The dearth of friendly, independent cafés in the Golden Square Mile has always surprised me. Though slow advances are afoot – first Kafeïn, then Myriade and most recently Humble Lion – this thriving, thoughtful, studious hub remains more or less the stronghold of Chain Coffee.
Throw in the proximity of cultural havens such as the Musée de Beaux-Arts and the corporate coffee epidemic seems even more puzzling.
That’s why I was delighted to happen upon Café Aunja, new inhabitant of now-defunct Galerie Mazarine on Sherbrooke St. W., just a block from the main entrance of said Musée. I stumbled on it by mistake the first time, charmed in off the cold street by colourful furniture and brick walls (Disclosure: I’m a sucker for both).
A cool café? I wondered breathlessly, in the midst of all these stuffy galleries?
I couldn’t have known then that the juxtaposition was, well…not exactly intentional. According to co-owner Majid, Aunja was conceived as something of an extension of the Musée itself, a friendly “space for artists.”
“We thought about all the things we like to experience when we go to a café,” he mused, a skilled artisan himself. “Then we made it.”
So Saturdays are performance nights and space is allotted for artists to sell work. There’s the obligatory vintage sofa, shelf of dusty books and mismatched chairs—de rigeur for any artsy café.
But Aunja is no l’Éscalier—at least to my eye. There is a strong sense of authorship, a precise aesthetic, a sense that the space, perhaps more than the menu, is “curated” just for pontificating…or creating.
I like that. As a (sometime) writer, I’m definitely biased. But it’s my kind of place—with a vibe that might be described as a nearby blend of student-run Café X and chic Olivier Potier—in other words, equal part sketchbooks, hushed conversation and modest elegance.
Speaking of curation—there’s more. A roundabout conversation about the décor (which also includes stacks of National Geographics, startling black-and-white portraits and even an “antique camera museum”) unearths the fact that even Aunja’s furniture is detail-driven .
“We made these tables by hand,” Majid says, grinning.
The co-owners of Aunja—a “circle of friends” in Majid’s words—were warm, welcoming and refreshingly forthcoming on every one of my visits. My questions (whether about tea, history, or the menu) were often met with modesty, bright smiles and generous anecdotes.
Hamed Masoumi, another part-owner (pictured below), received with delight one of my coffee companions’ memories of his travels in the owners’ native Iran. I later found out that Masoumi is also the photographer behind those exceptional wall portraits.
Majid chuckled at my sense of awe. “We made this countertop, too,” he said, tapping the rich mahogany espresso-counter.
Though Aunja specializes in teas, a small rotating menu of soups, salads and sandwiches are just enough to keep a creative type cocooned away from big, cold, traffic-laden Sherbrooke West.
And though I am not enough of a coffee aficionado to really rate it against giants like Myriade, Pikolo or the Humble Lion, my few forays into short espressos certainly seemed spot on.
So I leave you with this truism—which is especially à propos with the looming winter— a “cool café” is all about what you make of it.
Café Aunja is located at 1448 Sherbrooke West.
Photos by Valeria Bismar.