sam james

An insider's guide to Toronto with Sam James

During the enormous rise of independent coffee shops in the last few years, one name has risen very quickly to the top of the heap: Sam James. After opening his first shop along Harbord (after several years being a barista at places like Manic Coffee and Dark Horse), James' high-quality coffee quickly saw him flooded with enough success to expand. Rapidly. The Coffee Pocket on Bloor, the spot in The PATH, and most recently, a place on Ossington.

Now Sam James' coffee is widely considered to be one of the best--if not the best--java in all of Toronto. (Just ask Matt Galloway). I decided to speak with the barista, coffee maker, and entrepreneur about what a perfect day for him in Toronto might look like.

Perhaps not surprisingly, his answers proved to offer a vast treasure trove and laundry list of great Toronto food spots he likes to frequent. It makes sense. A deep appreciation for the taste of coffee, has to result in the same appreciation for the taste of other things - like food. Here's his impressive list of spots to check out and emulate a perfect Sam James day. Which, quite wonderfully, is his everyday.

How do you start out your morning?

I wake up early, hit my Harbord store first. It's nice to chill there and have a cap in the space while my drink lasts, say "Hi" to some people. Then I get outta there and hit my Bloor store just a block up after that and have a quick espresso there for like one minute. It's really small, so I just get take out coffee in the winter there and espresso when it's not winter.

No breakfast?

I don't eat breakfast. I usually just eat whatever pastry we have at the shop. I do like that fruit market at Bloor and Manning though. I'll get an apple or a pear if they're open in the morning. I just go there if I'm running late.

What about on the weekend? Do you have breakfast then? Brunch maybe?

I'm a late brunch guy. It's quieter then. I like La Cubana on Roncesvalles. They use my coffee and they do it really well. Food is good. I like Beast too on Tecumseth. They make really delicious food, and also do a really unique and solid coffee menu with my coffee. Basically, it sounds like I only go to places where I can have my coffee, but wouldn't you? I like to check in and see how my coffee tastes outside of my shops.

Any spots that maybe don't use your coffee?

Sometimes I go to Rustic Cosmo for a bagel sandwich. This place has been there forever. It feels like all locals, simple tasty menu, and they don't gouge you. Plus it's 30 seconds from my office. The staff are all really nice too. I like nice. Genuine nice is key.

Okay, moving towards lunch. Where do you go for your mid-day meal?

I love sandwiches and pizza. I usually take out. I don't have any one place I hit, but here's my complete sandwich list that I rotate all week: Any Banh Mi spot. It's always good and like $3 all over Chinatown. Feelgreat, the falafel spot across from The Common, is the truth. It's actually called Arabesque, but it got nicknamed. Chito's at Bloor and Lansdowne. You gotta be in the mood for it, but it is next level. For $3 you get a pizza slice covered in shawarma chicken, tahini and hot sauce. Very devastating, but it's the most delicious food you can eat for $3 that I know of.

California Sandwiches is a staple. I only ever get the Patty sandwich with cheese and medium peppers. They told me it's what old people order because it's cheap and easy to chew. Lastly, and this deserves its own category, as I think it's truly Torontos finest: Bitondo's Pizza. Best friggin slice in the business. Don't care what anyone thinks. I've eaten more Bitondo's than anything I think. I never get sick of it. I've been a regular there for eight years.

Since you have a location in The PATH, any spots in that area you like?

If I'm downtown/financial I hit Cafe Plenty. They're also genuine nice people, space looks great, and I like the chicken club there. I hit up Manpuku in The Grange food court sometimes too. It's a fall/winter spot for me. The owners are cool and there's a curry pork rice bowl I like there. Oh, and ice cream mochi!

Okay, so moving on to dinner. Where do you go or recommend others should go?

I mostly hit El Asador. It's close by and the chicken soup is great. Smokey is the man. If you know who I'm talking about, you're family. I like steaks. That's my fantasy dinner. We have some banging steakhouses in Toronto. Barberians is my #1. It's the coolest. They have Liberace's signature on display!

Ruth's Chris gets no love. People don't even go there. It's kind of boring, but that's a mean steak. Same with Morton's in Yorkville. I really like Le Paradis. It's a legit, long game player. Well priced. Witty service. Classic French stuff. Can't miss. Black Hoof, obviously. Jen is my friend, so I get spoiled, but I'm pretty sure it's awesome for everyone else too.

What if you're not feeling super hungry at dinner time?

I'll often sub out dinner for some oversized ice cream thing. Bang Bang is so good. I'm psyched it's winter now so I don't have to wait behind 40 people.


Restaurant to take someone out of town: Richmond Station. Took my mom last time she visited.

Museum or Gallery: Cooper Cole.

Bookstore: She Said Boom. Randy is the coolest.

Clothing Store: Stussy.

Secret Toronto place you wish more people knew about: Wieners Home Hardware is Toronto's best kept secret. Best staff ever. I'll walk 20 blocks further than I have to, to get my keys cut because I like that place. They have everything and know all.

Previously: An insider's guide to Toronto with Cameron Bailey.

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