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Cafes

Dark Horse Espresso Bar (Chinatown)

Posted by Dar Mustafa / Posted on May 26, 2009

Dark HorseDark Horse Espresso Bar has expanded where space is concerned, centralized where location is concerned, and is the opposite of dark (...where light is concerned). The new home of this Queen East original sits just north of Queen on Spadina, where it has carved itself out a commanding presence on this busy strip.

Presently, some scaffolding obstructs what appears to be a lovely facade, and it also led me to underestimate the actual size of the place. Once inside, it's a different story. Hardwood as far as the eye can see, and high, beamed ceilings soaked up the uber-sunny day and projected it everywhere. The floors gleamed, the windows radiated and rainbows literally danced on the walls. Magical.

Dark HorseThe communal tables that I have heard about, and seen around, are here in a big way. Two huge specimens flank the bar and were filled to capacity. We headed up the stairs, to an elevated and somewhat secluded sitting area, where there are some smaller versions of the same deal.Tables that can accommodate like, five people but can and will also seat one. Until guys like us come along and do what we must do: sit across from a stranger. I'm not gonna lie, it does make things more interesting.

In light of their grand-scale interior, Dark Horse keeps things relatively simple as far as treats go, offering the usual coffee delights and a nice variety of baked goods. The Circles and Squares Bakery makes a second consecutive appearance in my life, being the providers of scones (including the one I've been dreaming about since last week), brownies, and muffins that are wrapped like delicious little dough bouquets.

Dark HorseI carefully chose a butter tart, mostly because those geniuses- lo and behold!- thought to make them sans raisins. This is what my raisin-hating life has been waiting for all these years, so we thank you graciously. The butteriest butter tart I have ever tasted, meaning the filling was smooth and melt-y as hell (and so was the shell). I washed it down with a rich Americano ($2) that more than lived up to its namesake (Dark), with a hypnotizing swirl of crema on top.

Dark Horse We made ourselves rather comfy, hidden up in the back for a good two hours. The aforementioned table style can lead one's conversation to alternate between self-consciously low tones or attempts at entertaining the person sitting across from you. About an hour in, our duo became a trio (the addition of a non-stranger, I'm afraid) and the conversation moved somewhat into the latter territory. Subconsciously, of course, and to little avail.

Dark Horse
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By this time, I was in dire need of lemonade ($3), and my friend was on his second iced latte ($3.75). The lower the sun dropped, the emptier the tables grew, the more I was unable to ignore the uncanny resemblance of this place to the dance studios of my distant past. The appearance of one Mr. Jonathan Richman over the speakers, and I found myself snapping photos in some kind of ecstatic but dignified dance. Lemonade that is (finally!) just sour enough will do that to ya.

Dark Horse

Discussion

47 Comments

Christopher / May 26, 2009 at 10:03 am
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This review is a good look!
Paul / May 26, 2009 at 10:18 am
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The Dark Horse is a great space, with great coffee. Only complaint is that they don't just have a 'coffee' option. Gourmand has that part completely right.
Ken / May 26, 2009 at 11:22 am
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I love this place. Very unique, I can't think of a similar place downtown - I'm just talking about the spacial design and brightness of it all. They have a better Americano than Le Gourmand (or The Forum as I call it).

Very welcome addition to Chinatown, especially that part of Spadina, which has no cafes.

There seems to be a lot of people holding meetings and laptoppers there when I go.
Steven / May 26, 2009 at 11:38 am
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They have great Iced Americanos.

Thanks for the well written review.
The pictures really show off the space well, too.
Kevin / May 26, 2009 at 11:43 am
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Went there yesterday after a heavy duty dim sum session at Sky Dragon. Really enjoyed the Americano. At par if not better then Jet Fuel's or Bulldog's. @Paul I noticed too the lack of drip coffee and thought it was weird. I however did see a French Press option for $3.33 which is cool.
Ryan / May 26, 2009 at 12:10 pm
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The comparison between le Gourmand and the new location of Dark Horse is lost on me. The barrista at Dark Horse (his former stomping grounds at Jamie Kennedy's newest revealation Hank's Cafe at 9 Church Street) won, deservedly, the title of Best Barrista in Toronto from Toronto Life. The espresso itself is made expertly and, in my humble opinion, does not venture anywhere near the sad muddy, slingshots further south on Spadina. I love lunch at le Gourmand - don't get me wrong. I do miss the Dean and Deluca beans they once sold though...
chenyip / May 26, 2009 at 12:57 pm
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I'm going to second Ryan. Sam has moved from Manic to Hanks to now Dark Horse and in that time has poured consistently the best cappuccinos in the city. Hands down. It's no surprise that on top of the Toronto Life award, he's ranked at the top of the class in various barrista competitions. Comparing Dark Horse to le Gourmand is just out-right wrong.
Kelvin / May 26, 2009 at 02:36 pm
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The space looks sublime, some great photography!

