I started drinking coffee around age 12, not because I liked the taste of coffee, but because I loved coffee shops. On Sundays, my family would drive downtown from Kanata to attend the only Korean Protestant church in Ottawa at the time. After the service, I was allowed to walk to Bank Street with my friends to hang out at a coffee shop. As a suburban kid, the second-wave coffee experience represented hip places where the baristas were friendly and didn’t mind if you lingered. It was a chance to sit and watch snippets of people’s fascinating lives: working on their laptops, catching up with a friend, or going on a date. Every cup of coffee was made fresh for you, and every coffee shop seemed to want to prove that it was unique, cultured, diverse, and artsy: a sharp contrast to big-box suburban plazas.
Ottawa has changed, and so have I. Now that I’ve been living downtown for years, I appreciate the qualities of Ottawa’s subdivisions that I hadn’t noticed as a kid. I have spent more time exploring Ottawa beyond downtown, especially during the pandemic when I haven’t been able to travel. I have discovered independent and unexpected cafés with unique personalities, quirky decor, local art, non-Top 40s music, many of them run by BIPOC foodies, and, of course, fancy espresso machines with carefully curated coffee selections—things one might expect to find in Hintonburg rather than Kanata. These coffee shops have helped me think differently about the relationships between geographic location and culture, on which downtown does not hold the monopoly.
I don’t know if Ottawa residents know how many wonderful independent coffee shops exist in the suburbs. Some feel like hidden gems or special secrets I’ve kept to myself. So, I’m sharing several of my favourite suburban discoveries here, focusing on non-chain independent coffee shops and cafés without multiple locations to celebrate their unique qualities.
(I am not using any formal definition of “suburban” or “subdivision,” but rather a personal, subjective reference to residential neighbourhoods outside the core, where you might not expect to find such coffee shops or cafes).
Carlington Coffee House, 917 Merivale Road, Carlington
This spot opened right when the pandemic started and thankfully has stayed open. It looks like any house on its street, a historic veteran’s home emblematic of Carlington. Its exterior blends into the neighbourhood so unassumingly that it’s easy to miss, but is certainly one of Ottawa’s hidden gems. The baristas will chat like you’ve been friends for years. I overheard a customer order a secret off-menu item and decided on a whim to copy her order for a Swamp Water, which combines matcha, chai, ice and syrup. It is indeed very green and was delicious—hopefully, it will get added to the official menu. The space is small, but there is a cozy dining area upstairs, including a half-hidden bench converted from a closet, the perfect place to curl up and read. In the summer, Carlington Coffee House features an expansive outdoor patio and sometimes offers “puppacinos,” a refreshing drink for doggos who visit with their owners.
Honey Coffee Bar, 1564 Stittsville Main Street, Stittsville
Wait, why are there so many cool coffee shops in Stittsville? I don’t remember Stittsville being this cool when I was growing up, but it seems to have acquired its own “Hip Coffee Shop District” along Main Street with the former location of Kathleen Edwards’ Quitters Coffee (now a new location for Equator Coffee) and Ritual on Main just down the street. Honey Coffee Bar is located close to the Trans Canada Trail and makes a great pit stop if you’re going for a bike ride, which is what I did. It also shares its space with Holey Confectionary: a pairing as perfect as, well, coffee and doughnuts. If you don’t want to fuel your bike rides with coffee and sugar the way I do, they also serve a tasty selection of sandwiches and smoothies.
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Ritual on Main, 1510 Stittsville Main St, Stittsville
Around the block from Honey Coffee Bar, Ritual on Main is the newest venture of ChiChi Houron, who ran The Thirsty Maiden in Kanata (now sadly closed). Whenever I’m there, I can’t believe I’m still in Stittsville, where we only visited to go to the flea market when I was a kid. Ritual on Main provides the perfect coffee shop ambience, from the green ivy-covered wall to the retro furniture, welcoming baristas, and wide selection of baked goods, which I particularly appreciate. This is a popular spot for Stittsville residents and was quite busy the last few times I went. They have a new area in the back, a fairly spacious patio, and expanded hours to accommodate demand. Another good option if you’re cycling the Trans Canada Trail.
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Britannia Coffeehouse, 273 Britannia Rd, Ottawa
This is definitely not a secret spot! This coffee shop’s prime location along the Ottawa River bike path by Britannia Beach makes it the perfect year-round pit stop for cyclists, runners, paddlers, and cross-country skiers. It doesn’t hurt that they share a space with Beachconers Microcreamery so you can grab an ice cream cone as well; particularly convenient in the hot summer if you’ve been hanging out on the beach just steps away. There is plenty of patio space to sit and enjoy your coffee and pastries while watching people stroll along one of Ottawa’s favourite bike paths. With the Britannia Bake Shop across the street, this is probably the liveliest corner in the otherwise peaceful Britannia Village—a cute picturesque neighbourhood worth exploring on its own, with its old homes with quirky, unique personalities that remind me of Yellowknife’s Old Town.
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Dao Café, 1558 Merivale Rd, Nepean
You might not notice this café from outside. It’s located in one of the many strip malls along Merivale Road. But once you step inside, you feel like you’ve stepped into another land. Juxtaposing trees and plants with brightly lit white walls that evoke the inside of a spaceship, Dao Café’s aesthetic resembles the modern elegance of Asian-style cafés in places like Seoul. Led by chef Christopher Siu and chocolatier/pastry chef Chris Kwok, the European-Asian-inspired menu offers breathtaking edible art that is almost too pretty to eat. Take their “Tira-Meow-Su” for example; a cartoon cat made of marshmallows reclining in cream in an edible chocolate cup. My inability to both have the Tira-Meow-Su and eat it too left me contemplating the woefully ephemeral nature of beauty. Besides coffee, Dao Café provides a wide selection of teas, and I would gladly sample nearly all of them if I could. I opted for one of their fresh fruit teas, a passion fruit jasmine. This provided a refreshing contrast to my evil garlic bun—yes, that’s what they’re called—a light, fluffy bun filled with cream cheese and garlic.
Z3 Specialty Coffee, 150 Katimavik Road, Kanata
As a teen, I spent a lot of time waiting for the bus at Kanata Town Centre. If only Z3 Specialty Coffee was around then to help me pass the time! Located steps from the Mandarin buffet restaurant, this place serves Japanese-inspired coffee drinks and desserts. With a massive cherry tree painted on the wall and a green Astroturf on the floor evoking the feeling of a picnic in Japan, this is an interesting spot for a fun casual date or hangout with friends. And the menu! With all their fancy-looking pour-over equipment and coffee options I’ve never seen available elsewhere in Ottawa, it’s clear that they’ve put a lot of thought into their coffee. I would have ordered them all if I could handle that much caffeine at once. I ordered the fruit soda coffee, a shot of espresso dripped into a soda drink—two things I love but had never thought to combine before. But I was also tempted by their “dirty coffee” and their Yakult drinks made from the Asian liquid yogurts I drank as a kid. I also enjoyed their bubble waffle, served with ice cream and chocolate drizzle.