Balzac’s Coffee Roasters Waterloo – A Review

Balzac’s Coffee Roasters at its Uptown Waterloo location (Blair House / Rez One, 256 Phillip Street) is a recent addition to the Balzac’s family of coffee roasteries, with the next closest locations being in Kitchener and Guelph.

Balzac’s has about 10 or so branches across Ontario now, each one unique.  The Waterloo location is small, but has its own character, for sure.  One might call this particular Balzac’s quaint and unassuming, compared to, for instance, the Balzac’s in Toronto located in the Distillery District.  Take a look at this place – yowza!  Eat your heart out, Starbucks!

Yes, that’s an actual wedding.

The Toronto Balzac’s is kind of the be-all end-all when it comes to coffee shops, and so it’s slightly underwhelming to show the Waterloo version of Balzac’s, comparatively speaking, but here goes.

Actually, this Balzac’s is rather nice once you get inside, but it doesn’t really have the “wow” factor that the Distillery District Toronto location has.  That said, not all coffee shops can have giant chandeliers and mega high ceilings.  This one is nice though, and it has all of the same basic features you’ll find at any Balzac’s, including the dessert trays, various menus, and signature decor.

Here’s a map showing where you can find Balzac’s in Waterloo, straight from Google.

Blair House / Rez One

This particular incarnation of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters is tucked away on the ground floor of the Blair House, which is an off-campus living residence featuring luxury apartments that is occupied by students from Wilfrid Laurier University, The University of Waterloo, and Conestoga College called Rez One.

Rez One is a great place for new students to check out if they want to rent an apartment, but that’s another story.  Here’s a link to the Rez One website, in case you’re interested in finding out more about this place.

Blair House, at ground level, features a nice little mini strip mall on Phillip street that has established itself in the past couple of years that has proven to be a useful stop to get some things taken care of, whether it’s your hunger, thirst, or printing and shipping needs.  That’s right, in addition to Balzac’s, there is the UPS Store, Sharetea, Ken Sushi, O’My Bakery, and i noodles, all in this 100 meter span of plaza.

If you are driving by, you might miss this little mini mall if you’re not paying attention closely, but if you are walking by, you can’t really miss it.  It is on the right hand side of Phillip street if you are heading north, with the University of Waterloo on your left.  Wilfrid Laurier is a ways down University Avenue, but it’s only about a 10 minute walk to or from Blair House.

And, even though there’s plenty of coffee available within 1 km of Balzac’s (Tim Hortons, Williams, Second Cup), Balzac’s offers something a little different from the rest in terms of atmosphere and ambiance, and the spirit of Balzac’s is a bit different from your average café, too.

Not to mention that students and Waterloo residents in general just can’t seem to get enough coffee, cold drinks, and tasty snacks, of which Balzac’s has plenty.  More on the menu in a bit.

Parking

For parking, there is parking beside the Blair House which serves the various businesses at Blair House, as well as residents who live there.  There seems to be plenty of parking in that lot, so that shouldn’t be a concern.  You can park right next door, and walk less than 100 meters to get to Balzac’s.

There is other parking across the road, and down the street, but I’m pretty sure that this parking is meant specifically for the respective plazas they service (those closer to University Ave), and if you park there, you could get a ticket if you leave those plazas to visit Balzac’s.  Particularly if you park at the student parking lot that is close to East Campus hall, which is for students only.

In my experience, I’ve gotten a few tickets for parking in the various lots around campus, and leaving that lot (I’m a former U Waterloo student myself), only to find a ticket on my windshield when I return.  Some insist that this is just bad luck for me, and that tickets are rare.  It’s your call if you want to risk parking down the street and walking the 2-3 minutes to Balzac’s.

Therefore, I say stick to the one designated parking lot beside the place and avoid any kind of fines.  Here’s a pic of the Blair House / Rez One building from above, snapped by a drone or perhaps a hang glider.

So, to recap briefly, Balzac’s is there in the plaza along with the other stores, right across the street from U Waterloo’s East Campus Hall (Fine Arts Building) and in the middle of the action that is this new and bustling Uptown neighbourhood, populated mainly with students, but everyone goes to Balzac’s, really.  The coffee is the main attraction, but there is so much more!

