Editor’s update (Feb 2016): This cafe is currently rotating their coffee roasters.
Author: Shirley & Mike Wong
“Take away my name.”
-Thompson Twins (from “Doctor! Doctor!”)
As we enter The Only Café, we’re immediately greeted by one of the owners. She looks up, beams and says, “Welcome back!”
Mike explains that it’s our first time here. She’s confused us with someone else but it takes some convincing on our part, as she swears another couple – looking exactly like us – dropped by yesterday. So if you think you spotted us at your local café? Could be a couple of our doppelgängers, instead.
On Stop 78 of our weekly Search for Vancouver’s Best Coffee, we’d love to meet up with our coffee twins, ask them what they think about The Only Café. This is Kitsilano’s newest coffee option – definitely a standout – which just opened over two months ago.
After we park our car on Trafalgar St., it’s a short walk along West 4th before we spot their sandwich board. There’s also a sweet sign in front of a water bowl, inviting dogs to come inside for free biscuits (gluten free, too).
Besides the owner Monica, there’s another staffer behind the counter. The other owner, David, isn’t here today. Monica tells us that they previously worked at Kerrisdale’s La Cuisson, then decided to leave to start this business.
What they took along with them: not only their extensive barista and management experience, but also a very strong philosophy on what a coffee shop should be.
In fact, if you’re wondering why this cafe is called what it is, they have a unique store policy. It’s posted prominently at their entrance and on their website – what we would call an “anti-snob” philosophy.
They have no problem if customers bring in outside food. Plus, they give you a discount if you bring in your own cup, regardless of what the branding is. Example, they’ll even rinse out your Starbucks paper cup and fill it with their own coffee.
Maybe other businesses might allow that too, or just turn a blind eye if it happens. But these owners send a welcoming message by clearly stating it as their policy.
Another pleasant surprise? A diverse brewing menu that you won’t find at most cafes: espresso, hand drip ($3.75), French Press ($4.50), siphon ($3.75 using a Hario brewer) and Royal Belgium Pot ($9.75 for another fancy siphon).
For non-coffee options, they have premium teas, slushies and smoothies. And if you are a fan of nut mylk, they make their own from cashews; we even saw them making it at the counter.
When Mike decides on their specialty, Hario siphon ($3.75), the staffer shows him six Herkimer profiles to choose from: house blend, El Salvador, Colombia, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Burundi and decaf house blend. All are offered for “brew by the cup”.
It’s a nice surprise to have a range of profiles to choose from. For those unfamiliar with this coffee, they’ve thoughtfully included a brief description of the flavour of each (ie. bold, complex, chocolaty).
She offers to give Mike suggestions, to which he says he’d love to hear. She tells him her preference is coffees with lower acidity, and with her advice, he decides on a fruity Burundi.
I decide on a Blooming Tea ($3.34) which is a rare jasmine tea made of flower buds that opens upon contact with hot water.
They have a selection of croissant sandwiches, chocolate cake, cupcakes and their own raw, vegan, gluten free cheesecake ($3.75). A fun option: colourful mini chocolate “salads” by North Van’s Coconama Chocolate.
We decide on an Almond Croissant ($3.50) and Pistachio Danish ($3.69), made by Kits’ Baguette & Co. She asks if we’d like them heated, which we think is proactive service.
Monica heads to the end of the counter to make our coffee. She’s very friendly. When we comment on the decor, she mentions that they worked hard on renovating this shop, doing much of the work themselves, for several months.
If you look around, it’s charming. There’s light wood on the counter, tables and bar stools. It feels welcoming with comfy sofa chairs and lots of magazines and books to peruse.
And some quirky design touches are there, which I love. My favourite feature is the giant cloud of cotton above our heads, which shines dreamily from a light buried within.
There’s also some unexpected multi-sensory touches, like a projection of images on a blank wall. If you enjoy music, you can plug into their HiFi headphones at every table.
Besides that, they frequently feature live music at their cafe: their aim is to help local musicians get their careers started. Check out their Facebook feed for video clips of some of the talent.
She begins grinding the beans and then sets up the siphon. When people ask us to recommend a special coffee experience, we don’t tell them to order an Americano. Espresso based drinks are nice, but if you want something standout, then go and order a siphon. There’s still a lot of people who haven’t seen coffee form under the magic of a blue flame, but it should be on your bucket list.
We’ve also found siphon coffee in Vancouver – while not a common menu item – is made with a lot of skill and care.
She tells us that she has years of barista experience, which comes across with the confidence she has making the siphon, adjusting the flame, expertly stirring the grounds into the water.
What’s nice is she comes across as a coffee fan, herself. She asks us for our opinion on local coffees and we hear her preferences too. Watching siphon being made is interesting because it can show how a barista’s people skills are; it’s clear that this owner’s strength is listening and building relationships with customers.
When the coffee is finished brewing, she pours a serving into a glass for Mike. We notice it’s a smaller quantity in that you get one serving. That is, commonly other cafes make a large quantity so there’s a cup of coffee, plus extra coffee in a carafe on the side.
But we think it’s fair to make one serving and price it economically, since siphon is normally one of the most expensive drinks. The Only Cafe’s pricing might attract more customers to try out this brewing method.
We take a seat and Mike comments on the clean and fruity flavour of his coffee, which he enjoys.
The Pistachio Danish and Almond Croissant are served heated, in individual bamboo trays, which is a unique modern touch. We’re fans of Baguette & Co, from trying their pastries before, and found these were consistent with past experiences where they’re very buttery and flaky.
I love the Blossoming Tea, served in a glass teapot so you can view the colourful flower bloom.
Monica explains that David visits the supplier direct in China, to ensure they get the highest quality rare teas. Every flower looks different upon blooming – they’re actually tied together in mini bundles – which is a neat experience.
The jasmine tea is a pale shade and poured into a delicate patterned teacup – a nice presentation. It tastes clean and subtle. I would order this again.
I recently heard a Vancouver blogger remark that the coffee scene here made him depressed. That cynicism surprised me.
There’s a new wave of start ups created by young baristas that want to do things their way. It’s a big credit to Vancouver that people are embracing a new generation with big ideas and innovation. If they’ve got something to say, let’s hear it.
VANCOUVER BARISTA REVIEW
Location of roaster: Seattle, WA
Brewing method: Hario siphon
Roaster’s tasting notes: “Sweet red seed fruits, cherry, and pomegranate. The acid profile also features some floral rose-hip adding to the juicy fruit. Ultra clean texture with a soft creamy body.”
Mike’s comments: Clean tasting and juicy with fruity sweetness. Some nutty flavour.
- Surprisingly affordable Hario siphon ($3.75). Also love how they offer an alternative siphon (Royal Belgium Pot) that’s not a common menu item.
- Coffee knowledgeable staff with confident service.
- Fan of their blooming teas which make a special experience. Liked their pastries from Baguette & Co.
- Charmed by this sweet cafe with a unique personality. Thought it was a big mood lifter.
- Recommend checking them out when they have a live band, for a different ambience.
- After we got home, noticed we were mistakenly charged for an item we didn’t order. We called, the owner apologized and promptly reversed the charge. Thanks for the worry-free experience.
Seating availability: 4.25/5
OVERALL RATING by VANCOUVER BARISTA: 4.62/5
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2678 W 4th Ave
Operating hours here.