Pasta man at St. Lawrence Pizza and Pasta in Toronto. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
By Ed Wetschler
Like most great cities, Toronto is a quilt of neighborhoods, each offering local flavor(s) and, if you know where to go, good deals. Now that summer is upon us, here's one man's take on what makes three of Toronto's best neighborhoods great: Queen Street West, Kensington Market, and St. Lawrence Market.
Artist Thrush Holmes. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
QUEEN STREET WEST
Anchored by two hotels that double as local hangouts — The Drake and the Gladstone — this formerly blighted strip has evolved into a lively urban frontier. Hipsters stroll in and out of galleries, design shops, vintage clothing stores and resto-bars with names like Sweaty Betty's and Downward Dog Yoga.
Best Bearded Artist Thrush Holmes, a young dude whose thickly dabbed, near-abstract landscapes are riveting. Saturdays, Holmes welcomes visitors into his painting studio.
Fine Representational Art The works at Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, such as Heather Goodchild's "paintings" and sculptures made of fabric, show both skill and purpose.
Top Photography Gallery Stephen Bulger exhibits collectible photos and hosts a lounge with a tiny theatre for films. You can search files of photos with labels like First Nations. Vintage NASA. Edward S. Curtis, etc.
Best Free Museum The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art displays hot Canadian artists, such as surrealist sculptor Insoon Ha.
Goofiest Gifts The Drake Hotel General Store (a gift shop, really) sells Marie Antoinette and Einstein action figures ($16), same-sex wedding cake decorations ($10), and mugs conveniently pre-stained with lipstick ($14).
Coolest Design Shop Ministry of the Interior offers high-concept housewares, many from recycled materials.
Best Guide Art world insider Betty Ann Jordan, whose tours cost $15 per person, $25 per couple.
Snarkiest Resto-Bar Sweaty Betty's, whose website says, "If you liked Betty, have a drink here / If you liked Veronica, go to the Drake."
Vintage reigns in Kensington Market. Photo by Ed Wetschler.
North of Dundas Street and just west of Spadina Avenue, this formerly Jewish district is now a multi-cultural quilt of food stores, restaurants, bakeries, ethnic houseware shops, vintage clothing shops, and novelty/gift stores.
Augusta Avenue is the U.N. of mom-and-pop shops and eateries: Taco al Pastor, Casa Lisboa, Bungalow retro clothing, European Palacsinta Caf‚, the Indian-owned House of Spice (inhale!), and — get this – Hungary Thai. Perolas Supermarket (247 Augusta) carries Latino specialties like dried potatoes and bacon fat. Grab a stool in the back, where two women serve tacos ($2.50 or $3.00) deliciosos y muy autenticos.
Zimmermann's (210 Augusta) is a classic, family-owned discount shop. Ditto, the rival Zimmermann store across the street.
Roach-o-Rama Hot Box Cafe evokes Manhattan's St. Mark's Place, c.1968. Clients may smoke weed there as long as they bring their own.
Vintage clothing shops on Kensington Avenue — Clik Klak, Lola, Butterfly — offer irresistible apparel. Courage My Love (14 Kensington Ave.) is the ultimate source of beads, buttons, garter belts, seamed stockings, clip-on bowties, wooden rings, vintage clothing, and other cheap but beautiful things.
Hungry again? Talk to your doctor. Or walk east to Spadina Avenue and yet another urban village: Chinatown.
ST. LAWRENCE MARKET
Not technically a neighborhood, Toronto's sprawling downtown market occupies a hangar-like building that has served as City Hall, the jail, a farmers market, and a focal point for preservationists.
The old City Council chamber is upstairs. Historic photos show that 100 years ago black people could serve on Toronto's City Council. Irish Catholics, however, faced daunting discrimination.
Carousel Bakery's peameal bacon on a bun ($5.30) features thick-sliced, juicy, brine-cured pork loin rolled in corn meal. It has earned raves from foodies in Canada and beyond.
Scheffler's offers quality deli — prepared foods, cold cuts cheeses, pickles…. Ask for a taste of the prosciutto.
White House Meat displays exotic meats like muskox loin, wild boar shoulder, ground kangaroo, ground camel. Just like visiting Grandma, eh?
St. Urbain Bagel is an unlikely name for a serious bagel shop, but SUB makes bagels the old way, the right way: They boil before they bake.
St. Lawrence Pizza & Pasta makes fabulous pizza (the secret ingredient: a layer of garlic paste) and pasta.
Buster's Sea Cove serves perfect grilled fish, including fresh sardines, something you don't cook at home.
European Delight offers Eastern European pierogies, soups, stews, cabbage rolls, latkes, and belches.
Preservationist Bruce Bell's guided tour of the market ($25) and the old town is informative, opinionated, and entertaining.
P.S. TimeOut Toronto gives short shrift to museums, but it's a good guide to neighborhoods, restaurants, nightlife, shops, and galleries.