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save toronto

toronto's adorably arty gladstone hotel
there were at least four other things that i had planned to post, but in the interests of human decency, this has been bumped to the top of the list.

i lived in toronto for six years before returning to montreal and while the city and i had an uneasy relationship, i would never say that i disliked the place. it has its problems, of course, every city does. what made it difficult for me to live there was that so much of the city was tethered to the interests of its far-flung surburban bedroom communities. the sort of places that value cars over public transit, that prioritize major league sporting events over arts and culture and that follows the interests of business and plutocrats rather than those of its citizens. [the toronto suburbs dealt a crushing defeat to an initiative that would have introduced a measure of proportional representation to municipal politics.]

a cuban oasis
that said, there are lots of things to love about the city. and i mean a lot. a place as geographically sprawling as toronto has a lot of room to stash local gems. it would take weeks, if not months, to explore them all [and you'd need a car, since the public transit system is woefully inadequate]. here are just a few of the things that i remember with a wistful soul when i think of my time in canada's most excoriated city:

restaurants :: i believe that it is the best-kept secret in canada that toronto has evolved into a foodie paradise. some of the higher end locations get press, but what's astonishing is just how much quality there is at virtually every price level and scattered all over the city. everyone's tastes are different, but if you can't find something that tickles your fancy, then you're not trying very hard. here are a few of the culinary high points from my perspective...


  • seven numbers :: impeccable rustic italian fare in a bodega-like atmosphere. [yes, i know bodega's are spanish!] i used to live a ten minute walk from their eglinton location and i'm thrilled to see that they've since opened a second location. i've never had a disappointing experience there in any sense. the food has always been fresh and succulent, the drinks [especially the sangria, which is as spanish as a bodega, but i digress] deceptively powerful and tasty, the staff friendly and attentive without being pushy. their original location [a little further east on eglinton] featured a delightful [and somewhat illegal] terrace, which they sadly couldn't take with them, but everything else is perfection. 
  • julie's cuban :: this is the sort of place that requires the guidance of a local to find. heck, i'd lived in the city three years before i knew anything about it. tucked away on a leafy residential street in parkdale, it's a refreshingly homey and unpretentious place to find what i'll term "honest" cooking from the caribbean capital of controversy. the ceviche is probably the best i've ever had and believe me, i am an ardent consumer of ceviche. 
  • salad king :: i imagine that this is even less of a secret since i moved back to montreal, given that the restaurant made the big move around the corner from their side street location to the yonge just above ryerson. but the fact is that this has always been a favourite of trendy ryerson students and art film aficionados, being located adjacent the ryerson campus and in the midst of the toronto film festival madness. as a person who will cross her legs for two hours rather than stand in line for the bathroom, i want you to appreciate that i have waited upwards of half an hour to sit at a lunchroom-style bench if it meant i could enjoy their sublime thai meals. did you think it was an all-salad restaurant? 
  • gandhi :: forget everything you know about roti. although this ten-seat hole in the wall is identified only by a sign bearing the word "roti", the indian variations you find here have little in common with their caribbean brethren. instead, you get massive portions of rich, delicious indian food wrapped up in a quilt of naan bread. not to be considered for the diet conscious and don't expect to eat for the rest of the day if you're indulging. 
  • buddha's vegetarian :: no, the ceiling isn't going to come crashing down around your ears. occupying a shadowy corner on the southern edge of kensington market, buddha's isn't going to win you over with atmosphere, but it's really, really hard to beat the simple vegetarian fare on offer here. the menu is slim and you won't find any of the usual chinese staples. the food is mild, never spicy, but mouthwatering. each dish is crammed with an assortment of tofu and vegetables, including some of the juiciest and most delicious mushrooms you'll find anywhere. don't give into the temptation to try a few items from the unbelievably cheap menu. you're wasting your time and your food. i've seen one dish successfully feed three hungry people to the brim. 

part of the toronto ravines
there are about eight other places i could add to this list without thinking about it very hard, but that would leave little room to talk about the other stuff toronto has in spades.

