Kingston cafes are passing the ’buck

One caffeine connoisseur braves acid reflux and terrible music in order to find “la creme de la creme” of Kingston’s coffee establishments

The Second Cup is only one of many cafes on Princess St.
The Second Cup is only one of many cafes on Princess St.

Summer is rapidly approaching our fair city, and Kingstonian summers are luxuriant ones indeed—full of picnics by the lake, bike rides on Wolfe Island and most prominently, many hours of delicious idleness on patios and in cafes. Princess Street boasts an abundance of coffee shops, all of which fling their doors open wide to embrace the balmy breeze and wandering passers-by all summer long.

By now, it’s no secret that two major outlets of that caffeine-peddling corporate monolith, Starbucks, have joined the ranks of the Princess Street coffee shops and subsequently distinctly altered the character of cafes along the street. Now, whether you crave the stylishness of Seattle’s “finest” establishment or something a little quirkier, there is quite literally a café suited for every personality in Kingston. This admittedly perfunctory guide to Kingston’s cafes will hopefully help you decide where to spend your hard-earned dollars this summer.

Tim Horton’s

Timmy Ho’s is the first coffee shop to be encountered as you stroll down Princess St. from campus and has a pervasive presence in many people’s lives. I know students who virtually live there—or used to, before the 20 minute seating policy was instituted last December. But do they really boot students out after a mere twenty minutes of sweet coffee-swilling pleasure? According to poker-faced employee Julia Mills, they enforce the policy “all the time.” Hmph.

Coffee: During the school year, I drank at least five cups of Tim’s coffee a day, and now I can’t smell the stuff without breaking out into cold sweats. There’s something about swilling a large double-double that lends to a feeling of “why am I doing this to myself” masochism—and yet you can’t...stop...drinking...

Background Music: Other than the idle chit-chat of other patrons, none.

Suggested Reading Material: It’s difficult to really get into a book in a twenty-minute time window. It seemed like most of the patrons that day were flipping through the Toronto Sun instead.

In Short: No music, mediocre coffee and I still get kicked out on the street after twenty minutes? Er, no thanks. I walked right back onto the street in search of greener pastures.

Second Cup

Although I have fond memories of lounging around local Second Cups in high school, the sense of nostalgic warmth I associated with this franchise quickly dissipated upon my arrival at its Princess St. location. The coffee is potent, if costly, and the Cup boasts some super-sized comfortable chairs. There is, however, a certain soulessness to the slick veneer of the interior and after about half an hour I felt the distressing urge to race outside in order to re-acquaint myself with tactile, non-lacquered reality.

Coffee: The chocolate raspberry blend is to die for.

Background Music: My curiosity was piqued by the bizarre mix of Afro-beats, U2 and Corey Hart on the stereo. I asked an employee whose mix tape was playing and what was on it. Her answer was that she had no idea what the music was, as it was a manufactured CD sent down to all the stores from the head office. In essence, the Second Cup corporation manufactures “diverse” mix CDs on a mass scale and the employees apparently have precious little to say about the selection. Needless to say, I was scandalized.

Suggested Reading Material: Yuppie-type stuff like the National Post. Edgier types might be inclined towards 80’s coke novels like Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.

The Sleepless Goat

Much has been said about the merits of the Goat, so I won’t wax too long in this space about their delicious vegan brownies and complete lack of pretension. The only drawback to the Goat, in fact, is that the employees are so eclectically attractive that I often feel like I’m not cool enough to be there. But I mean, that’s my own personal hang-up.

Coffee: Everything at the Goat tastes good. The coffee is overpriced but completely fair trade. Their East Indian potato cakes are like pieces of pure, unadulterated joy.

Background Music: The Goat is a mecca for people with good taste. In a single sitting, you can hear the indie-boy stylings of Sufjan Stevens or Neutral Milk Hotel, and then be jarred by a heavy blast of Black Flag or Thievery Corporation.

