By: Sam Marchetti
When you think of downtown Hamilton, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first thought that comes to mind is “sketchy.” Downtown, specifically along King Street and anywhere east of Queen Street North, has often been considered as a run-down ghost of what was once a thriving, central hub.
Centered around the Jackson Square complex, my mother — a born-and-raised Hamiltonian — has told me many stories of how she and her friends used to hang around the area. The mall was initially built as an attraction for residents across the city, and for a short time, it was just that.
Now, however, it feels like that same downtown area is only a hub for the homeless and the number of clubs that exist nearby. If anyone heads to downtown Hamilton, it’s usually to visit Locke Street South or James Street North, where one can typically find highly-recommended restaurants and quaint little spots, and avoid the much less recommended walk along King Street. But is King Street really so bad? Is that downtown stretch so vastly different from how it used to and was intended to be?
I would argue it’s not. Hidden behind the stigma of being run-down, there are some great, welcoming spots in downtown. In the east end, if you walk west down King, you’ll soon find 1UP Games. This retro video game store may look in-need of a facelift, but upon entry you are greeted instantly by one of the many employees that can recommend a game or tell you about one of the many events the store runs.
To highlight how welcoming this store is, my brother, a 23-year-old-man with special needs visited the shop this past Sunday. Due to his learning curve, my brother has never really excelled at or even enjoyed many video games. However, not only was he welcomed, he was given valuable assistance and taught how to play by the community, and he now plans to return as often as possible.
For a fancier vibe, you can continue down to James Street North and head north for one block to King William Street. Although this isn’t exactly on King, you can find a stretch of nice restaurants and just across from Club Absinthe, you find Mezza, a great little Italian cafe with some high-quality pastries and drinks.
Even going inside Jackson Square, you can find two of my favourite spots. First, Landmark Cinemas, which has perhaps the nicest luxury seating I’ve ever experienced in a movie theatre. Picture full-motorized reclining seats in pairs of two, absolutely amazing for a date.
Then there’s Nations, a grocery store which contains some of the most unique items I’ve ever seen. Going into Nations is akin to being transported around the world in about 30 minutes. You can buy fresh fish and produce from around the world, as well as pre-packaged products only found on other continents and my personal favourite, Chinese-style roasted peanuts.
None of these places are particularly “sketchy” or run-down; in fact, all of them are fairly well-kept and are run by friendly, enthusiastic staff who you could not feel more comfortable around. For students it’s definitely worth a look! Perhaps you’ll end up changing your definition of downtown Hamilton.
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On Valentine’s Day this year, Vibez quietly opened up in Hamilton’s east end. There was no grand opening or advertising campaign, but rather the mouth-watering aroma of grilled chicken wafting onto the street that brought in a steady stream of hungry passersby.
A walk through the Caribbean and Southern food spot’s bright red door first signals chimes, then an enthusiastic greeting by Kristan Webber at the register before she runs back into the kitchen to pick up orders and relay others to her mother, Yvette.
On a Friday evening, the small restaurant and café nestled on 971 King Street East is the backdrop of a busy scene. A few tables on one side of the restaurant seat families and couples as they share Jamaican fried chicken and fries, while a woman waits patiently on a leather couch for her curry chicken roti to go.
The mother-daughter duo opted not to promote their new restaurant so that they can handle running it on their own, but Vibez didn’t need promotion. The community’s reaction has been positive and everyone who comes in is willing to be patient. They know the food is worth the wait.
The warm atmosphere the Webbers’ have created is welcoming, but the food is what makes people stay. Curry chick peas, Cajun fries, and chicken and waffles are just a few favourites off the evolving menu.
While it may seem that Vibez appeared out of thin air, the project has been in the works for years. Yvette purchased the property three years ago, long before anyone else in her family saw potential in it.
Even though the street was lined up with vacant shops, Yvette was willing to put all her passion, time and money into the space to fulfill her dream of opening up a restaurant.
“I watched her struggle to reinvent this place. It was such a mess when she got it. When I moved back home, I started helping… I’m a creative so I did what I could. [I made] this whole place [my do it yourself] project,” explained Kristan.