Wondering if this place has wifi? Would be awesome to work in.
Kelvin / May 26, 2009 at 02:36 pm
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The space looks sublime, some great photography!

Wondering if this place has wifi? Would be awesome to work in.
Kelvin / May 26, 2009 at 02:36 pm
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The space looks sublime, some great photography!

Wondering if this place has wifi? Would be awesome to work in.
Alex Fischer / May 26, 2009 at 02:52 pm
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A good Iced Americano? That's all I need to know!

Nice review, I'll check it out.
Andrew Louis / May 27, 2009 at 12:41 am
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Fun fact: the wood of the tables and counter came from the remains of a burned down bowling alley in Rochester.
ben / June 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm
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i love when people who know nothing about coffee talk about coffee. i love when they obviously like the space and the bohemian sensibility more than the quality of the product.

fortunately, dark horse really is excellent.
Ryan / June 2, 2009 at 04:24 pm
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I also love how Dark Horse has anything but a bohemian sensibility but those two words sound really cool together....Bohemian sensibility. Ah....
Jo / June 3, 2009 at 11:15 pm
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I went to the Queen St East cafe recently and saw that they didn't have the same Flourless Butterless Walnut cookies they had at the Spadina location. They are absolutely sublime:) Next time you're there try one it's well worth it.

I love the espressos too. Dark Horse is one of the goodies for sure.
Marcus / June 20, 2009 at 12:41 pm
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It's an espresso people! As long as the beans being used are good then your drink will be good. Its a simple process that even a monkey can be trained to do. The whole pretentious "Barrista" stuff is a simple marketing tactic.
other ryan / June 23, 2009 at 04:27 pm
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"

Marcus on June 20, 2009 at 12:41 PM

It's an espresso people! As long as the beans being used are good then your drink will be good. Its a simple process that even a monkey can be trained to do. The whole pretentious "Barrista" stuff is a simple marketing tactic."

while looking up the correct spelling of "barrista", you should also look up the definition of "off point".
Dan / June 26, 2009 at 11:05 am
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Test.
Graeme / July 29, 2009 at 07:58 pm
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I have to agree with the 1st comment - my initial response to Dark Horse was "what's the deal with no drip coffee?!"
yes, yes, I know it's an "espresso bar", but c'mon, it's not like we're in Italy.
If I remember correctly as well, they also sell a great selection of beans, including fair trade & organic - but then you can taste the brew of all these beans!
An espresso's great when I'm running 30 mins late for work - however a nice, long cup of drip coffee is for my lazy stroll back home after work.
Also, Dark Horse on Queen East doesn't accept debit, and yes, I'm a cheap bastard and never have more than a twenty in my pocket, but they lost a sale of several pounds of coffee for my office place!
***best espresso drink in the city by far: Ovalatté at "Ella's Uncle"
Victor / September 1, 2009 at 12:00 pm
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The smell of coffee comes from the volatile oils in the coffee bean. Preparing it right to maximize the quality of the drink, from roasting, grinding, and preparing it requires experience.

Even making coffee well in a french press requires proper knowledge and experience.

It's unfortunate a good barrista does not receive adequate appreciation here in this city and I don't think it is pretentious at all.
Arleigh / September 8, 2009 at 10:37 am
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The Queen St E location also has free wifi. It is right around the corner from our curling club so it makes a nice stop on a Friday evening to warm up along the walk from my work. They had some nice live music in there but that was 2 years ago and I don't know if it has continued
sam / October 21, 2009 at 12:05 am
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yes they may make good lattes and what not but are not unique in terms of where they buy their coffee. it seems now a days that a recipe for a successful coffee shop is to go and buy 49th parallel. PLEASE people do try and branch out. there are other coffee shops that do their own roasting which qualifies the coffee to be more fresh. everyone knows that a good cup of joe is with fresh beans and if these coffee shops are buying beans that are roasted in the other side of canada well then, how fresh can their coffee be, really? people are just buying the lattes for the fancy artwork and not for the art of how coffee taste. BE MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE ABOUT COFFEE.
sam replying to a comment from other ryan / October 21, 2009 at 12:13 am
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quality of good espresso is the quality of the beans, the experience of the barista and the machine. apparently you need to do more of this "looking up" situation. There are many coffee shops that use 49th parallel as their espresso beans yet they do not get the hype that dark horse gets. Like you said, if the beans are good then the espresso drink would be good too no? think again.

