Café 23 is an unassuming little coffee bar from the outside. Upon entering for the first time, it may take a few minutes for you to realize that you’re someplace quite unique. There’s a garden patio out back and a rooftop patio on the second floor. The backroom is a beautiful book nook hideaway and the entire place is like a maze. Explore this coffee shop with me and find out about the magical tree in the backyard.
If you make your way toward the back you’ll find this seemingly small venue with a few tables in the front opens up into a larger area where people sitting at a dining table are working away on their laptops. You’ll travel a path adorned with vintage candelabras, birdcage lamps and postmodern mirrors, retro accessories, Interview Magazines, and concert posters. The Sonic Youth concert poster on an oversized placard stand on the ground advertises two hot new bands: Nirvana and STP, as pluses on the concert billing.
Follow the patterned stone walkway around the corner to a patio that opens up further into a larger seating area in a garden seeded with pots of plants, flowers, and trees with baskets, like lanterns, hanging from them.
Business partners Steve Lipari and Vanessa Sansonetti started Café 23 coffee bar (728 Queen Street West, Toronto) three-and-a-half years ago, in February of 2019. They managed to keep the business going when many places along this strip of Queen West closed down during the pandemic.
Of the things that keep people coming back, the unique atmosphere is likely one of them. Lipari says people are particularly fond of the majestic-looking Japanese maple tree in the yard. It adds to the coziness of the place. “It was here when we arrived, just a tiny little thing. I think it loves all the attention and has been growing like crazy since we opened the patio two years ago. The guests love it and so do the birds. We have two little bird families that have adopted it.”
On the left there is a staircase leading up to another seating area — a rooftop patio, which appears out of nowhere, hidden from sight until you enter the outdoor patio garden on the ground floor. The rooftop deck is decorated with standing heaters, lit candles on a windowsill with various motifs, a stone bust of artist Frida Kahlo and slatted wooden patio chairs and tables.
The flavoured coffees and fancy brew were tempting and the countertop kiosk stocked with baked goods — scones, muffins, tarts, croissants, and cookies — looked delicious, but were a little on the pricey side for my pocket book. For my order I opted for the drip, the least fancy coffee on the menu, before making my way to the patio.
Drip coffee and all the other coffees; the espresso, macchiato, cortado, cappuccino, latte, and other beverages you would usually find in similar third wave specialty coffee shops, are made through the espresso machine. Plain, pecan, and cherry are some of the flavours they have listed on the menu.
They know where everything comes from. “All our coffees are ethically sourced,” says Lipari. “Our suppliers are Hale Coffee and De Mello, two Toronto-based premium roasters,” who provide specialty coffee blends made from beans from around the world.
The roasters are local as are many of their other suppliers. The butter tarts come from the lady who owns Kate’s Town Talk Bakery in Mississauga, says Lipari, a dessert that many people commenting on social media restaurant review sites seem to love.
The Café 23 menu has vegan choices from Tori’s Bake Shop and Village Juicery, including a wide selection of cold-pressed juices, salads, sandwiches and ginger shots. They also carry Montreal’s famous St. Viateur Bagels for sandwiches and sell them retail as well.
What’s popular in the summer?
Café 23 has a seasonal menu. People usually want cold drinks in the summer and Lipari confirms that the cold brew is a popular choice this summer. The process of making cold brew is similar to making steeped tea. You steam the coffee. “It’s delicious because you remove all the icidity and it’s refreshing for a hot summer day. It’s very popular.”
Other popular items on the menu are the strawberry matcha latte, lavender white mocha, iced Vietnamese coffee, caramel latte, and rose cappuccino. The rose cappuccino has rose flavouring and is served with actual rose petals in it. People love that flavour, Lipari says, and it’s a very Instagram-able coffee.
Weekends are usually busy, but in the summer every day is busy, depending on the weather. That morning in May on the patio was extremely calm and relaxing, especially with the birds chirping in the trees. I had the entire rooftop level to myself. There were only a few people outside, including a small group of girls happily chatting away. Then, two ladies came and sat a few feet away from me. They inserted themselves into my tranquil oasis by starting a spirited conversation about — I don’t know what. I tried to tune them out and eventually moved indoors to fugue jazz playing over the speakers, clanging pots and pans and the sound of air escaping from the espresso machine. I sat in a single chair by the shelf with the magazines and wrote most of this.
By then most retail shops had opened. That was the day I took photos of the cherry trees in bloom at Trinity Bellwoods Park, a few minutes west of the coffee shop, on foot.