Credit Toronto’s contemporary art scene with paving the way for a surge of boundary pushers: geeked-out coffee brewers, molecular gastronomy-loving mixologists, indie designers, vintage buyers, and a local food movement that’s putting the city on the culinary map. A true melting pot with distinct neighborhoods and disarmingly good-natured inhabitants, it charmed us in every way (except for the 13 percent sales tax we’re willing to overlook).
The best way to get to Toronto is on Porter Air: It flies directly into the city center, serves meals, and doesn’t charge for carry-ons (what a concept). The Canadian airline departs from just a few U.S. cities, but more are on the way. We’re partial to visiting during warmer months, when visitors can nix the subway or railcar for a sun-filled bike or stroll.
Queen Street West
Filled with skinny-jeaned hipsters and arty intellectual types by day, clubbers and more hipsters by night, Queen Street West is an indie fantasyland. If you’re traveling light, drop your bags at The Gladstone Hotel, an arty, gay-friendly boutique hotel. Rooms run small, and amenities are limited, but the price and location can’t be beat. Up the street is the ritzier Drake Hotel, with just nineteen rooms, a buzzing rooftop bar, and addictive breakfast. Pick up charming housewares and antique curios at Art History; 69 Vintage sells everything from silk handkerchief scarves to killer boots. For drinks, Unit is the neighborhood’s best-kept secret; there’s no sign save for a rusty “Liquor” placard in the window. Deliciously scientific sips prevail at Barchef, a cocktail haven where easy-on-the-eyes owner Frankie Solarik pours drinks using dill bitters, organic smoked hickory syrup, and tomato caviar.
Just off of Queen Street West is Ossington Avenue, another hipster haunt with shops and eateries galore. Jonathan + Olivia is your contemporary go-to, full of Alexander Wang, A.P.C., even a Topshop collection. At mealtime, locals favor Pizzeria Libretto for crunchy, doughy Neapolitan pies and seasonal bruschetta. Neighboring Delux serves hearty, seasonal plates like lamb sausage with lima and fava beans, artichoke, and fenugreek. Nightlife is the right life in these parts. Start with a drink at Camp 4, a just-opened, come-as-you-are watering hole off the main strip on Dundas Street.
Barren in parts, bustling in others, Dundas isn’t as much a hood as it is a drag that runs straight through the city. When hunger (or hangover) strikes, hit up Saving Grace (907 Dundas Street West; 416-703-7368) for flavorful, inventive brunch fare. Chalkboard specials can include anything from corn pancakes with blueberry maple syrup to flautas with fried lentils and chevre. Head east to Kensington Market, an amalgamation of outdoor vintage shops, cafes, and specialty food stores (don’t miss new shop Pretty Freedom’s acid-washed denim and floral rompers).
At the south end of Roncesvalles, a tree-lined, slowly gentrifying Polish neighborhood, Easy Restaurant attracts weekend brunch masses with signature huevos divorciados, a heady mix of salsas, eggs, refried beans, and ancho jam. Get your caffeine fix with an espresso at Cherry Bomb Coffee (79 Roncesvalles Avenue; 416-516-8212) and sate your sweet tooth at Granowska’s with a to-die-for plum-filled doughnut. Keep heading north for a mix of Polish bars, new cafes, and Asian grocers stocked with gleaming produce. Pick up gifts (cards, chocolates, syrups) at upscale general store The Mercantile.
Spending time downtown (think skyscrapers and tourists) has its pleasures. Thompson has a rooftop pool and a 24-hour restaurant. Go big and go Gehry at the Art Gallery of Ontario — the design alone is worth a trip. Bata Shoe Museum houses thousands of kicks, from chestnut-crushing clogs from the 1800s to Hellstern and Sons pumps. Whet your appetite at St. Lawrence Market’s two giant, warehouse-filled floors of food from around the globe; pick up a fried haddock sandwich from Buster’s Sea Cove and picnic in nearby St. James Park (Jarvis Street, at King Street East). And though we hate to play favorites, dinner at Origin, a so-slick-you’d-never-know-it’s-new restaurant from renowned chef Claudio Aprile, is our No. 1 pick, thanks to bold, bright dishes like shrimp ceviche with freeze-dried corn and a masterful mozzarella bar.
Photos: Benson Kua / Flickr; Wil Macaulay / Flickr; Stu_spivack / Flickr; Michael Francis McCarthy / Flickr
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