Article originally published in the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
Toronto, or simply T.O., is a “city of neighbourhoods”, and the most multiethnic in North America. After lots of research and helpful tips from Torontonian friends, the Atmosphere team showed up with a full schedule for their Toronto trip, and came back delighted! These were the highlights.
Comprising of just a few blocks, this Toronto neighbourhood is reminiscent of India or Pakistan, with its authentic restaurants, fabric stores, jewellers and supermarkets. Visit Chandan Fashion, the neighbourhood’s first textile business, where you will most likely be greeted by Mr. Kuki Shah, a colourful character who’s owned the boutique for 30 years. Women are shopping for bridal wear, and they’re just as impressed as we are by the wealth of embellished attire. Little India is especially lively on weekends, when families gather for grilled corn on the cob and mingling among the community. We stop at Udupi, a vegetarian restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine, whose thalis (Indian tapas) and chutneys bring us on a quest for new spice routes.
Booming with activity and considered the “Brooklyn” of Toronto, this welcoming enclave is filled with artsy specialty boutiques: no chain stores here! Its fashionably revamped diners boast the kind of heartwarming ambiance you get in a quaint village.
In the early hours of the morning, not far from the bustling streets and lively trattorias of Little Italy, the sun shines down on Manic Coffee, an establishment run by third-generation baristas. Enjoy total tranquility, no WiFi means more time to socialize, and the occasional sounds of a record player spinning clients’ old albums in the afternoon. Along with the scones, cookies and muffins (the blueberry ones are to-die-for) baked on site with love using organic ingredients, the owner who was trained in Western Canada uses Social Coffee beans roasted in Richmond Hill, a Toronto suburb. And since you’re just steps away from Kensington Market and Chinatown, it’s a great base from which to start your Toronto trip!
This Toronto neighbourhood, much like a small European village, is at the other end of the spectrum, and quite happily so! An aura of calm prevails in this sloping sector, at the end of which sits the majestic Lake Ontario (easily mistaken for the ocean). This rapidly changing district is home to the modern businesses of young entrepreneurs and a multitude of Polish supermarkets, eateries and shops. To really experience the culture, Café Polonez is a must. Opt for the tasting menu featuring specialties like pierogis, blinis, schnitzels and cabbage rolls. A word of advice: come on an empty stomach!
Prepare to be dazzled! A thrilling journey awaits in this multiethnic neighbourhood, which has a hippy feel to it and is all about self-expression. Hispanic grocery stores, Jamaican jerk chicken, authentic Mexican favourites like homemade empanadas, fresh pasta, fish stalls and simple, unpretentious cafés: all five senses will be awakened, and your sense of direction, put to the challenge. Make your way to Crows Nest for a trip back in time. The 1950s ambience at this not so-typical barbershop, whose tattooed staff is both classy and stylish, is well worth the detour! The market streets eventually lead to Toronto’s largest Chinatown, the busiest of the five. You’ll feel like you’re in downtown Hong Kong, with its profusion of specialty restaurants, herbal medicine and Asian shops.
It is said that a city is measured by the quality of its market. Occupying three historical buildings, the St. Lawrence Market is the social hub of the Old Town. It’s immense, varied and plentiful, favouring quality and diversity, very representative of T.O.! Set in a former train station, the meat and fish counters, bakeries and cafés are unavoidable. In business for 20 years, Scheffler’s Delicatessen & Cheese extols the virtues of Greek olive oil: light, refined and balanced.
Another must is the “peameal” sandwich, a Toronto delicacy served at Carousel Bakery. This authentic institution has been around for 30 years, and the owners are still just as passionate about their specialty. Made with very lean pork loin, the meat is soaked in an oak barrel in brown sugar and rolled in corn flour. Satisfying and oh so delicious!
West Queen West
Parts & Labour
Located in Toronto’s hippest neighbourhood, the large tables and hushed, modern environment of Parts & Labour make this charming restaurant a great place to chat. In the back, the kitchen faces several tables where clients are lucky enough to be in direct contact with the chefs at work. It’s the ideal place to enjoy comfort food prepared by hearty fellows that consider good grub a way of life. Afterwards, the evening continues with a drink at the bar or downstairs to the beat of funky hip-hop.
The Drake Hotel
Considered a pioneer in the neighbourhood, the Drake Hotel is a symbol of style in the heart of Toronto’s “SoHo”. We decided to see for ourselves if all the hype surrounding this boutique hotel was justified. It’s actually way better than what we expected! Vintage-chic, comfortable and inviting, this tiny space is put to good use, decorated in warm tones and forest greens. There’s even an old photo booth next to the souvenir display to create your own memories. The terrace is the place to be during summer, and winter, for that matter, as it’s heated even on the coldest days (blankets provided)! A cozy room in the basement serves as the venue for concerts, poetry readings, karaoke and more.
A city that’s open to the world: just another way to describe Toronto, whose scattered communities are bursting with treasures for all to discover… That sure explains the sparkling eyes of this bright and creative bunch! With over 250 neighbourhoods, 80 spoken languages and a 40% foreign-born population, the harmony that sets this city apart never ceases to amaze us.