Talk to any Torontonian and they’ll proudly tell you the defining characteristic of their city is its multi-ethnicity. One of the world’s most ethnically-diverse metropolises, no single group dominates here. However, it’s no melting pot, more a blurred-at-the-edges mosaic — stand back and enjoy the harmonious whole but get close and see that each piece is separate. This diversity goes beyond cuisine, although you can eat your way around the world here — it shines through the architecture, the religious celebrations and the way those in the downtown core cultivate an accepting, no-hierarchy attitude. It’s not perfect, but as far as delivering the Canadian Dream of a classless society, Toronto does it best.
Known as a city of neighbourhoods (there are some 240 within its limits), it amalgamated the six municipalities previously known as ‘Metropolitan Toronto’ to create a single ‘Megacity’ in the late-1990s as a cost-cutting exercise. And it’s these ’hoods that are crying to be explored once you’ve ticked off the tourist must-sees of the CN Tower, a show in the Entertainment District and a morning exploring the Distillery District. Jump on a streetcar to delve deep into the one-off boutiques, quirky coffee shops and secret bars of the West Side — Kensington and Chinatown, Queen West, Ossington and Parkdale are all within blocks of each other.
At first glance Kensington can seem a Camden Market-like tourist trap, but talk to the draft-dodger shop keepers who arrived in the 1960s and never left or the chatty staff in the mom and pop stores and you’ll find an authentic sense of community. The Ossington and Parkdale hoods have cleaned up their act, and they remain areas where creative types thrive and the cafes and bar patios are filled with people happy to shoot the breeze with a curious visitor. Jay-walking, fast-talking Torontonians aren’t shy and everyone will recommend a new cool spot or can’t-miss taco joint. Just ask.
Food glorious food
While the suits and the foodie set feast on deftly-prepped tasting menus across the centre, head among the plaid shirts and beards of Ossington and Parkdale if you’re after affordable culinary fireworks.
Grand Electric’s tacos, especially the Baja fish, are superb, although the music is rock-gig loud and the service can be a little patchy. At the edge of Parkdale, Keriwa Cafe offers a chance to taste delicious Blackfoot First Nation-inspired food using traditional Ontario ingredients with dishes such as bison burgers and venison tartare.
Elsewhere, Ossington packs an abundance of quality dining into a few blocks. Try Malaysian-inspired plates like chilli salt tofu at Hawker Bar, addictive bourbon-maple bacon and devilled eggs for brunch at the Saint Tavern, and Asian-fusion short-ribs at Foxley. Cross Dundas Street and venture into the Dakota Tavern’s basement for a magical atmosphere at its weekend all-you-can-eat Bluegrass Brunches.
Grab traditional fish and chips at Chippy’s on Queen Street West and eat them picnic-style at the park opposite. Then treat yourself at nearby Nadege Patisserie — its salt caramel tart is rightly famous. And if you haven’t had enough carbs, try out the huge sandwiches or maple-dipped fried chicken at Caplansky’s Deli.
Grand Electric: 1,330 Queen St W. grandelectricbar.com
Keriwa Cafe: 1690 Queen St W. keriwacafe.ca
Hawker Bar: 164 Ossington Ave. hawkerbar.com
Saint Tavern: 227 Ossington Ave. thesainttavern.com
Foxley: 207 Ossington Ave. T: 00 1 416 534 8520
Dakota Tavern: 249 Ossington Ave. thedakotatavern.com
Chippy’s: 893 Queen St W. chippys.ca
Nadege: 780 Queen St W. nadege-patisserie.com
Caplansky’s: 356 College St. caplanskys.com
Piles of style
For aficionados of vintage clothes shopping, Toronto offers an intoxicating blend of rare high quality combined with ‘Oh, go on, I’ll take both’ low prices and seemingly endless choice. You can browse pointed-collar shirts and original flowing maxi dresses on crowded racks under the trees along Kensington Avenue. Known locally as ‘the’ dress shop, Flashback 2 has everything from retro-sequinned cocktail gowns to sophisticated evening wear. Its brother-store King of Kensington specialises in 1960s and 1970s menswear along with leather, luggage and hats.
Taking vintage wear and up-cycling it with an eco-twist, local label and boutique Preloved makes one-of-a-kind clothes from reclaimed fabrics. Its Queen West store showcases butterfly-sleeve tunics made from Hawaiian shirts, and grandpa sweaters that have been transformed into skater skirts. Canadian designers rule in many of the Queen West boutiques; buy Montreal-designed ‘Yoga Jeans’ (which are ridiculously stylish and comfy) and locally-made jewellery from Shopgirls in Parkdale. Try on lacy prom gowns, cute knits and silk-print scarves at Coal Miner’s Daughter from mainly Toronto-based designers along with vintage shoes, belts and bags.
Gravity Pope’s Ossington mini-department store has an excellent men’s and women’s range plus a vast selection of eye-catching shoes and an intriguing ‘apothecary’ department. For ultra-high end clothing head for Bloor-Yorkville, Toronto’s Rodeo Drive; start at Holt Renfrew and carry on until your credit card begs you to stop.