in addition to restaurants, of course, toronto has an embarrassment of excellent food shops. yes, there's the world-famous st. lawrence market, which is worth the hype, although it can run a bit pricey depending on what you're looking for. kensington market has some gems, my favourites being coffee and tea emporium moonbean and global cheese, which is what cheese lovers picture heaven looking like. both are ridiculously cheap for the quality.

shabby chic :: toronto has an incredible propensity for turning dull hoods into hip haunts. i don't mean gentrification, although that's often a side effect. i mean that the rundown houses and tacky modern flourishes are simply adopted and somehow made cute. it's easy for places like montreal, with its elegant architecture and victorian townhouses, to convert previously down on their heels corners into the place to be, but the get aware from the patrician architecture and idyllic parks and montreal really has no idea what to do. but toronto isn't blessed with montreal's advantages in this department. a lot of the city reeks of postwar rush, of things thrown up to accommodate growth it wasn't prepared for and not necessarily built to last. nonetheless, the shambling nature of the city is endearing. the greatest example of this is of course kensington market, a bohemian paradise that erupted in a secluded pocket right in the middle of downtown. now, of course, it's the place to be and is fighting a battle to keep walmart out of its self-consciously no-fuss environs. but toronto has a lot of theses places, neighbourhoods that have made the best of what they have and developed a fantastic community feel. [toronto is a tapestry of communities and is best seen that way.]

kensington market
up your alley :: every city has alleys. montreal has plenty, i know, because i wrote and produced a film that made extensive use of a lot of them. however toronto alleys are kind of incredible because they are so extensive. other than the financial district and the harbour front, toronto is criss-crossed with alleys that are often pleasant, green and quiet, even though they make snake behind busy thoroughfares. of course, you won't want for grittier looking ones festooned with urban art, either. in fact, you can go on long walks simply following the alleyways, resurfacing only to enjoy a coffee or cool beverage from time to time. it's a simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating way to experience a large city. [if you'd prefer something a little less "urban", the city also has an extensive network of green paths, known locally as ravines. walk, bike and rollerblade to your heart's content.]

toronto alley art
artsy :: montreal might have the edge in pushing the arts to a primary role in the city's culture, but that doesn't mean toronto is dormant. far from it. there is the art gallery of ontario, which is the location for major shows, plus the royal ontario museum, but those are just the beginning. stretches of queen street both west [starting around ossington and west from there] and east [in the formerly rough enclave of leslieville east towards the beaches] are lousy with tiny independent galleries. one of my favourite things to do on a warm weekend afternoon was to wander in and out of all of them until i reached a place where i could have a drink and a snack and wonder how my feet had sustained me so long.

putting the multi in multiculturalism :: sure, every major city these days has a chinatown. toronto has three. and yes, there's a little italy [at least one], but the fact is that most cultures have staked a claim to some part of toronto. there are portuguese enclaves on either side of little italy. greektown, to the east of the don river, famously has street signs in english and greek, but so does koreatown, situated just west of bathurst on bloor. there's an increasingly visible "little india". jewish culture flourishes in the ritzy neighbourhood of forest hills or, for the more devout and conservative, further north around lawrence and bathurst streets. older immigrants from eastern europe share space with young families in the areas of high park [and westward towards etobicoke]. the annual caribana festival is one of the largest of its kind in the world. put it this way: you're going to run out of patience before i run out of ways to talk about how thrillingly multicultural toronto is.

museum of contemporary canadian art
there's much more, of course, because if toronto is anything, it is a city of plenty. there's plenty of space, plenty of people, plenty of cultures, restaurants, viewpoints, problems, you name it, toronto has a lot of it. the things that i've listed here are just a few of the things that made my experience in the city stand out. these aren't simply things i love about toronto [although they are], but things that i really miss about toronto. each of these things has a unique toronto-ness and is better because of that.

the ongoing misadventures of rob ford may make you think that the city is a hive of scum and villainy, but in the city of plenty, that's only one tiny [albeit loud] insect in the urban ecosystem.

for some excellent, unusual views of toronto [more so than the images i've placed here], i recommend you check out vik pahkwa's toronto photography blog.

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