Sometimes you really do want to go where everyone knows your name.
Mahtay Café is that place in downtown St. Catharines. It’s where first time visitors fast become regulars and start taking their coffee with conversation.
Mahtay opened when revitalization of the Garden City’s core was still only talk. But owner Chris Lowes believed it would happen. He can be credited with helping it along by building a community gathering spot that provides more than caffeine fixes.
With a menu that features — among other creative café fare — one of the best vegan breakfast sandwiches around, and Mahtay’s versatile space, this café has become the place to hold small community events in the downtown or take a simple time out. Poetry slams, podcast fests, coworking meetings and artists’ exhibitions are all in a day’s work here. And they’re made better by the craft beer and cider, fair trade coffees and teas, and made-to-order meals on offer.
Tell us about the inspiration for Mahtay Café.
The name is based on the South American tea, Yerba mate. What we loved about Yerba mate was that it’s a communal drink. In South America, it’s huge. They pour it in a vessel that’s called a guampa — it’s a gourd — then they put the tea in and hot water. Then they have a perforated straw in there, a bombilla, and they drink it. They pass it to the next person and they drink it and pass it on. We loved that idea of creating a community space and this drink typified what we were looking to do to build community.
Has it worked?
Yes. I would say we’re very much a community café. We’ve got lots of different groups (that come here). I’d go so far as to say that we’re a hub for them. We have lots of students, of course. We have a lot of artists come in and out. We have space for community groups to meet. We have a community space that’s used for fundraisers, and it allows us to be really connected to the downtown and Niagara community in general.
Tell us about the culinary experience you offer at Mahtay.
It’s always morphing. I think that’s important that we not stay still. Because we’re a community hub, lots of different people come here with lots of different dietary and culinary needs. We’re steeped in the arts and the art community and there’s large factions that are vegan. I myself am vegetarian so we wanted to make sure we offered vegan food, lots of vegetarian food, a good selection of gluten-free food. Basically the idea was people could sit down at one table. You could have six different people with six different needs and there’s something there for them. That’s the root of what we’re doing and then we try to feature as much local as possible. We’re not exclusively organic, but we do a lot of organic. Our flours are organic so when we do our pizza bread, it’s an organic bread.
So what does the menu at Mahtay add to downtown food scene?
Our price point — we’re not on the high end for price point. For a coffee shop we might be a little more on the expensive side because we do use a lot of organic and there is a cost for that. So you might find our teas are a little more than Tim Hortons tea and our pizzas, we’re using organic flour. But by picking the ones we’ve picked, we’ve also kept it so you’re not going to come in here and say I can’t afford to eat here. It’s an affordable meal.
What are the flagship menu items?
The chicken apple club is our most popular sandwich. We also have a vegan version of that with a breaded simulated chicken. Our brunch has become really popular. We launched that a month ago and just this week someone tweeted ‘Best thing to happen to St. Catharines in months,’ so that was fun to see. Really good coffee and really good tea are the backbone of it. We’re doing infused cocktails now. We have a gin infused with beets. There’s vodka infused with Earl Grey tea, so now we have a Russian Fog, which is a hard London Fog.
Do you still do the Yerba mate?
We still do the Yerba mate. There’s a large Mennonite population in Niagara and some of them came from South America, so they drink Yerba Mate. I’ve seen families sit around here, three generations drinking Yerba mate. So the parents and grandparents will sit around and they’ll have small children and their job is to pass the guampa and bombilla around.
You mentioned a new brunch program. Is there anything else to look forward to happening at Mahtay?
We just launched the infused cocktails. We’re really working on the food menu for night. We’re right across from the (FirstOntario) Performing Arts Centre, so we want stuff people can snack on and share. (They can) go to a show, come after a show and talk about it, and enjoy something to eat and drink.
Written by Tiffany Mayer
Upcoming at Mahtay Cafe’
Niagara Culinary Tours is excited to be collaborating with Niagara Veg Fest for this very special event, Veg Fest at the Chef’s Table. We will start with a guided walk around the downtown core and introduce you to some of the culinary gems of Niagara. It will be a blend of history and culinary tidbits that will lead up to what is to come.
While the evening is still young we will find our way over to Mahtay Cafe where we will have our tastebuds tantalized with a four course vegan meal. This dining experience of culinary delights will be created by Wellington Court, Rise Above Restaurant, Mahtay Cafe’ and Beechwood Doughnuts.