If you’re the sort of person who always checks the backs of wardrobes, behind the old coats, in the hope of finding a door to another time and place, The Only Café is the one for you. Maybe the only one.
Scene: A disgusting day in February. I’ve just had lunch with friends and am looking for a place to go sit and work on a white paper for a company that makes a mental health app. The first bus that comes along goes to Donlands Station, a part of the Danforth I almost never get to. I get off and look for a coffee place. There’s one by the station but it’s small and not good for three hours of sitting working. I go around the corner and, a few addresses down, find a doorway to a kind of place I used to hang out in 20 years ago. A place that even then would make you wonder when the last time they redecorated was.
Ornate wood frames on old flaking mirrors. Chalkboards set in the same gruff wood as the pews in a parish church that’s slated for conversion to condos. Seating that seems to include pews from that parish and some others, plus tables from every aunt’s kitchen in the neighbourhood, assorted chairs that locals left on their lawns after refreshing their décor at a sale at The Brick or Bad Boy, a bar with a rail – clearly people used to get sedated rather than caffeinated here – and, behind it, all the necessaries of the hip modern espresso joint.
I get a small, tight flat white and look for a table. It’s kinda busy at the moment. I see a sign hanging from the ceiling, an arrow pointing right: MORE SEATING.
There’s a door just past the bar. It leads to another room.
My favourite coffee place 20 years ago in Somerville, Massachusetts, had another room. It was the bigger, deeper-in room where all the cool people sat and worked and talked. It was really the address next door, but it had no direct street access, just a big window.
This here now is not that. Not quite.
It’s the address next door, yes, and it’s part of the same establishment. It has its own entrance. I walk in and towards the street door and plant myself at a small table across from the bar.
I have just passed through a magic portal from a Haight-Ashbury-style coffee place into an east Toronto microbrew pub: The One in the Only. It has 24 taps, their current contents listed on an electronic screen above a fridge stocked with cans and bottles of the same ilk. Its décor is, like in the coffee shop, a conscious mix of scavenged and stolen.
Obviously, once I finish my coffee and about an hour and a half of work on the white paper, I address myself to the bartender.
That was February. Now it’s July. I’ve decided that today is a good day to detour back here. You could join me; there are empty spots at some of the tables just now. I’m at the three-person table closest to the disco ball on the coffee bar side. The music is pleasant alt-pop. Eventually they’ll play Fleet Foxes, I feel sure. Somehow the air is perfumed with the same thing as is pumped into Vegas casinos to cover the smell of gamblers. Through a door at the back I see a deck, open now as it wasn’t in February, set up with the same scavenged funk as the coffee shop.
Every so often people with suitcases show up at the coffee counter and check in.
That’s not a joke. This place also has a hostel or other inexpensive lodging of some sort associated with it. Travellers of various ages from various other countries are showing up, paying deposit for two or three nights, and then being led out to another door. This isn’t just a magic room or two magic rooms; it’s apparently a whole magic kingdom. I’m not going to go check out their lodgings, of course. Why should I? I live in Toronto. Also, I’m here to work.
So obviously as soon as I’m done this coffee I’m going through that portal in the back, briefly down the stairs to the washroom (the entrance is street-level without steps but the washrooms are not, just so you know), and then to that bar, with its bearded young barkeep and the Stones on the speakers and at least three drinking dudes with sunglasses on their foreheads and maybe ballcaps bearing them. I’ve already done the work I came here for. Plus this thing you’re reading.