Ah, donuts. Quite possibly the world’s most perfect pastry treat. It says something that whenever people begin their attacks on large, corporate fast food chains, the big donut shops always seem to escape relatively unscathed. I’m not quite sure what, exactly, it’s saying, but I’m sure it’s something. In any case, donuts are delicious. I love them, you love them, and there’s nothing better than going into a neighborhood donut shop on a freezing winter day to order our favored center-hole (or cream-filled) pastry with a nice cup of hot coffee and reading for an hour.
The big question, of course, is figuring out where you want to go to do that. Well, of course there’s always your local joint, but as much as I promote as much locality as possible in matters like this, there are those local places that just aren’t suited to the quiet atmosphere you’re looking for to get out of the cold and lose yourself inside a book for awhile. So as much as I don’t like going to the big places, they’re good at serving that purpose, and I frequently like to take advantage. If you live in the United States or Canada, your choices for such a joint are set in stone: Americans can take advantage of Dunkin’ Donuts, while Canadians have access to Tim Horton’s. But what if you’re living along the border and have ready access to both? Which one do you go to? Well, I’m one of those rare border people who is as likely to visit Dunkin’ as much as he is Timmy’s, and I say it’s time to mine a definitive answer to which one of these places is better. So let’s do this! Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Tim Horton’s. One day, I’ll learn.
Well, these places are both donut shops, so we might as well start with the obvious. Both Dunkin’ and Timmy’s are known and, well, at least tolerated for their abilities to whip up batches of creative donuts. Both bakeries have a habit of expanding their selections on a seasonal basis – Dunkin’ even offers a selection of donuts for Valentine’s Day, featuring donuts filled with cookie dough or brownie batter. Timmy’s goes for a more localized basis, and when football and hockey seasons roll around, they have pastries dedicated to the local teams – even the Bulls if you happen to be on the University of Buffalo campus. In the fall, Timmy’s has pumpkin donuts, and Dunkin’ has a seasonal selection more based around apples. When it comes down to the actual structure of the donuts, though, well, those tend to be pretty different too. The donuts at Dunkin’ Donuts are bigger and more dense while the ones at Tim Horton’s are fluffier, airier, and easier to chew on.
I know this is blasphemy in this area, but I’m giving this edge to Dunkin’ Donuts. Although I think Tim Horton’s probably has the better selection, I tend to think of donuts as dense treats that need to be washed down with a nice batch of brewed coffee, so the variety at Timmy’s just isn’t going to be an acceptable substitute if I decide I want a regular, classic Boston Creme or peanut donut. Dunkin’ does the classics pretty well, and that’s what this whole section comes down to.
There’s nothing like a cup of bold, robust coffee to wash down your pastries, so both places offer combinations that include it, along with a wide variety of ways to spice it up. Both places offer iced coffee and dark roasts, as well as a set of cappuccino drinks. There’s not much else to say about coffee – it’s pleasantly bitter and hot, can go with any food, and is a nice way to warm up.
Tim Horton’s wins this one by a mile. Not only is their dark roast better, but if you go to Dunkin’ Donuts, you have to order the dark roast in order to have a drink that tastes even remotely like coffee. And even then, the Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast is more like one of those vending machine coffees; something that’s there, quick, painless, and convenient that you can drink when you’re in dire need of a pick-me-up. The regular Dunkin’ Donuts coffee has been likened to dishwater, although I personally prefer to compare it to hot water which has been flavored with ink. There’s not much difference, though, and the message remains the same: Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is something that can be thrown out without regret.
