Café Le Cagibi has long held down the fort as a sort of (meta)physical gateway to Mile End at the corner of St-Laurent and St-Viateur. Yet after more than a decade—and amidst a strip dizzyingly gentrifying—the iconic café and show venue is moving on up.

Faced with—among other things—rent spikes north of 200%, Le Cagibi has opted to restructure. The metamorphosis actually began over a year ago, says Jess Lee, one of the proprietors. “As a group we tackled the issue of our lease, discussed landlord negotiations, and weighed pros, cons and feasibility of our various options,” she says.

“We decided moving was the best option.”

The iconic Mile End strip of St-Viateur between St-Laurent and Parc, built and popularized by places like Le Cagibi, has been gentrifying for years. Yet the gradual price edging of yesteryear has tipped over into something of a point of no return.

As documented by Gazette‘s T’cha Dunlevy, Le Cagibi’s rent increase came at the hands of Jeremy Kornbluth and Brandon Shiller, proprietors of upwards of seven properties on the strip, in addition to properties housing the controversial Starbucks in Marché Jean-Talon and the (now defunct) Gordon Ramsay remake of Le Laurier BBQ.

Yet according to Lee, there’s a silver lining to all this jazz. “Cagibi has always tried to provide a space for employees to learn and develop new skills and take on projects they’re excited about. The coop really formalizes this and takes it to the next level, allowing more folks to access the work, responsibilities and profits of ownership,” she says, noting that the new space will allow employees “to have more input into how the business runs,” and that regular nonworking members are also set to “benefit financially by receiving profits of the business and be able to choose where and how money goes back into the business.”

As such, Le Cagibi will join a growing cadre of city co-ops, such as nearby Touski and Divan Orange. The latter two proved particularly inspiring to Le Cagibi, according to Lee. “(These co-ops) were doing similar business operations and Touski provided us with an understanding of their structure which we definitely used as a springboard for discussing our own.”

So when will Le Cagibi as we know it be dissappearing? Having held its final show, the latest word is that current Le Cagibi will close around April 3rd. Lee says that the new space—on St-Zotique near St-Laurent—is slated to be open “as soon as possible… in time for Spring.”

The food menu might see some changes, though the details are still being hammered out.

As for the fate of the iconic Mile End of St-Viateur east of St-Laurent, things are much less certain.

“I think it just becomes more palpable and stark as financial capital begins to explicitly dominate the landscape,” says Lee of the changes. “But I think there’s a lot of resistance in Mile-End to allowing things to progress and a lot of continuous local support for long standing neighbourhood institutions.  I think the real estate corporations buying into the neighbourhood are aiming to make Mile End a new Griffintown or Notre Dame in St. Henri, but in my opinion, they’re overshooting in their expectations.”

“If they continue to blow out the locale economy,” she says, “in five years time my guess is there will be many unrented facades, a lot of business turnover and a few boutique operations or multi-national corporations using their storefront as advertising rather then as a points of sale.”

Cagibi has a fundraising campaign, where you can also find out about joining the collective

Featured image via Flickr/bittermelon / Creative Commons reuse.

“Notre français n’est pas très bon, mais notre café l’est…”

So reads the sandwich board outside Café Melbourne. The chalked dictum, speckled white from this winters’ endless snowfall, is a cheeky little jab from Down Under—a nod, perhaps, to the complicated history of The Main. All told, it’s a punchline that seems to sum up this joint to a tee.

melbourne_1Melbourne, a recent arrival on St-Laurent (4615, just north of Mont-Royal Avenue), is a modest, if not self-effacing, locale opened by Australians Xavier Martinelli and Angus Castran.

Armed with a sparkling La Marzocco machine and a few homemade trays of fruit-packed muffin-cakes, Café Melbourne comes across as bare bones, but it’s got more under the hood than meets the eye.

Boasting “third wave” beans thanks to Proud Mary (one of Australia’s highly-touted roasters), Martinelli and Castran also make Aussie comfort food that—oddly—feels right at home halfway across the hemisphere.

If you’re going to go, you should probably try a jaffle—essentially a sealed sandwich, the final effect of which (considering the fillings) lies somewhere between grilled cheese and calzone. If you think about what the structure implies, you can see the appeal: an increased ability to retain juiciness, (sauce, fat) all while boasting that slight greasy grilled-cheese sear on the exteriour.