A lot of love and attention to detail went into every aspect of the space. The freshly painted dark grey walls have beautiful floral murals done in chalk. Two portraits of women wearing gold tribal-printed head wraps glistened in the sun, and planters hang next to floor to ceiling glass windows.
Vibez has something to offer for everyone. A comfy couch for a cup of coffee in the morning or Saturday brunch with friends, an intimate two seater for lunch dates, a comfortable space for family dinner, and a few children’s books to keep the little ones occupied.
The warm atmosphere the Webbers’ have created is welcoming, but the food is what makes people stay. Curry chick peas, Cajun fries and chicken and waffles are just a few favourites off the evolving menu. If you come in on a Friday, you can order specialty-fried fish and Saturday mornings are an opportunity to try a real Caribbean breakfast.
The dishes are inspired by authentic Jamaican food with a mix of Southern love. Yvette learned to make traditional “Yardie-Style” meals when she decided to move from Toronto to Jamaica to study cooking.
“We don’t water down the flavours. We bring to you exactly what you would get if you were on the islands. But hey, you don’t always want Caribbean food, sometimes you just want a good burger,” explained Kristan.
The Webbers sure know show to deliver flavour, especially with their hot pepper sauce. One day, Kristan forget to warn a customer about their hot sauce and he was barely able to handle the heat.
"We don’t water down the flavours. We bring to you exactly what you would get if you were on the islands. But hey, you don’t always want Caribbean food, sometimes you just want a good burger.”
“He was running around, I had to quickly get him some water. We thought he was going to pass out, but in the end he walked out singing ‘Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot.’ It was very scary but we couldn’t stop laughing in the end,” explained Kristan.
Yvette also learned to make pastries, which Kristan has been experimenting with too, allowing them to add a selection of freshly baked treats to their café menu. The Webbers also come from a long line of coffee-lovers, so naturally drip coffee and coconut-iced coffee were a must.
After only being open for a few weeks, Vibez was broken into on March 20 and their cash register was stolen. Motivated by the support of the community, the Webbers decided to clean up and still open the shop later that evening.
Visitors dropped by to order a roti and write a kind message on their coffee table. One of their regular customers even came in with flowers his wife had put together. The kind gesture moved Kristan to tears.
Despite the incident, Vibez has been having great experiences. The door is still broken, but delicious meals are still being fixed.
Pinecone Coffee Co.
175 John St. S.
Pinecone is the youngest addition, only opening its doors two months ago, and is already offering a fresh set of unique practices to set itself apart. This Corktown cafe offers the increasingly popular Aeropress as a brew method for your choice of Phil and Sebastian roasted coffees, Spanish lattes, and some unique seasonal beverages. These items pair perfectly with the spaces’ bright, clean, modern white interior crossed with wooden cabin accents, a charming back alley “patio” and large open windows complete with stained glass.
Originally hailing from Victoria Island, owner Denise Higginson has taken her love of coffee around the continent, and cites some of the cafes in the larger scenes as a source of inspiration and aspiration, “I think every neighbourhood in Hamilton should have a great coffee shop. A lot of cities have that and it would be great if Hamilton could have that too. In Vancouver, one block could have two really good coffee shops but they’ll have their own flavour.”
Having its own flavour seems to be a prevalent theme for Pinecone, whose cool marble and light wooden interior, set it apart from the more rustic décor that local cafes have often gravitated towards. Pinecone is a breath of fresh air, and the community of office workers and residents have visibly embraced this charming and bustling space. Students should take note: come September, this atmosphere is perfect for those in need of a break from crowded libraries.
As excellent as Pinecone currently is, it is still very much a café in its infancy that has already successfully set itself apart in terms of service and aesthetic, and they are certainly worth keeping an eye moving forward. If the new coffee shops expected to open in town have the passion, friendliness and innovative spirit that Pinecone Coffee Co. has, Hamilton will become a coffee hotspot in no time.
Finch Espresso Bar
601 Upper James Street
While residents of the downtown core are no longer strangers to a fair share of independent coffees, the Hamilton mountain area has remained largely a coffee dead zone. Unlike downtown, which has understandably been the centre of the coffee scenes growth, the mountain has been a challenging area due to busy roads and an overwhelming amount of drivers instead of cyclists, walkers and commuters that have allowed downtown businesses to enjoy a more consistent set of foot traffic.
