February 16, 2013

F5 #3: In which I get needlessly commercial

When I do this F5 series, they have a general tendency to follow a recurring pattern: movies, music, books food, though perhaps not in that order. I'm pretty sure I've never just listed a bunch of addresses of a café chain for kicks, so this is perhaps one of the quirkiest things I've ever posted to the blog. But it's partly about food (and so it sticks to the pattern), and it's also about me (and so it sticks to the purpose).

I began drinking coffee in my late teens—perhaps around 17. (I'd already been drinking tea for a few years). Living in a small town with limited opportunities, my options were whatever I could make myself (usually instant) or what I could buy in a spare period from the school cafeteria, which, suprisingly, wasn't that bad. When I moved to the city for university, I was almost turned off coffee entirely, thanks to the horrible, tar-like substance dispensed by my residence's dining room. As a classmate once remarked to me, the real advantage of residence coffee was that you could drink a cup in the morning, and if you felt drowsy during class, just lick some off the roof of your mouth later.

In fairly short order, two things redeemed coffee for me: I discovered Tim Hortons coffee (unavailable to me in my teens), and also how to make my own coffee properly, out of ground beans. I soon wanted to try something other than the usual medium roast found in donut shops, or canned grounds from the supermarket. Also, the coffee shops around campus sold flavoured coffee, something not widely available in bean form outside of specialty shops. (But try and find raspberry chocolate or orange brandy coffee today!) So it's no surprise that I soon found myself shopping at Second Cup for my beans—and, when I wasn't living around the corner from one at school, frequently sitting in one.

So, without further ado, I present . . .

My Four Favourite . . . Second Cup Locations

  • University Ave. W. and Phillip St., Waterloo: This is the location that got the ball rolling, so to speak. I lived just around the corner for the majority of my university career, so this was really the go-to place for beans, unless I wanted to make a lengthy trek to a grocery. But why would I bike halfway across Waterloo for inferior coffee? It was in this store that I had my first espressos. They also showed me how to grind the beans properly for a drip filter or a French press.
  • 179 College St., Toronto: For eight months in 1994, I lived in Toronto on a co-op work placement. While I regard T.O. as a nice place to visit but not somewhere I'd love to take up permanent residence, I did decide early on that it had its perks: particularly, streetcars! One Saturday afternoon while shopping, I was riding the College St. streetcar line and happened upon this Second Cup location, and for some reason, decided I really liked it. (Probably, because I could sit in the window and watch the streetcars go past.) In fact, I enjoyed this location so much, I actually used to ride the subway down from church in North York on Sunday evenings, drop into the shop for a latte while reading a library book, then take the streetcar back to Warden to catch a bus back up to Agincourt, where I was living. (Talk about going out of your way for a coffee! At least I had nothing better to do on a Sunday night.)
    Honurable mention goes to the location at Bloor and Spadina: occasionally, after a stop on College St., I would zigzag my way through the University of Toronto Campus and the neighbouring residences, then stop here for another caffeine fix before catching the subway home. The first time I stopped by this location, they were playing ABBA, and that was good enough for me.

  • Bank St. and Slater St., Ottawa: The next year, I was in Ottawa for another work placement. I lived in Nepean, and was attending church downtown. Since I had to get up fairly early to get to church, I didn't have much of a chance to grab breakfast, so I bused as far as this store for a cup of coffee and a muffin, then walked the last few blocks to church. When I moved to Ottawa permanently a few years later, I revived the habit. Often the baristas, generally students, were listening to some rather unconventional music—technically against their rules, but at 8 am on a Sunday morning, there was no one else around to complain apart from myself. My music library includes artists such as Björk and Portishead because I heard them there first.
    This location no longer exists, as such, as their building was demolished a few years ago and replaced with the current Telus building on the same spot. While there is a Second Cup franchise on the ground floor, I don't know whether it counts as the same location or a coincidence. In either case, since my church moved to the south end, I have little reason to go downtown anymore in any case.

  • Finally, Bank St. and Second St., Ottawa: Located in the Glebe, "Second on Second" was a frequent after-church stop for young adults on Sunday nights. This store is well and truly gone; they closed in 2011, and the building is now occupied by the Marble Slab Creamery. In fact, there are no longer any Second Cup locations on Bank St. south of the Queensway. (There used to be three.)

I am no coffee snob; I am not very concerned with the pedigree of my coffee beans. These days, I'm just as likely to be satisfied with bulk beans from a supermarket hopper. However, I do like it to be well-made, with the right quantity freshly ground beans and just-about-boiling water. Coffee is best when it's lovingly hand-crafted by oneself. But there are times when you just want to sit down and let the experts prepare it, and there's just something about Second Cup's signature blends that evokes good memories.