Balzac’s Communal Atmosphere

In terms of function for the community at large, Balzac’s is a thriving meeting place in the midst of the Uptown community, where people can visit to socialize with friends or family, take a date, study, or just relax comfortably with a piping hot artisan coffee or espresso in the style of your choice.

There is a special atmosphere there, as Balzac’s coffee shops are handled with a little more care than your average chain of cafés.  For instance, they are chosen specifically to go in certain neighbourhoods which are a good healthy match for the franchise, as opposed to some chains, which you might say are less attuned to their surroundings when they arrive.

The employees are special too, chosen with more selectivity than your average coffee chain, which has a higher turn over rate due to hiring just about anyone who can work a cash register.  Customers pick up on the chill vibe, and it keeps them coming back.

The Decor and Seating

Much of the atmosphere that you find in Balzac’s comes from its signature use of old time-y decor, as Balzac’s was created to give the feel of a Parisian café from one hundred years ago.  Hence the style of art you see on the walls, hence the colour scheme, and hence the type of seating you’ll find there, made from hand-crafted wood with interesting colour and design choices everywhere you look.

This only adds to the invitational and communal style of Balzac’s, which is partly modern chic, part old fashioned European decor.  Once you’ve been to a Balzac’s, you get a feel for their artistic style, and many of the art pieces you see on the wall there become almost unmistakeable, being very particular to Balzac’s versus any other café.

Menu

Finally, we arrive at the menu.  In terms of drinks, there’s quite a bit to choose from, from hot to cold.  Have a look here below at the drink menu:

The great thing about Balzac’s is that the coffee beans are select, chosen specifically for their specialized and authentic taste.  These aren’t coffee flavours you’ll find at Tim Horton’s ever in a million years.  I think that even Starbucks, who is known for their long list of drinks that they serve, can’t really hold a candle to Balzac’s in terms of the coffee selection.  Whether you want to buy beans, or order a specialty coffee right then and there, Balzac’s is probably the best “chain” for ordering coffee, hands down.  The only other cafés in the K-W area who come close to competing with Balzac’s on a specialty coffee level are independently owned stores.

In terms of other drinks, you can see for yourself what Balzac’s offers.  I am always a fan of Americanos, and it is important to me that a café can make a good one of those, which Balzac’s most certainly can.  Their Café Canadien is another favourite of mine, made with real maple syrup.  Chai lattes, hot chocolate, and café mochas are more drinks I’d order from Balzac’s any old time.  There is a nice selection of teas as well, and you can also get juice, pop, or water if you like.

In terms of food, Balzac’s is mainly focused on snacks and treats.

I am not sure, but I think that in terms of baked goods and things like that, every Balzac’s is a little different, as I am guessing that they get their baked goods from bakers that live in the area around the café’s location.  As such, you can see a variety of baked goodies at Balzac’s, from cookies, to muffins, to blondies, to brownies, to scones, to tarts, and so forth.  I am gluten-free myself due to allergies, but I’ve seen a few gluten free things there and that’s good enough for me!  🙂

A Little Extra History on Balzacs

Perhaps you are familiar with Honoré de Balzac, the famous 19th century French novelist and major coffee aficionado who drank coffee – strong and black –  constantly to help fuel his creative works.

After discovering Balzac’s works in university, Diana Olsen, who founded Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, quickly identified with the man and what he represented – a coffee lover to the depths of his soul, who prized the creative and the sophisticated, steeped in French culture and mystique.

After spending a year or so in France herself, becoming ensconced in the cafe culture of Paris, Diana decided to bring this celebratory spirit with her back to Canada.

In 1993, Diana moved to San Francisco, where she learned the fine art of how to select beans and how to roast them at the renowned West Coast Specialty Coffee Training Institute.  The very artistic town of Stratford, Ontario, is where Diana chose to open her first Balzac’s in 1996.  In 2011, she was able to get some help from the infamous “dragons” on Dragon’s Den, to help expand her business.  (watch clip here) Currently, Diana resides in Ancaster, Ontario, where she keeps an eye on things from the roastery there.

Here’s a video featuring Diana talking about the development of her franchise over the years, including the inspiration she took from her dad to start Balzac’s.

As you can see, Diana clearly loves what she does, and that reflects in the four tenets of Balzac’s – Artisanal, Sustainable, Local and Natural.

I hope you enjoyed my review of Balzac’s.  I definitely recommend checking out this little coffee shop next time you’re in the Waterloo area!

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