Coffee and Bicycles during a visit to Toronto

mercury espresso bar toronto

I was dropped off downtown by my cousin, who generously had picked me up from the airport, taken my Dad and I to the nursing home to visit my Grandmother, driven us to the cheap and quick Chinese restaurant, then back to the airport to drop my Dad off.  I sat down on the bed in the hotel to rest, as I had taken a redeye in, and hadn’t had caffeine all day, even at the Tim Hortons in the airport.  I went out for a walk to fix that and to just think and observe.  Walking and wandering in an unfamiliar place is one of my favorite ways to give my brain a soft reset.

There was a gross grey and brown slush covering the roads and a slightly cleaner-looking, probably equally salty version on the sidewalks.  Dark Horse espresso was a short walk away from my hotel.  The inside of the coffee shop was crowded with students on their computers.  The floor mats were sloshy and the windows steamy from the melted slush and heat within.

dark horse espresso, toronto

I ordered a single-origin Guatemalan espresso there.  My notes say “bright, cherries, nice.”  I didn’t hang around too long because the sun was setting and I wanted to continue on my walk.

dark horse espresso, toronto

I was impressed by the few cyclists I saw riding on Spadina Avenue.  For two reasons: car traffic on such a busy street looked annoying to ride with.  More importantly, though, the slush looked slippery, wet, and gross.  Bikes that I saw had gravel-y crust caked onto their downtubes, rims, derailleurs, cranks, and chains.  And it was cold.  This guy looked like he was in all waterproof clothing, so he was probably okay.


I turned onto the interesting, gentrified Queen Street West to continue my walk.  The vibrant street murals stood out – I especially liked the transparent letters here on “THIS IS PARADISE”

this is paradise - toronto

What’s the story behind the mural, anyways?

Apparently it used to look like this.  It’s on the east wall of the Cameron House, hotel and bar.  The City of Toronto decided that the Cameron House building needed to be repaired, and the previous murals were damaged during the repair.  So, they hired new and old artists to paint new murals.  This wall was done by Tom Dean.

I had been there before, two murals and seven years ago:

the cameron house in 2007

Walking in the slush was tricky.  My whole trip to Toronto was rushed, and planning practically nonexistent.  I had anticipated the cold, but not the snow.  I wore skate-styled Nikes that were surprisingly slippery in the slush.  I tried to keep a brisk pace, but I was briskly shuffling, rather than walking.

There were plenty more slush-crusty bikes on the sidewalks.  Here is a partly entombed pedicab:



I walked by R Squared Coffee Bar: I didn’t need another espresso.  I wasn’t planning on walking by this place; I was just wandering.  But, why not?  My only worry would have been not being able to get to sleep, but I was sleep-deprived enough to know that wouldn’t be an issue.

Also: steamy windows were becoming a theme.

r squared espresso toronto

The break also gave me a chance to look at a map on my phone and decide how much more to walk before turning back for the night.  I ordered another espresso: “R2 house blend medium body balanced.”  R squared is narrow and deep.  I was surprised by the interior – I had expected differently when I looked at their logo and saw their storefront.

r squared espresso toronto

As I headed back out, the light from the sky was getting cooler and blue, while the street lights were casting their warmer, orangey glow.  It makes for weird, colorful shadows.  What’s with the snow on your face, dog?


I walked by Trinity Bellwoods Park, which was snowy and beautiful in the dusk.  There were a few people walking around, notably a couple with a child, who was attempting to navigate a snow bank by the park gate.


Queen Street West has a ton of murals.  This mural was more sponsory, less underground, but I still liked it:


And there were still a few cyclists out – Hey guy, where are your lights?


More murals: I walked into a parking lot to take a photo of this one.  I was loving the low-contrast ambient light.


I headed north on Ossington Ave.  There were a number of people on Ossington, many couples, looking for a place to dine for the evening, and a lot of cozy looking bars and eateries for them to eat in.

That’s a Janis Joplin lyric at hawkerbar:


I turned onto Dundas to head back downtown.

There were more parked (temporarily abandoned?) bikes here.  These were less crusty, but more entombed in a snow bank that probably had a pretty high ice content.  I imagine that these would be hard to remove.


Hey, Easy Driving School, I like your 1970’s styled sign.  How long have you been around?


It was getting colder and darker, and I noticed myself becoming less interested in my surroundings and more interested in just getting back to the hotel.  Less people were out, and any retail space that might have been inviting was now closed.

Toronto has a bike share, but  I saw nobody riding one of these Bixi bikes while I was there.  I certainly wasn’t tempted to either, due to the weather.


I spent the rest of the night looking through old photos that we’d taken from my Grandmother’s room at the nursing home.  There were so many photos of people I didn’t know.  I thought about what she might have been like when she was younger, and how I’ll never really know the story that they represent.  There were pictures from portrait studios, weddings, visits to gardens, graduations, student IDs, passport pictures, and ones sent with old letters.  And then more recent ones from Christmases, then the nursing home, and with the nursing home staff.