It’s a hard concept to argue with, really, and chowing down on a Mac Daddy or Bada Bing amidst the owners’ razor-sharp wit and no-frills décor can’t help but make you want to hang in there a bit.

Seating is scarce, but if you’re serious about espresso, the wall-mounted counter vibe is actually a benefit, almost forcing you to stick with espressos—and drink it hot. This because, if you’re not standing, you’re pretty much staring at the wall by default. So you have no distractions but to focus on the beans in an en passant kind of way, without lingering and letting it die of cold. This is, after all, the proper tradition of espresso, as you’ll see in Rome or Paris or basically anywhere else that filter coffee is blasphemous.

I haven’t been to the real Melbourne, but if this is the way they do things in Australian cities, maybe they have an edge up on Montreal in some aspects of Europeanness. Don’t go telling all our tourists!

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Having tried an espresso, americano and latte, I can say that all were excellent to taste and reasonably priced. Meanwhile the footie pies (more akin to baby tourtières) loomed mysteriously in a cafeteria-style display oven. I’ll let you go try those out…and compare them to the Melbourne’s older sister down the block, Tourtière Australienne. Report back!

Or just trek up St-Laurent to Melbourne and order a jaffle sandwich in your thickest joual. After all, if we want these addictive goodies to stick around in this Drainvillian world of ours, we need to make sure these guys get fluent in French au plus tôt possible !

* photos by Valeria Bismar

 

cafe bloom

Pointe St-Charles is a neighbourhood known for its community spirit, mobilization for social justice, and commitment to equal and affordable housing.

These are all great things. So is espresso. Unfortunately, The Pointe has not been known for its Joe.

To be specific, there were, before the opening of Centre St.’s Café Bloom last year, three types of establishment one could rustle up a morning coffee: a diner, a casse-croûte or a dépanneur. I know this because, as a neighbourhood resident, I tried them all. It wasn’t pretty. 

For the uninitiated, Pointe St-Charles is demarcated by the Lachine Canal (to the north), the St. Lawrence river and train tracks (to the south), the 15/Décarie (to the west) and the Bonaventure expressway (to the east). If this sounds, on paper, like a forlorn little island-within-an-island, it’s because it pretty much is. But oddly, it’s also why most residents hold it in such tender regard.

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If I’ve gleaned one spiritual lesson from living in the Pointe, it’s that all things are impermanent. The neighbourhood’s collective unconscious is both vital and mutable (if the two can be separated)–tangibly cohesive yet continually twisting and contorting to grapple with surrounding forces. Some local militants even aspire to a Sovereign Pointe!

In the Pointe, buildings seem to persist for centuries and yet remain in constant flux. Most historic buildings have enjoyed umpteen lives—one day marked for demolition, the next day saved, and the day after that partially-reconstructed…only to be aborted, put back on the market, then ultimately reclaimed by the community.

So I was half-expecting, half-shocked that the Pointe should sprout its first upwardly mobile café. In many ways, the forces have been at play for years.

To this end, most locals seem very supportive of the caffeine joint, which also serves nicely thought-out breakfasts with a Belgian bent, themed salads and bowls (last week was Scandinavia) and decent pastries. The fact that they’ve created a low-key, welcoming community space certainly goes a long way toward ingratiating themselves in the ‘hood. But that space is also warm, wide and bright, with quality allongés and stark yet introspective photographs on display–the perfect excuse to trek out to our fair neighbourhood. Service is friendly and communal (you might have one person take your order, another bring it, and yet another drop by to ask you if everything is okay), and you’re never rushed out the door.

I’d like to say the Pointe has many qualities that warrant a visit–but most are eccentric enough as to warrant a bit more prose. Café Bloom, on the other hand, makes the Pointe an easy sell. Which worries me, because we all know what happens to neighbourhoods once too many espresso-drinkers “buy in.”

Bloom has set a cautious precedent for trendiness in the long-neglected Pointe. Let’s just hope that future businesses pay close attention to their tastefully-caffeinated model.

Café Bloom is located at 1940 rue du Centre. Getting there:

Photos by Joshua Davidson

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).

Cafe Aunja © Valeria BismarA 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.

Cafe Aunja © Valeria BismarSpeaking 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.

Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar
Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar
Cafe Aunja © Valeria Bismar

Café Aunja is located at 1448 Sherbrooke West.

Photos by Valeria Bismar.