Also espresso in italian means "to press a drink" so inorder to have "good" espresso wouldnt the barista need to have the knowledge and the technique to "press" the beans at the right weight to produce this goood drink?
rob replying to a comment from sam / November 17, 2009 at 06:24 pm
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I guess I could roast my own beans too!!! That would be a lot closer than Vancouver!!
Too bad I dont know the first thing about roasting beans... like most of the roasters in Toronto.
As for how the coffee can be fresh if its from Vancouver? It starts with an 'F' and ends with an EDEX!
Idiot.
ps. espresso needs a degassing period of at 2 or 3 days before use. Some recommend up to 7 or 8 days depending on the blend.
Maybe YOU should "BE MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE ABOUT COFFEE"
sam replying to a comment from rob / November 23, 2009 at 11:54 pm
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1st - you said it yourself rob, you said it yourself. "too bad i dont know the first thing about roasting beans" so how are you qualified to know how good the roasters in toronto are?

2nd - i highly doubt they use fedex to ship the beans and even if they do they would want to buy a shit load to over ride on other costs

3rd - I was talking about a cup of joe ie brewed coffee, nothing from the espresso.

so why wont you start reading things before you start attacking and actually make sense of what you are saying.
dickshit.
cam / January 8, 2010 at 06:52 pm
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Its just coffee people!

Cool place...really good vibe.
Dave / January 22, 2010 at 10:32 am
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They served me a cold espresso. In the middle of the day there really is no excuse for that. Just ended up leaving them with it as there was nowhere to sit anyway. It was filled with a ton of people having meetings. Guess not everyone has a nice boardroom to sit in.

Overrated.
May Lady replying to a comment from Dave / January 28, 2010 at 10:11 am
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Did they serve you a cold espresso TO you or did you walk away and just leave it sitting there? I know they don't have table service and more often then not people's drinks can just sit on the bar til someone realizes it's theirs .... ? But that sucks if you were handed a cold one. No excuse.
rob replying to a comment from sam / January 29, 2010 at 01:41 pm
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1.You dont need to know how to build a car to know if it drives well.
2.They do use Fedex, I order every week for my espresso bar.
3."quality of good espresso is the quality of the beans, the experience of the barista and the machine"
Sounds like you are talking about espresso to me.

4. Youre out of your element.
Elisabeth / March 13, 2010 at 11:07 pm
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I was recently in Toronto for a week, and had to spend a lot of time out and about on my computer. Dark Horse definitely made the best chai latte that I had all week, had the most comfortable lighting and atmosphere, and had the least obtrusive and nice music (both Basia Bulat and the Beach Boys did their thing), but where the cafe really fell down was a lack of power outlets. I found one double-outlet on the right side of the front, and two on the left, and one in the back right corner. There was a fourth on the stairwell. I managed to snag one just as my battery started to die, but the plugs were always full, even though the cafe itself wasn't particularly crowded. The outlets also weren't in good locations for most of the people at those great communal tables, and definitely weren't useful for most people who wanted to sit in the cozy back area.

If your battery (like mine) doesn't last long, make this a drink stop, but not a work stop.
Elisabeth / March 13, 2010 at 11:09 pm
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(I neglected to mention that the outlet on the stairwell is taped over and not working, but that's fine, because it's not really a safe location for power cords.)
Ange / April 12, 2010 at 04:35 pm
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Love Parallel 49, but I really can't stand the Detour stuff. I find it's never quite right, and can only really stand it if it's cut with milk. As an espresso, I just find it so bitter with a terrible lingering aftertaste.
Hope they continue with Parallel 49 espresso - it's my fav.
CaffeinatedPonderer / April 24, 2010 at 05:53 pm
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Dark Horse Runs Out of Power

Loved their espresso and cappucino, and the friendly staff.

Unfortunately, after a 3wk hiatus, I finally came back to DH only to find that all of their power outlets have been replaced by metal shields.

Although I understand the fine balance between attracting a crowd that provides revenue and detracting a crowd more suitable for a library, I'm the type of person who always needs a cup of something next to me while I work.

DH, I've provided you with good business since you opened, but it looks like I have to settle for a Starbucks/Second Cup while I wait to find the next perfect coffee shop.
Elisabeth replying to a comment from CaffeinatedPonderer / April 24, 2010 at 05:57 pm
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Wow, that is the opposite of okay.
Mel / May 3, 2010 at 12:16 am
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As a Vancouverite, can't help but find it funny that the espresso that finds its way over to Toronto is 49th Parallel. So many of us can't stand it! I'd take JJBean's espresso any day. I can only hope that their product will (if it hasn't already) find it's way to Ontario.
ken / May 30, 2010 at 08:58 am
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I can't believe this thread had become a forum for the coffee nerds. Very Toronto. The place has a very pretentious crowd, especially on the weekends.
Serge Lescouarnec / June 30, 2010 at 07:56 pm
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Espresso led me to your site.
Have to try that coffee shop when I make it to Toronto.
Just did an interview with Carlo Odello of Italian Tasters titled <a href="http://www.sergetheconcierge.com/2010/06/espresso-italiano-talking-coffee-the-italian-way-with-carlo-odello.html";>Espresso Italiano, Talking Coffee the Italian Way with Carlo Odello</a> on 'Serge the Concierge'