For a budget alternative (and for less serious shoppers) Kensington’s Blue Banana Market is a fun mish-mash of Canadiana (maple syrup candies to candles), blankets from Peru, drums from Africa, owl pillows and local artwork.
Flashback 2: 25 Kensington Ave. flashbackvintage.com
King of Kensington: 35 Kensington Ave. flashbackvintage.com/stores/king-of-kensington
Preloved: 881 Queen St W. preloved.ca
Shopgirls: 1,342 Queen St W. shopgirls.ca
Coal Miner’s Daughter: 744 Queen Street W. coalminersdaughter.ca
Gravity Pope: 1,010 Queen St W. gravitypope.com
Holt Renfrew: 50 Bloor St W. holtrenfrew.com
Enthusiastically-enforced 2am liquor laws suggest Toronto isn’t a 24-hour city, but ask the right bartender and you’ll soon find an after-hours spot. There’s also the tradition of ‘cold tea’ in open-till-4am Chinatown restaurants — beer served in a teapot. Paying homage to the concept but serving beer from bottles along with inspired cocktails, Cold Tea Bar also has cart-served Dim Sum and chilled barbecue sessions in their garden. In the best tradition of speakeasies, there’s no sign; entry is via the Kensington Mall — look for the red light and push the door. Around the corner soak up the sun on the patio at Ronnie’s, a tiny dive bar with a Brit-style snug, or hang out at the Embassy with its diner seating and DJs. Toronto has been misbehaving itself at the nearby El Mocambo Tavern, known locally as ‘El Mo’, for decades; everyone from the Rolling Stones to U2 have played here and it still retains a grubby charm.
The club scene in the Entertainment District is strictly for the ‘905-ers’ (named after the dialling code for the city’s suburbs). Follow the lead of the ‘416-ers’ who reside in central Toronto and head to Parkdale’s Cadillac Lounge, whose huge patio is a draw in summer. Across the street, enjoy daytime pints with the friendly crowd at Rhino, or hit it up for cheap pre-clubbing drinks before dancing with the skinny-jean, trucker hat-wearing crowd at Wrongbar to electronica, hip-hop or hardcore depending on the night.
Among the music-blaring bars of Queen West is possibly one of the world’s finest cocktail bars, BarChef, where co-owner Frankie Solarik creates expensive-but-worth-it molecular gastronomy drinks in a candle-lit, velvet-curtained room. The deconstructed Aviation is a multi-layered jelly which combines Maraschino caviar, a foam and edible flowers that melt into the perfect drink in your mouth.
Ronnie’s Local 069: 69 Nassau St. T: 00 1 416 340 1110
Embassy: 223 Augusta Ave. T: 00 1 416 591 1132.
El Mocambo: 464 Spadina Ave. elmocambo.com
Cadillac Lounge: 1,296 Queen St W. cadillaclounge.com
The Rhino: 1,249 Queen St W. therhino.ca
Wrongbar: 1,279 Queen St W. wrongbar.com/wb
BarChef: 472 Queen St W. barcheftoronto.com
Cold Tea: 60 Kensington Ave. twitter.com/coldteabar
Top 10 local tips
01 Skip breakfast and head to the St Lawrence Market for thick-cut peameal bacon rolls from the Carousel Bakery. stlawrencemarket.com
02 Hire a bike and take the ferry from Queen’s Quay to cycle the chain of islands in Lake Ontario.
03 Slump in red velvet cinema seats at Mascot and check out its in-cafe gallery while sipping an espresso. themascot.ca
04 The car-free streets around Kensington Market are filled with performers for Pedestrian Sundays from May to October. pskensington.ca
05 Take a Silkscreen 101 workshop at Model Citizen with designer Julian Finkel. modelcitizentoronto.com
06 Get discounted entry at the Royal Ontario Museum on Fridays from 4.30pm-8.30pm. rom.on.ca
07 It’s not hip but Stones Place bar is packed every weekend with a crowd who dance like no one’s watching. stonesplace.ca
08 Cheer on the Marlies hockey team at Ricoh Coliseum amid a fun vibe fuelled by Steam Whistle beer. marlies.ca
09 Browse Hello Kitty candies and soak up the atmosphere at the pan-Asian basement grocery store, Oriental Harvest. T: 00 1 416 581 8666.
10 Ride the retro scarlet streetcars while you have the chance. New models will be replacing the iconic 1970s stock from 2014.
Films: See Toronto’s hip West End in all of its sun-soaked hazy glory in local actress and director Sarah Polley’s film, Take This Waltz, which provides a cinematic tour around Queen West and Kensington. For contrast feel the chill of the snow-covered city in the erotic thriller, Chloe, which shows off Yorkville.
Novels: For literature, Margaret Atwood’s classic Cat’s Eye, Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown, set during the Great Depression, and its sequel, The Intruders, plus Cory Doctorow’s fantasy masterpiece Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, all provide excellent depictions of the city’s past and present.
Online: Local alternative news and entertainment source NOW Magazine along with blogTO offer exhaustive coverage of what’s on. Check flyers and posters in stores to get the inside track on small art shows and underground events. nowtoronto.com blogto.com
Toronto Tourist Board: seetorontonow.com
Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)