The next morning was bright, sunny, and beautiful.  It was still sort of slushy, but there was much more water than ice thanks to the higher temperature and the salt on the sidewalks.  I walked through Kensington market and saw the Tibetian prayer flags and the colorful buildings and the spray-painted alleys before anything opened, and imagined what it would be like later in the day.  Probably bustling.  One of the alleys had a series of photos pasted to the wall, and these had garnered a bit of criticism:  “Photo/Streetart is wack”

I walked up to the University of Toronto and visited Manic Coffee on College St.  Outside, it had a different appearance than what I would have expected for a fancy coffee shop.  The signage and the rest of the street fronts made it look like they’d been around for a while – like a place that served burnt $1 cups of percolator coffee rather than a place that has proudly served Intelligentsia since 2007.

manic coffee toronto

manic coffee toronto

But my espresso was nice, just as I had expected.  A bit better than the croissant, which was a little dry.

manic coffee toronto

There were a few cyclists outside who had just finished their coffee and were heading out.  I asked one of them what his secret was to staying comfortable in cold and wet conditions.  He rolled up his pant leg and pointed to his socks that were inside canvas shoes.  They were Gore-Tex socks that would set you back $70 or $80 at MEC.  He was already on his second pair and he loved them.

I took a roundabout way back downtown on my way to Union station.  I passed along the University, Ontario’s legislative building, and I guess what is known as the Discovery District and the Garden District.  Allan Gardens was a white sea of snow.  I wondered what would look like in the summer or spring.  Somewhere along Jarvis street, I stepped into a small but deep puddle hidden by a mound of hard-packed snow.  I was following the line of the woman in front of me and didn’t realize until too late where my feet were taking me.  She was wearing boots though, so she didn’t end up with a salty, cold wet sock like I did.

But hey, it was alright, because I was approaching Fahrenheit coffee!  I was looking forward to this place, and yes, I couldn’t resist the dare.. I did try knocking over the Mighty Mug.

nheit coffee toronto

It’s a small shop with a limited bar seating area.  There were two customers inside goofing off (or working?) on their PCs.  The guys at Fahrenheit (I think Adam and Sameer?)  gave a fun Mighty Mug demo, made a nice shot of espresso, and then even helped recommend some other spots to check out while I was in town.  Definitely a nice visit. nheit coffee toronto

Did I have the El Salvador or the Guatemala?  I don’t remember, and forgot to take notes.

nheit coffee toronto

After Fahrenheit, I continued to walk to Union station, where I navigated the construction to find my bus stop, so I could hop on and visit my cousin.   He had offered to drive back to the city to pick me up and take me to the nursing home, but I wanted to save him the trip.  It was a pretty nice ride.  I did some work on my laptop and then met my cousin at the station when the bus arrived.

Sense Appeal was austere, with service to match.

sense appeal coffee roasters toronto

I was a little surprised by how busy it was inside.  The crowd that morning consisted mostly of people grabbing coffee on their way to work.  That shouldn’t have been a surprise, given its location downtown.  It was colored with a gradient from brown wood tones to warm whites, and a touch of rustic distressed wood and unfinished walls.

sense appeal coffee roasters toronto

My espresso was probably fine, but sadly I had continued to forget to take tasting notes.. but look how nice that wood table is!

sense appeal coffee roasters toronto

sense appeal coffee roasters toronto

Sense Appeal definitely had the most attractive interior of any shop I visited in Toronto.  It was also the most appropriate place that I visited for a “CELLO FOR SALE” ad.

sense appeal coffee roasters toronto

I was meeting my aunt later that day so that she could drive me to the nursing home.  The morning’s walk was slightly less interesting than on the previous days.  I don’t know what it was, but the downtown buildings all seemed to blend together, despite the churches, big buildings, and metal sculptures.  Maybe the novelty had worn off?  I crossed the Queen Street Bridge over the viaduct, and I started to feel that I was more in a cohesive neighborhood.  Behind me I could see the downtown buildings in the distance.  They looked kind of small; I was surprised that I had walked far enough to make that happen.  I continued east to Leslieville, which had an interesting mix of old shops that had been there for decades and new, hip dining options.  I walked into one shop that had packages on the shelves that looked like they’d been sitting there for years.  There were dusty plants in the display window, in various stages of dying.  A woman curtly, but politely, greeted me when I came in and a shop cat eyed me suspiciously.  After looking around for a bit, I made a curt but polite exit and went on my way.

mercury espresso bar toronto

Mercury espresso bar looked and felt more like a neighborhood place.  A little funky looking on the outside, and dark, cool color tones on the inside.  I freaked out the barista when I took a picture of the wire “MERCURY ESPRESSO BAR” sign on top of their Synesso.  Sorry about that.  I usually ask when taking pictures, but wasn’t feeling as outgoing at that moment.

mercury espresso bar toronto

mercury espresso bar toronto

I met with my aunt, we sat and chatted for a while, grabbed lunch, and then spent some time with my grandmother in the nursing home.  It was weird being there.

Like many other families, everyone we met who was our parents’ age was introduced to us as an uncle or an aunt.  Over lunch and at the nursing home, my aunt explained who was actually related and who was not.  I hadn’t even known how we were related to each other.  I guess that’s one nice thing about illnesses and family emergencies – they bring people together.