You’re missing a lot if you’ve only seen Hamilton from the James Allan Bridge that arches across the bay on the way from Toronto to Niagara.

The smokestack skyline that is your view from the bridge says more about the city’s past than the present day. For many years, the steel mills attached to those stacks provided the livelihood for thousands of Hamiltonians and earned the city the nickname of Steeltown. The winds of change blew through Hamilton many years ago and changed all that. Over the last 20 years, Hamilton has morphed into a city of culture and cafes where its energetic, creative environment continues to draw in artists and writers.

Part of that transformation included the opening of several funky cafes which, by my estimate, would give cities like Montreal a run for its money. I’ve been cafe-ing in Hamilton for years now, and it’s too hard to pick my favourite, so here are my top five:

1. The 541 Eatery and Exchange – 541 Barton Street East

The 541, as regulars call it, is located in an old abandoned bank in Hamilton’s east end. The fact that it’s an area with high pockets of poverty is precisely why the owners chose the location. The 541 isn’t your regular cafe – it’s a cafe that gives back to the community. When you pay for your meal, you can buy some buttons; five dollars for five buttons.

You then take those buttons out of the large glass jar on the counter and put them into another jar where folks who may not have much money can dip in, no questions asked, and buy themselves a meal. Think of it as a cafe with a heart.

Hamiltons 541 Eatery and Exchange - Photo Denise Davy

541 Eatery and Exchange – Photo Denise Davy

The ‘pay it forward’ policy isn’t the only reason the 541 Eatery is so popular. The decor is loaded with character, from the high ceilings to the white painted walls, wooden tables and pots of greenery. All combined, it creates a comfortable, welcoming feel.

If you sit long enough at one of the long tables, you just might make a few friends by the time you leave.
The menu is packed with comfort foods, like grilled cheese, soup and salads and quiche, which all come at a reasonable price. I had the sweet potato soup during my last visit, and it was delicious. It’s worth mentioning that because of the location, it’s also easy to find free side street parking and there’s always the lot across the street that will cost you a whopping $2 for the whole day.

2. Mulberry Street Coffeehouse – 193 James Street North

It’s hard to say what draws the crowds to the Mulberry more – the homey, relaxed atmosphere or the great food and delicious baked goods. The Mulberry is located on – where else – Mulberry Street, just off James Street North, which has become known for its galleries and restaurants.

When the Mulberry opened in August of 2010, it quickly became known as a go-to spot. The owners saved a lot of the old decor which you see as soon as you walk in the front door in the sandblasted brick walls and, if you look down, in the inlaid tile work.

There are many seating arrangements, including old wooden booths at the back, plus chairs and small tables along the side and a long table in the middle of the room. Grab a cup of coffee in one of their large ceramic mugs and sit back with your laptop.

Hamilton Mulberry Street Eatery - Photo Denise Davy

Mulberry Street Eatery – Photo Denise Davy

The industrial style decor is mixed with funky pieces, like the photo chandelier fixture in the middle of the room that’s definitely a design highlight. If you look closely, you’ll see the streets and alleyways of Hamilton captured in gritty black and white photos on the light fixture. It’s Hamilton at its gritty best.

As for the food, I’ve never had a meal there that I didn’t like, including the quiche, soups and sandwiches. As for the extensive selections of desserts, you can’t go wrong with one of their oversized date squares.

3. Democracy Coffee House – 202 Locke Street South

Walking into the Democracy Coffee House, the first thing you notice is the floor to ceiling chalkboards that are covered with messages, poetry and drawings. Some notes include information on local events, while some people just say hello to someone.

There are even slate tables where people can continue their artwork and writing. It’s part of what makes Democracy so welcoming and gives it a community feel. The menu is “proudly vegan and vegetarian-friendly”, and one of their most popular items are the cauliflower wings. Staff tell me the caramel vanilla latte is a huge favourite as are their wide selection of organic teas that include Jasmin gold dragon and tropical mist.

4. Paisley Coffeehouse and Eatery – 1020 King Street West

Whether it’s a great coffee or a delicious raspberry chocolate scones you’re after, it’s hard to go wrong at the Paisley. The cafe is located in a small plaza in Westdale, which is near McMaster University, so it’s no surprise it’s a popular spot with students. It also attracts a high number of locals who are after a great cup of coffee and a tasty snack. The only downside is that the food and decor or so attractive that it can be hard to finds seating.

Their desserts are amazing, especially the Earl Grey tea cakes and pastries that drip with ice cream and over Christmas, you can order your hot chocolate with candy cane pieces and marshmallows.
The environment is casual with a definite vintage vibe. Even if all you’re looking for is a good cup of coffee, the Paisley can deliver. As one visitor wrote on TripAdvisor; “If a cafe should do just one thing right, it offers a good cup of coffee and Paisley cafe does this extremely well.”

5. Cherry Birch General – 219 King Street East

The Cherry Birch General is a little out of the way compared to cafes in the core, but it’s the place to be if you’re looking for something different. While many Hamilton cafes have a funky, old brick look with a trendy feel, Cherry Birch owner Lisa Behrend went for a clean, minimalist look with open spaces, sleek white chairs and crisp grey walls.

Hamilton's Cherry Birch General - Photo Denise Davy

Hamilton’s Cherry Birch General – Photo Denise Davy

Lisa wanted to capture the decluttered, calm look that gave off a relaxed feel, and she succeeded. Lisa opened the Cherry Birch two years ago after being laid off, and she decided to indulge in her passion for baking.

Come for the calm and stay for Lisa’s freshly baked goodies, like her scones, crispy rice treats, butter tarts, pumpkin Nanaimo bars and doughnuts. The Cherry Birch also has a wide array of gift items, including loose leaf teas, candles, maple syrup from close to fifty Canadian companies. As a bonus, the walls are filled with photography and artwork by local artists, giving the Cherry Birch a definite Hamilton vibe.

Coffee at Hamilton's Cherry Birch General - Photo Denise Davy

A beautiful latte at Hamilton’s Cherry Birch General – Photo Denise Davy