Full of beans: a guide to Vancouver’s stellar coffee scene
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This article is part of a new guide to Vancouver from FT Globetrotter
If you can’t find a good cup of coffee in Vancouver, you’re probably doing something wrong.
The city is awash with the stuff: you don’t need to look far to find a barista swirling steamed milk with painterly precision, or a single-origin menu with tasting notes lengthy enough to make the average sommelier seem shy. Many of the best cafés are operated by local roasters who pride themselves on supply chain transparency and sustainability — and a knack for drawing out distinct and nuanced flavours in the roasting process.
Locals all have their favourite purveyors; it’s rare to find a Vancouverite who doesn’t have an opinion or an allegiance to a specific spot. This is, after all, a city that has long been serious about coffee, an obsession that was largely transplanted from Italy with the waves of immigrants who arrived following the second world war. They brought their espresso-drinking traditions — along with moka pots, Neapolitan-style drip brewers and other stovetop coffee-making methods — some 9,000km to their new home. Settling in emerging Italian neighbourhoods in East Vancouver around Commercial Drive, they eventually set up roasting companies and Italian-style coffee bars.
Then the Americans came. Making the short hop from Seattle across the 49th Parallel, the demarcation of the US-Canada border, Starbucks opened shop in Vancouver in 1987 — its first international location and a catalyst in the public’s growing demand for foamy espresso drinks, other barista-made beverages and misspelled names on paper cups.
For a while there were more Starbucks locations in Vancouver than almost anywhere in the world — a helpful statistic when in need of a toilet, but a treasonous figure in a country where chain coffee has historically been synonymous with Tim Hortons, a brand as embedded in the Canadian psyche as friendliness, maple syrup and ice hockey. But the Ontario-based company didn’t open out west in British Columbia until several years after the US giant, and its gentler drip coffee has never appealed as much to west-coast consumers who are more accustomed to punchier, darker roasts.
Big Coffee, however, is not what Vancouver’s connoisseurs drink today. Recent decades of mass hipsterification have transformed a city of caffeine addicts to aficionados, where pour-overs, single origin brews and artisanal cupping methods reign supreme. The coffee scene has exploded in recent years, and my regular visits back to my hometown (and querying of local coffee snobs) have led to some excellent new discoveries.
A note on ordering: milk alternatives exist everywhere (typically for an extra cost), though you may not always see flat whites offered on menus. Because of the historic Italian influence rather than Antipodean, among classic milky espresso drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos, you’ll more often find that a macchiato is on offer as the smaller drink of choice (though they tend to be larger than what’s served in Europe). This, however, is changing — and anyway, it’s all very good.
Novella Coffee Bar
2650 Main Street, Vancouver, BC V5T 3E6
Good for: Staying a while. There is plenty of seating, and one could happily hang out chasing caffeine highs, engaging in gluttony or catching up with friends or work
Not so good for: The indecisive. There’s a lot to choose from
FYI: Novella is open from 8.30am to 3pm every day; after 5pm, it morphs into Vignette, a French-style wine bistro
What first catches my eye at Novella, a coffee bar in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, may be a rarity elsewhere. In the café’s glass pastry case sits a handful of pretty chrysanthemum “crufins”: a croissant-muffin hybrid filled with a floral tea-flavoured crème pâtissière and topped with a sprinkling of the eponymous edible flower. These cheffy creations are evidence of the cafe’s pedigree: Novella is the latest venture from the team behind Published on Main, a restaurant that in 2022 earned a Michelin star and took the number one spot in Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list.
The crufins (when available) are in good company with a rotating offering of a dozen or so other pastries, ranging from savoury mushroom tarts to sticky canelé and puffy, generously garnished almond croissants. A chalkboard menu of heartier brunch fare, which during my visit include standout dishes such as peas on focaccia toast topped with whipped ricotta, and beef tartare spiced with horseradish and gochugaru, a Korean red-pepper powder, should come with a trigger warning for the indecisive. I opt for a cardamom bun (warmed up) and a cortado, and have no regrets.
Coffee comes in several forms, from espresso and its derivative drinks to speciality drip, and is some of the tastiest in the city: strong, flavourful and acidic. Novella uses beans from House of Funk, a coffee roastery and microbrewery based in North Vancouver that aims to produce funky flavours through ultra-precise roasting methods. Colourful, craft beer-inspired cans of House of Funk coffee can be purchased at Novella to take home.
