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Just Opened: Sam James Coffee Bar

Double your fun: Sam James brews a two-pot siphon coffee

Double your fun: Sam James brews a two-pot siphon coffee

The caffeine crowd has kept the on-line forums busy over the past few weeks in anticipation of award-winning barista Sam James’s new place on Harbord Street. And now, after three months and a few bypassed opening dates, the Sam James Coffee Bar is finally open. “I didn’t want to open until everything was perfect,” says James. “It’s a shame when you go to an espresso bar and you’re let down by the coffee.”

James noticed the vacant spot three months ago when he was doing laundry across the street and thought this would be a good “old school” neighbourhood in which to set up shop. James kept the decor minimal: blank walls, save a tapestry made by his photographer friend Jeremy Jansen, and a white-tiled floor. A few stools are set up by the front window, but as the name suggests, this place is a bar and not a lounge.

Behind the counter are plaques and awards declaring “Samuel James” the best in the biz, as well as a $5 bill signed by Scott Rao, author of The Professional Barista’s Handbook, who flew in from Montreal for the opening. Other followers of James’s career—from Cherry Bomb to Hank’s to Manic Coffee to Dark Horse—lined up around the block on opening day to order off the simple menu: coffee ($2.14 for a regular cup), old school ($2.14 for a shot of espresso), new school ($3.33 for a soy latte) and tea ($2.38).

A small selection of sweet pastries delivered daily by J.P. Challet’s (Le Sélect, The Fifth) catering company across the street includes buttery croissants ($2.25) and dulce de leche banana bread ($2.25); James adds that he’d like to introduce savoury options.

But what is most intriguing here is the siphon coffee ($5.31 for one, $7.96 for two): a labour-intensive, seldom-used brewing process resembling a high-school lab experiment that produces a coffee superior to the regular brew. Consisting of two small, stacked coffee pots and connected by a tube, water is boiled in the lower chamber over an open flame and rises through the tube into the upper pot containing the coffee that James grinds by hand. Once the brew is ready, the flame is turned off and the coffee flows back down through the tube, which contains a filter, and into the lower chamber, ready to be poured. Total time: three minutes.

Unlike other coffees, many of which have a slightly tangy aftertaste, siphon coffee comes off as lighter, more pure and more delicate, making milk and sugar unnecessary. “Siphon coffee has less acidity and tastes very clean. It’s great for coffees with aromatic qualities, like Ethiopian beans that may have berry or jasmine notes,” he says. “It’s a date coffee, a treat for a girlfriend. It’s labour intensive, but I built this place around craftsmanship and manual labour. People will wait for great coffee.”

Sam James Coffee Bar, 297 Harbord St. (at Clinton St.), 647-341-2572,

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  • Pingback: Sam James Coffee Bar | 297 Harbord Street | 647 341 2572 |


    Thumbs up! for Sam James Coffee Bar …..well worth the trip, even from Richmond Hill, to enjoy the “best” espresso I can find in this City. ( The siphon coffee IS everything it claims to be too….superb ! )

  • Arby

    I visited Sam’s today and was very impressed and… ‘Satisfied’ seems so inadequate. I’m a real coffee lover and when I find the real deal, I’m just thrilled. And to have it served up by a friendly, famous craftsman like Sam was just the cherry on top for me.

    The place is not in my nabe and I was thinking, aloud to Sam, that it might not be a destination for me, unfortunately, due to it’s small footprint. I don’t want to travel a long way from home, via TTC, with a paper under my arm, prepared to settle in and spend some time there, only to find the place busy and no seats available. Then I had him grind up some beans for me, for my french press, and pull me a parting shot. It just knocked my socks off! (The only place that came close was Vici Gelato in the basement of the Toronto Life Center. But they weren’t there long. I don’t think they are still in Toronto. Sorry Dark Horse.) I then realized that I might not be in often, but that espresso ‘will’ draw me back from time to time. There were 4 different beans in the cup. All I know is that Sam found a blend in this cup that I hope we never lose. It always depends on mother nature of course.

    I started with a macchiato, which was top notch. Then, before my incredible espresso, I had some french pressed Yirgacheffe that was bright, but full flavored (which bright sometimes isn’t), wonderful and totally memorable.

    Good luck Sam!

  • Wayne

    Congrats on your new place.
    The Cappucino was fabulous, as were the baked goods(not made by Sam).
    Most definitely worth the drive from Thornhill

    Wishing you continued success !

    See you again


  • Jess

    I also visited the coffee bar today with a friend, having seen this write up in TL. Note to anyone and everyone: do not mention having seen this article, as some neighbourhood hipster douchebag will undoubtedly roll his eyes at you. True story. The owner and his fellow barista were super friendly however and the siphon coffee, while pricey, was excellent. Great recommendation. Thanks!

  • neighbour DB

    Note to Jess: those of us who live in the neighbourhood and who also read TL are not “hipster douchebags”.

    Congrats Sam, and welcome to the ‘hood!

  • nono

    Another note to Jess- Great effort at exonerating yourself from being a douchebag in your comment, real smooth, calm down and drink your coffee.

  • Jess

    Calling someone a douchebag makes me a douchebag? Hardly. You might want to look up the definition.

    My point in sharing an honest review was to laud Sam for his great coffee and friendly shop. Obviously he appreciates business of any kind. He nor his fellow barista batted an eye at my mention of this article. For some reason however, it was another customer who seemed to take issue. Clearly reading TL is beneath the ndb.

    Some people clearly don’t realize that successful businesses NEED a wide customer base to survive. Reviews such as those in TL provide exposure, particularly for small businesses. As per the above comments, there are more than a few people from the ‘burbs making the trek. So for someone else to scoff at my mention of this article (my intention in doing so being that Sam would know such reviews are indeed helping generate business) was ridiculous and indeed, makes the guy a douchebag.

    Anyway, let’s not spoil the fact that this is a great little coffee bar and I’m sure many other unpretentious people, from the neighbourhood or otherwise, frequent it.

  • ben

    Yes, let’s try not to spoil that fact with two postings that talk more about your hurt feelings than the coffee… That would be inconsiderate.

    From the few samples I’ve had now at the bar, I’d say my picks are the siphon coffee or the cappuccino. Both are excellent and despite what some have said, the siphon seems pretty well priced considering the labour that goes into it as well as the cost of the contraption that makes it – sort of the same as buying coffee from a clover machine, the results (which are more tea-like than usual) seem to justify the price.

  • danielle

    Don’t worry Jess, your point was valid and your praise sincere.

  • shaw

    Have to agree – the shop is a great addition to the hood. No more having to trek through the construction on Roncy to get some decent beans from cB*mb.

    Perhaps its just me, but I have to say the espresso blend they serve at Sam James is not typical of other espresso blends in the city, it has a really smooth nutty finish, rather than the cutting chocolately finish that i’ve had elsewhere. I like both, but I’m wondering if the bean selection might change as he gets more feedback from customers. I’ve noticed most people on here praise the siphon or cappuccino (i recognize it is also made with espresso), rather than the straight espresso shots… so perhaps that’s an indication there some room for improvement.

    I’m also betting his espresso machine might get an upgrade once he’s re-couped some of his setup costs… A Synesso would be great to have in there.

    Keep it up Sam, the place looks great, and I’ll be a loyal customer for a long time.

  • Andrew

    This place has transformed the ugliest strip on Harbord into something special! The coffee is great, as are the staff!

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