Coffee and a donut*. The go-to. The high-water mark of a Canadian breakfast. And while, yes, it is true that Tim Hortons rarely disappoints with the simple combo they’ve helped elevate to the level of national symbol, it is equally verifiable that we’ve all grown tired of the Timmy’s version over the years. If only because of the unceasing zamboni-laden TV ads.
So where can we go? This question begets problems of the glaring sort. Conveyed as yet more questions, they are: 1) How do we ensure top quality on both fronts, i.e. coffee and donut? 2) How do we reconcile the fact that many great bakeries do not accommodate the patron who wants his treat for here? 3) How do we avoid Starbucks and manage to uphold some kind of tradition?
Number 1 is a no brainer: aim for European and/or Middle Eastern. True, deep fried butter-soaked sweet bread seems hard to mess up, but don’t let ’em fool ya with trash, because they’re gonna try. Go right to the source and, admittedly, that probably means Italian, but probably also French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Belgian, Greek, Croatian, etc. Coffee’s the same story. Sure, in general, one cup is like any other. But the best stuff out there, the stuff Anthony Bourdain wants, that stuff can be seen in the leathery mits of some moustachioed and fedora’ed old man whose stoic stare and severe stance bespeak a storied Continental past. So, seek an authentic joint with an unpronounceable name for the best of both.
Number 2 demands a curt response: bigger is better. You need to locate an establishment whose sheer size vouches for its hospitality. They aren’t easy to find. The best bakeries cater mainly to pick-up orders and passerby take-out, so most remain tiny, but there are still a few first-rate gentlefolk and professionals in this city who appreciate the value of a large, inviting meeting place. And they want you to find them! Because you, the coffee and donut aficionado, you are their bread and butter. Sit down and stuff your face.
Number 3’s a piece of cake if you’ve already accounted for 1 and 2. You’re looking for an independently owned coffee and bake shop that’s run by some grizzled émigré named like Ibrahim or Guillermo or Helmut. You’re looking for a place that isn’t afraid to dole out a generous monthly rent just in order to guarantee its clientele a place to sit. These are places of tradition, intent on providing an experience to accompany your coffee and confection, and these guys are sure to have hundreds of stories to tell you about the old country, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Thus, allow me to recommend Vancouver’s top three alternatives to Timmy Ho’s:
1) BREKA (Fraser, at 49th, and Bute, between Robson and Haro). Originally an anchor for the German community in South Vancouver, the new downtown location is huge, and always full. The coffee is pleasant and plentiful. The baked goods seem totally unchanged, as delicious as ever, with the traditional bienenstich, black forest and a bevy of donut options at the ready 24 hours/day.
2) CAFÉ CALABRIA (Commercial, at 2nd). Self-billed as the “Oldest Italian Coffee House in Vancouver,” C.C. boasts a great assortment of pastries/cookies; rich coffees, including the elusive affogato (espresso and ice cream!); and tons of seating. The décor somehow simultaneously denotes gladiatorial Rome and the Copacabana circa 1950, New York.
3) SIMPLY FRENCH (10th, at Alma). Quaint and quiet and a little quixotic, this café feels like it belongs in Amélie. The croissants are some of the best in town, warm and flaky, but not so flaky that you want to immediately brush your teeth. You are invited to sit, sip a latte and peruse their books and magazines well past the point at which your laptop runs out of juice.
There are alternatives to Horton, I swear, and even to Starbucks if you can believe. So, for those of you that appreciate an extended coffee break most days, make yourself a regular where you mightn’t regularly think to go.
*Defined broadly here to include any confection really: deep-fried, baked or otherwise sweet and fattening.