Timbertrain Coffee Roasters
311 West Cordova Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 4K2, and 551 McLean Drive, Vancouver, BC V5L 0C2
Good for: Pour-over coffee. The set-up at the Gastown branch is laboratory-like
Not so good for: A wide range of food options. It mostly sells sweet pastries and a couple of types of sandwiches
FYI: Timbertrain’s online shop ships coffee across Canada and the US. Open daily, 9am–4pm (Gastown); Monday–Friday, 7am–4pm and
Saturday–Sunday, 9am–4pm (Grandview-Woodlands)
Timbertrain has been beloved by Vancouver’s coffee snobs since 2014, when owners Peter Kim, Jeff Shin and Min Shin opened shop on West Cordova Street in Gastown, just north of the terminus of a historic commercial logging railway. (The neighbourhood, Vancouver’s oldest, was named after “Gassy Jack” John Deighton, a Yorkshire-born sailor and barkeeper who in 1867 opened the area’s first saloon.) The cafe’s seating design, with booths covered with track-like wood panelling, is meant to mimic a train-carriage compartment, while the otherwise minimalist space is drenched with light from windows that stretch from floor to soaring ceiling.
While espresso drinks at Timbertrain are well made and flavourful, its speciality is pour-over coffee. A menu of single-origin offerings reads like a wine list, highlighting tasting notes like citrus, berries and stone fruits. Each is badged by one of three categories: classic (sweet, comforting and easy to drink), curious (fruity and floral) and wild (think experimental processes, rare varieties or unique regions). Beans are carefully sourced from producers around the world, who are selected for the quality of their product and an ethical-farming ethos. They’re then hand-roasted by Timbertrain in house, meaning they’re done in small batches under the purview of an expert roaster. I opt for Aricha Adorsi, which hails from Ethiopia, a “Curious” coffee with notes of apricot, lemon and black tea.
The hungry will be satisfied here by a small selection of pastries and baked goods, including a handful of different types of cookies — all enormous — that remind me of this continent’s prowess in the cookie-making arena. Those looking for more substantial sustenance can choose from a short sandwich menu with the likes of egg and bacon rolls and smoked chicken and pear on rye.
860 Richards Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 3B4, and two other locations
Good for: Excellent espresso drinks and all-day breakfast
Not so good for: Milk alternatives cost an extra C$1.25
FYI: Kafka’s has three locations: in False Creek, Gastown and downtown in the Smithe-Richards urban park; the latter branch is open Monday–Friday, 7.30am–5pm; Saturday–Sunday, 7am–6pm
It is a near-perfect spring day when I stroll up to Rainbow Park, a C$14mn (about $10.5mn/£8mn) urban-development project on Smithe and Richards streets that opened last year — the first park to be created in Vancouver’s downtown peninsula in more than a decade, and a collaborative effort between the city government and local indigenous peoples. Its First Nations name, sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7, means rainbow, and was gifted to the city in a special ceremony by the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
While the playgrounds, art installations and multilevel walkways are enticing, I am here for a caffeine fix. Tucked under a green, living roof, and with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that today are wide open to embrace the warm weather, is Kafka’s — a local roaster and mini-chain that is popular with the city’s coffee cognoscenti.
Owner Aaron Kafka has been in the coffee business since 2010, though it was not until more than a decade later that the company launched its own line of coffee to much acclaim. Kafka’s beans are sourced directly from farmers around the world, following each region’s harvest season, and are roasted in-house every week. I opt for a macchiato; Kafka’s espresso blend, with beans hailing from Brazil and Ethiopia, has notes of cherry, cocoa and demerara sugar — a well-balanced mix of sweetness, bitterness and acidity on the palate.
Food comes almost entirely in sandwich form (healthier options include a handful of salads for those who foolishly reject a pro-carb diet), and late-risers will be pleased to know that breakfast is served all day. The breakfast reuben (corned beef, egg, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and pickled onions on a milk bun) was surely devised by a chef with a hangover, while the cambozola cheese baguette offers a bit of Franco-Italian marital bliss. I take a plain croissant — a boring choice — but it’s the platonic ideal: warm, crispy and chewy, and I am redeemed.
Pallet Coffee Roasters
323 Semlin Drive, Vancouver, BC V5L 4H9, and six other locations
Good for: Great coffee, delicious sandwiches and bright, spacious cafés
Not so good for: Most locations close at 3pm
FYI: The company’s first café and site of its roastery on Semlin Drive was once a fish-processing plant that Pallet’s founders, Sharif Sharifi and Shane Dehkhodaei, completely revamped into a woodsy hipster haven in the style of a craft brewery
Pallet was founded in 2014 by two coffee-obsessed friends who started by acquiring a 4,000-square-foot seafood-packing plant in a largely industrial East Vancouver neighbourhood. They converted it into a roasting and retail space, with Crittal-style windows and walls that offer views of the production facility, and it rapidly became a popular co-working space among graphic designers, tech types and other creatives. Fast forward to nearly a decade later, and Pallet is one of the top roasters in town, with more than half a dozen cafés dotted around the city.