Suggested Reading Material: The Goat has its own tiny library if you’ve forgotten your book at home. Otherwise, you’re apt to glimpse a Kurt Vonnegut title being perused here and there, or Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

In short: The Sleepless Goat will always be popular, and people will always go there, because it’s a wonderful, inclusive place. It’s a Kingston institution and the installment of a nearby Starbucks will not change this fact in the least.

Coffee and Co.

The Princess St. location of Coffee and Co. is much larger and duller than the one located in the heart of the Queen’s ghetto at Johnson and Division. Both locations have attempted to create a living-room sort of atmosphere with varying degrees of success.

Coffee: Same old beans here, nothing particularly remarkable. They do have mouth-wateringly good samosas.

Background Music: The one in the ghetto plays inoffensive stuff like Telepopmusik. The downtown location floods its speakers with unidentifiable salsa guitar. Yawn.

Suggested Reading Material: Anything by Carol Shields, or Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom.

In short: Save yourself a long unsatisfying walk and just hit the ghetto location—they have chairs on the sidewalk and you’ll at least see a few familiar faces.

Towne Crier

Until two days ago, I didn’t know that this place existed. It’s located off the beaten path on King St. Charmingly decorated with little old-skool Formica tables and yellow tablecloths, this coffee shop mostly serves as a magazine outlet with coffee and food as its secondary function.

Coffee: Mediocre. The food looked bizarre, so I refrained from ordering any of it.

Background Music: What is with the generic classical/Spanish guitar music being played everywhere? Does it not cause sudden bouts of narcolepsy? I don’t get it.

Suggested Reading Material: There are more magazines at the Towne Crier than you will ever see again in your natural life. Unfortunately you have to buy them before you can sit down and read them. What gall! We all know that paying for magazines is lame, so I just read a free copy of Kingston This Week repeatedly instead.

In short: For such a long walk, it’s nothing remarkable. But if you like buying magazines, then you’ll have found heaven on earth.

The Gallery Café

This café is tucked away on Sydenham Street, a brief jaunt from the yellow awning of candy store Sweet Stuff. It proved to be my day’s most pleasant surprise.

The Gallery Café has been operating since last September, and even in its infancy, faced with the heady competition of a Second Cup in its immediate vicinity, the café has built up a small but steadfastly loyal clientele. How do they do it?

According to kitchen co-ordinator Wilma Cooper, the café offers an inviting and unique atmosphere via its eclectic staff.

“There’s a lot of personalities working here,” Cooper said. “I really think that brings people back.”

When watching Cooper and co-worker Kat Higgins interact with the customers, it becomes evident that the staff at the Gallery Café have bridged the often cold and officious dichotomy between customers and patrons that other coffee shops struggle to overcome.

The two women knew virtually every customer by name and established a casual rapport of joke-cracking punctuated by frequent peals of laughter. Meanwhile, pianist George Biro—yes, the café has their own in-house pianist—kept strains of Bach tinkling from the rear of the café.

There’s also a distinct do-it-yourself mentality at work here. As kitchen co-ordinator, Cooper runs from store to store supplying the café with its various wares.

“One moment I’ll be getting soup from an East Indian woman we know, the next I’ll be getting pastries from Thousand Islands bakery,” Cooper said proudly. “I do it all on foot.” Coffee: The cafe boasts delicious treats like Apple Mango to quiche and samosas—pretty impressive for a place that doesn’t technically have a working kitchen.

Background Music: Aside from Biro’s ivory-tickling, the staff plays their own music—everything from Leonard Cohen to Jesse Cook. “As long as it’s not, like, death metal, we pretty much have free reign,” says employee Josh Goodbaum.

Suggested Reading Material: The Walrus, or a biography of Frida Kahlo.

In short: I realized as I finished talking with Cooper and Higgins that I had been sitting and basking in the café’s atmosphere for over an hour. Part of me hopes that this undiscovered little gem remains as such, in order to keep the vibe comfortably casual. However, as interest in its unusual set-up rises, I doubt that the Gallery Cafe will continue to be a secret much longer.

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