Victoria is a city known for its tea--not just any tea, but the tea, as in the traditional afternoon tea served with silver trays of dainty sweets and savory delicacies in the famed Fairmount Empress hotel. To get caffeinated in B.C.'s capital city, expensive tea is one way to do it, but you can bet the locals aren't sitting around with their pinkies raised in the shadow of Queen Mary's portrait. Instead, they're swilling some serious, Seattle-worthy coffee.
I'm a proud, flag-waving, poutine-loving half-Canadian, but I have little faith in a country's coffee when the people so enthusiastically embrace the watered down brew at Tim Hortons (though the doughnut chain does make a mean cruller). In preparation of my birthday weekend in Victoria--a city that has largely been off my radar due to my loyalty to Vancouver--I trolled the Internet and asked friends for the best eats and drinks, and particularly the best coffee shops. There were some hits and misses, but I was generally impressed with the quality of the city's café culture. Here are a couple of the places I'd recommend to a friend:
Rather than farm-to-table, this café has built its business on bean-to-cup. There are two locations, but my favorite is the light-filled Atrium that occupies the corner of Blanshard and Yates. You can feel good about enjoying a cup here since the place is so focused on fair trade and sustainability, but it doesn't hurt that their beans are roasted and extracted to bring out the brightest flavors. If you're looking for adjectives to describe that mellow, malty espresso, there's an awesomely informative flavor wheel on the wall behind the bar. Habit gets bonus points for being open until 10 p.m., virtually unheard of in Victoria, even downtown. Order: If you like sweet and smooth, try the primo mocha, a combination of espresso, milk, and melted semisweet chocolate chips.
Despite the tattoos and beards and double zero ear gauges, this place is delightfully unpretentious. Discovery seems like the sort of place that doesn't have to try too hard--they've built a reputation for expertly roasted coffee and you'll find it served in mugs all over the city. They also operate three of their own cafes; I recommend visiting the low-key original location on Discovery Street (unless you're looking for a halogen bar and vacuum pots, in which case you'll want to head to Oak Bay). Expect more thrift-store chic than sleek and modern, but the coffee is legit--I particularly liked the Guatemalan Guateloompa's citrusy notes and light acidity. Order: They won't judge you for ordering a decaf vanilla latte, but at a place this reliable, it's best to go for something like an Americano that allows the espresso to really sing.
This was the place that I was most excited about, and the place I didn't get to try since they're only open weekdays right now. The setup at Bows & Arrows reminds me of Sightglass in San Francisco: it's a roastery warehouse in a mostly industrial part of town that built out a coffee bar to serve its wares from the source. Next time I'm in Victoria before 3:30 p.m. on a weekday, I'll be the first in line. Order: Grab a coffee and a pound of beans for your French press at home.