Sourcing quality, seasonal coffee beans with supply-chain traceability and transparency were priorities from the get-go. Pallet’s roasting process is centred on the beans themselves: the goal is to elicit what comes naturally, rather than impart flavours through intervention. Before new coffees are introduced to Pallet’s offering, they must undergo several cupping and tasting sessions to ensure they’re up to snuff.
The system clearly works. The flat white I order at Pallet’s Robson Square café (on Howe Street) is a near perfect specimen: strong, flavourful, impossibly creamy. Made with their signature espresso, the Benchmark blend, it’s chocolatey and nutty with notes of cherry and toffee.
As for food, gargantuan sandwiches are Pallet’s modus operandi. Protein seekers will enjoy the Nordic salmon toast, with smoked salmon, avocado, dill cream cheese and a poached egg, while the most popular sandwich is the Build Your Own, which starts with a choice of bread, of which there are many, that is piled high with any desired meat, cheese, condiments and veggies. It may be a result of the inevitable food coma, but unsurprisingly, customers tend to stay for a while.
325 Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 2N4
Good for: Trying new and exciting coffees that you won’t find anywhere else
Not so good for: Long, leisurely visits. Seating is relatively limited, so it’s not set up for hours-long work sessions
FYI: Open Monday–Saturday, 7.30am–5pm. Revolver has an online store and ships coffee and brewing paraphernalia across Canada and the US
Step into Revolver, a hip little coffee shop on the edge of Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood, and you are greeted by a colourful array of packages from notable local and global coffee roasters. It has been family-owned and operated since it opened in 2011, and its mission is to offer the most interesting and exciting selection in town. It’s a place for serious coffee nerds.
Here the menu is divided by flavour profile: espresso and pour-over options can be chosen from the “fruits, florals and exotics” list, or under “cocoa, nuts and pâtisserie”. I order a macchiato made with espresso from Subtext roaster in Toronto, which has notes of caramel apple with an almost rhubarb-like acidity, mellowed by a touch of creamy, full fat milk. All of the usual drinks are on the menu, bar a flat white (though they’ll make one for you anyway), or one can opt for an espresso tasting flight which includes two different brews to compare (each shot is divided in two: one to enjoy straight, the other half to try with a little bit of milk). Coffee is certainly the priority here, though there is a small but satisfying selection of baked goods to choose from: croissants, scones and brioche doughnuts that are difficult to look past.
The long, narrow space, with wood and steel accents that reflect the area’s industrial past, houses a handful of tables opposite the coffee bar that when I visit are already occupied by people working on laptops and having morning meetings. I take my coffee and a slice of vegan banana loaf to the bench just outside the café, a morning sun trap from which to watch the steady stream of Revolver’s disciples come to worship.
1100 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC V6Z 1Y7, and three other locations
Good for: A takeaway coffee
Not so good for: Working from a laptop. There is no WiFi available for customer use at any of their cafés
FYI: The downtown location, connected to the Burrard Hotel, is next door to Burgoo, a local mini-chain of comfort-food restaurants that can cure all ails with the best cheese toastie and tomato soup known to humankind
Elysian Coffee Roasters may make one of the best cups of coffee in the whole city. They’ve had years of practice: founder Alistair Durie set up the company in 2000 “to solve the lack of good coffee in Vancouver”, he said. (During the city’s aforementioned Big Coffee Era, mind you.) Its small café on Fifth Ave and Burrard, in the city’s bougie Kitsilano neighbourhood, quickly became a destination for other coffee-mad Vancouverites, and more Elysian cafés were opened.
The company expanded into roasting in 2011, and primarily sources coffee from Guatemala, Columbia and Ethiopia. Today, single-origin coffees are the name of the game, and are big, bold and acidic. The smooth and creamy macchiato here offers exactly the punch of flavour (and caffeine) that I needed on a cool spring morning.
Elysian also offers a small selection of baked goods — muffins, scones, cookies et al — that are all made in house using butter or olive oil (rather than the mass-produced seed oils often found in commercial kitchens), alongside a short menu of sandwiches, including an irresistible cheese toastie on sourdough.
Where’s your favourite spot for coffee in Vancouver? Tell us in the comments. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter
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