Finch, which opened its doors in April 2014, breaks the coffee dry spell in a big way, finally providing a space for mountain residents to get expertly crafted espressos and pour-over brews from Pilot Coffee roasters, while still being easily accessible to curious downtown residents via a short bus ride.
The wide selection of hot and cold tastes, along with several more dynamic and complex offerings is definitely a treat for coffee fans or those looking to expand their palette. Owner Jess Ramsay’s passion and adoration for coffee, in all its complexities and variety, comes through its menu offerings. The Elevens (Jess’ personal favourite) is a perfect introduction to the fruitier and brighter side of coffee, a character that is unfortunately absent in cheap, over roasted and consequently bitter coffees, and the blend is rounded off surprisingly-well by steamed milk in your choice of latte, cappuccino or flat white, and a solid selection of Cake and Loaf baked goods.
Finch’s Signature Drink summer menu includes iced espresso, mixed with your choice of bitters, syrups, tonic water or mint. Also unique to the espresso bar is Nitro Cold Brewed coffee, which is brewed for 16 hours, kegged and infused with nitrogen, which gives the drink a strong resemblance to beer more so then coffee. Those in need of something on the sweeter side still have a selection of Italian sodas, ice mochas and highly recommended ice cream floats.
“Being an independent café makes you more approachable, I find. You don’t go into a Starbucks and ask what their different drinks are and what they can do differently for you, whereas here I get people all the time asking. It’s a door to get people talking about coffee and explain the differences, and how the different milk drinks are going to make your coffee taste, and then you can talk more about the roast too.” So far, Finch has hosted a brew tasting session, summer drink launch party, and is planning a home brewing class later this month.
“I’d always like to push the boundary of what we are offering, and keep our quality going up,” said Jess, who wishes to expand her espresso bar offerings of single-origin coffees, while simultaneously fostering a friendly community space to share with friends and neighbours, and hopefully educate more curious drinkers about her own passion.
Whether you’re thinking of visiting from downtown, or already a mountain resident, the trip to Finch Espresso Bar is well worth it: Finch has some of the best espresso in town, and they’re only looking to improve and educate from here on out.
312 King Street E.
Pronounced “Oh-Rahn-yuh” (but “orange” works just fine), Café Oranje is a modern Dutch-styled café, opened in August 2013, that delivers a delicious variety of brewed coffees from a large variety of local rosters and fresh Dutch sandwiches and desserts. While the Dutch origins are undoubtedly laced throughout the interior decor, and locally sourced baked goods are accompanied by sweet, in-house made stroopwafels, owner Christopher Godwaldt still lets the quality of the coffee take centre stage, offering one of the largest selections of locally roasted coffees in town.
“The standard trend right now, especially in Canada, is for a café to choose a roaster and sit with that roaster,” said Christopher. “Hamilton has six roasters that are doing really great things with coffee and each one of them sources their beans differently, each one of them roasts their beans differently, each one of them looks for different things in the flavour profiles… and I wanted a place in Hamilton where you could grab coffee from any of those places.”
The excellently balanced Oranje House blend is a highly recommended introduction to go with your sandwich, salad, or pie. The “Goldilocks” roast has become a favourite among locals and international coffee loving travellers alike. Local roaster Hero created the beloved blend of Indian Monsoon Malabar bean and Papa New Guinea. The Indian Monsoon is harvested and stored in seaside silos, during monsoon season, which weathers the beans and mimics the conditions coffee beans would experience on trader ships from the Dutch East Indies trading companies in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.
For summer drinks, Oranje has an excellent cold brew that can even be purchased in a bottle to take home, as well as a weekly staff-pick item, that has so far featured Southern Sweet Tea, Coffee Raspberry Granita and Vietnamese Iced Coffee.
Oranje has easily become a stand-out in the International Village community of the city, and its incredible amount of quality menu items makes it an easy recommendation. This café truly has something for everyone which is a commendable feat for a relatively young café with no signs of stopping there. Christopher is setting his eyes on possible expansion opportunities for his own café and the larger café community, the latter of which he hopes to help develop through barista training spaces and competition.