The redheaded stepchild of the regular donut, bagels aren’t as soft or sweet, but you get to fill them up with butter and cream cheese. And Dunkin’ Donuts makes its bagels considerably bigger than Tim Horton’s, so there’s more for the price and more room for cream cheese. Unfortunately, Dunkin’ bagels also tend to be rather chewy, and also very difficult to bite off. They’re more like the bagels a lot of us get from grocery store bakeries. The bagels at Timmy’s are smaller, and they don’t offer quite as much variety when it comes to toppings, but if you want the bagel sliced and toasted, first of all, it really tastes like its been sliced and toasted and not merely heated in a saucepan for ten seconds. They are hard but just soft enough for you to be able to eat without chipping your teeth, but Timmy’s isn’t quite as generous with the cream cheese. Both places offer a great variety of bagels, from your regular flavors to temporary seasonal offerings.
Tim Horton’s. Not only are the bagels more like real bagels, they go a lot better with butter if you’re not up for cream cheese. Also, their bagels are a lot more flavorful and taste like exactly what they’re supposed to taste like. The way they’re baked is excellent – you don’t wear yourself out trying to chew one of them.
The larger, tastier, more filling, and less healthy alternative to the donut is an incredible treat at Dunkin’ Donuts. Moist, gooey, and packed with whatever flavor you ordered, there’s really not much of a contest to be had in this department… Until you get to know the various branches of Dunkin’ Donuts are realize they all seem to use very different muffin recipes. And that’s a real key here – Dunkin’ muffins COULD be the best you find anywhere, IF you happen to find a branch that does them well. Unfortunately, just as often, you’re also likely to find Dunkin’ muffins that are stale or dry. Tim Horton’s muffins are significantly smaller, and their best don’t hold a candle to the best at Dunkin’. However, there’s a more interesting selection at Timmy’s, and some of their muffins have small pockets filled with an appropriate cream or jelly. Although Dunkin’ ultimately has the higher quality muffins, Timmy’s makes up for its lesser quality with better consistency – a muffin cooked is going to be done in a particular way whether it’s done at Harborcenter or the University of Buffalo campus. The quality remains the same no matter where you are.
Tim Horton’s. And my god, what a place for Dunkin’ Donuts to squander its potential. Dunkin’ seemed to find the perfect way to make muffins, and yet, it can’t get that method of baking to every store. Hell, in my experience, it can’t get its baking methods to half its stores, and so you have a scattershot chance of finding the best of any particular kind of muffin that gets served at Dunkin’ Donuts. This kind of roulette has never happened at Tim Horton’s. I’ll grant that Dunkin’s blueberry muffins are consistent, but sometimes, I just want a damn chocolate chip muffin that isn’t fucking stale! Or a pumpkin muffin that doesn’t completely crumble after I take my first bite!
There’s a decent selection of sandwiches at both donut joints. At Dunkin’ Donuts, you get the feeling that everything that’s not one of their breakfast sandwiches was whipped up in a hurry using leftover breakfast materials with lunch meat. Not that I’m docking them for that in itself, because some of those selections are pretty tasty – their turkey sandwiches make a good, fast lunch sandwich in a pinch. Tim Horton’s does subs – or, really, half-subs, bigger than the sandwiches you’re likely to find at Burger King. There aren’t a whole lot of varieties of them, and it feels more like Timmy’s is banking more on its own selection of infallible breakfast sandwiches, which include biscuit sandwiches. Their selection of breakfast sandwiches is pretty standard, and has the usual ingredients, like eggs, sausage, cheese, and bacon.
Tim Horton’s. Dunkin’ Donuts seems to have whipped up half its menu as a compliment to its putrid coffee. That’s a bad enough crime as it is, but Dunkin’ compounds it by demanding you pay lunch sandwich prices for most of them. At Tim Horton’s, you can actually get a sizable lunch sandwich for an appropriate price.
And the winner of this contest is Tim Horton’s, and a four-time Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall of Famer destroys one of the silliest, most unsophisticated uses of the word “dunk.” Although, let’s be honest: The real winner in this contest would be Ipsento. Or Spot. Or Coffee Culture, or Sweetness 7, or whatever other local cafe serves coffee and pastries for the local intellectuals. The small places seem to get it right every time.