mouth-feel and chocolate finish.

Not far away, to the east of the bridge was the curiously named Innocent Coffee. As we approached the prim coffee house standing alone on the perimeter of a semi commercial carpark right next to the roadway, I began to consider the irony of the name. Any thoughts of a paradox were melted away as we entered the compact, white, aesthetically calming interior. This is a temple to boutique coffee (and pastries and the iPad) – brother and sister duo,  pastry chef Jerome and barista Yawei, bring a unique psyche to the Vancouver coffee scene. You don’t ‘hang out’ here; apart from the fact that there’s precious little space, this is a place simply and innocently planned for the coffee (and pastry) to go.  All the synonyms to the word ‘innocent’ came flooding to me -  pristine, impeccable, immaculate – I sooo hoped the coffee would emulate all of these adjectives. With coffee from local artisan roaster “Origins Organic Coffee” (actually just over the bridge on Granville Island), we were treated to a Fazenda Samambaia Yellow Bourbon, Peaberry blend from the Minas Gerais region of Brazil – with its creamy mouthfeel and dark chocolate notes it embodied all of the adjectives I had conjured in my mind, superb.

Having experienced some excellent coffee destinations, we felt relaxed enough to reward ourselves with a leisurely cycle around beautiful Stanley Park followed by a sampling of Vancouver’s fine seafood. Sitting outside for dinner under the warmth of a brazier (and with a complimentary blanket across our knees) we took in the evening beauty of the harbour and the seafood delights for which Vancouver is famous. Our trip was dedicated to the pursuit of coffee and so we mused over what we were foregoing;  a train trip to Whistler, a walk over the Capilano Suspension Bridge or a ride on the Grouse Mountain Skyride – but then we had learned more about the city and its people by being in its cafes than you could ever learn on the tourist trails. And besides, it was rainy with the mountains shrouded in cloud most of the time anyway, so where better place to be!

If you do have the time to travel further afield, a visit to Vancouver Island is also a must. Seaplane is the fastest way to get there, and the most fun. While you’re there you must stop in to Habit Cafe and Fernwood (home of the current Canadian Barista Champ), both definitely worth the visit. Or if you’re in West Van, Cafe Crema on Bellevue Ave is another great coffee destination.

Be it a ski trip, a hiking trip, a boating trip or simply a sightseeing trip, Vancouver is a stunning destination. It truly is a jewel with many facets; urbane, elegant,  funky and retro, it shines with the unique personality of the Vancouverites who have moulded each neighbourhood. True to our belief, the diversity of cafes in Vancouver do indeed mirror the diversity of the city. But there is a common pulse,  as you slide the door from one neighbourhood to the next, fairly traded, farmer friendly and organic coffee is reflected throughout. Vancouver does indeed embrace an enlightened outlook married with its green city ethos.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a comment or a question

You must be logged in to post a comment.