Serge
'The French Guy from New Jersey'
Kerry / January 15, 2011 at 07:00 pm
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I just had a cappucino at Dark Horse today and it was some of the worst coffee I have ever tasted. It was burnt, over-extracted, bitter and generally tasted like cigarette smoke. I had such high hopes! Will someone please tell me where I can get an actual good cup of coffee in Toronto?!
Dave / January 16, 2011 at 08:09 am
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Kerry, go to Sam James. Consistently the best in the city. I've seen him throw 3 shots away before he's satisfied that it's good enough to serve to you. He sells coffee not a meeting room.
Winter / March 27, 2011 at 10:42 pm
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Went there today and was disappointed with my americano. It was busy and 3 people ahead of me ordered the same drink. Instead of brewing a shot for my drink it seemed like she made a huge batch at a time and I was the last cup. My cup was splattered with drips all over, not full like the others and it didn't taste as good as I once had. I hate places that are not consistent and I will not go back to this location.
Arleigh / March 28, 2011 at 07:20 am
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I have started to drop into their Queen E. location again on my way to curling and it is such a marvelous place. I usually have a latte which I enjoy along with a little quiet time to read my email. I still have not made it to the Chinatown location.
Jee / September 5, 2011 at 09:45 pm
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I live in Queen west area. Have been there many many times. I found they have no consistency in their drinks. I usually get americano. Sometimes amrericano is so good, but sometimes it is bitter. The atmosphere and music is always great and wifi is pretty stable and fast. No outlet. Yogurt is yummy but a bit expensive($5ish)
Sam / February 20, 2012 at 11:34 am
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Is it a coincidence that Dark Horse has almost the same logo as Intelligentsia?
Steve / June 3, 2013 at 08:47 am
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The nicest space in the city. However, the music is ridiculously loud. We had shout to speak. No outlets. Didn't bother me, but kind of ridiculous really. The coffee is the usual sour espresso that seems to be all the rage in these hipster cafes. Personally it gives me heartburn. I'd go again if it weren't for the super loud music.
Steve replying to a comment from Steve / June 3, 2013 at 08:50 am
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I should add that I was referring to the Spadina location.
Better Steve / June 20, 2013 at 10:39 pm
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I have had 6 years experience making coffee in one of the most picky places in the world when it comes to people wanting the perfect cup of coffee. I have had experience roasting beans with boutique roasters and making all different types of coffees at very high volumes. Like 12 kg a day and up to 70 kg a week. All this was done in Australia and after finding Dark Horse I was quite surprised.
I think the reason why people find it inconsistent is because they have quite a few different baristas on at any day. I was actually surprised at how consistent it was considering nearly everytime I've gone in there it's a new person on the machine. It's hard to and takes a long time to train someone properly to make really good coffee and to be honest I haven't really had a bad coffee from there as of yet. The only complaint I would have is sometimes they don't heat the milk up quite enough and it tastes a bit milky and fatty.
It's true you do need to let beans age a bit, if you start usin them straight away they give off a lot of bubbly oil and it will taste more bitter and the crema doesn't quite mix in well with the milk. One week is ideal but doesn't always happen as roasters sometimes send one day old beans.
I think Dark Horse is great considering its becoming a small chain and it becomes harder to manage all that staff to be really great baristas. And let's be honest, Canadians don't really know good coffee yet but I give it 5-10 years and Tim Hortons will be a thing of the past. It could maybe stay a s a cheap alternative but once you know what really good coffee is there's no going back. Just like staying at 5 star hotels or eating at really nice restaurants. Once you get a taste for the finer things why would you settle for anything less.
Queen st west is a good location I find. There down to earth and make what you ask for. Spadina is stuff in a bit of shell that needs to be broken. You can make a latte in a small cup! And don't argue that you can't.
Anyways I recommend and was surprised to find a few other cafes that make good coffee around toronto as well.
Anna / April 24, 2014 at 01:27 pm
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Nice place, good coffee.
I used to come there often for an hour or two, have lunch and do my work as well. However, they recently got rid off all the outlets! This was a huge disappointment. Especially noticing a very rude staff at Queen and Spadina location pointing out to me that: "we are not an internet cafe".
This disappointing news turned into discovering other great spots around that area, like Strada for instance.
I can honestly say that I am going to change my routine and exclude Dar Horse from my favourite list!

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