I’m currently based in New York City, and to be honest, we wanted to get out of the city for the weekend. Our five year anniversary is coming up, my boyfriend switched jobs, and we’re moving, so we just wanted a break to escape and explore. We chose Toronto, a short propeller plane ride across Lake Ontario.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect and really didn’t look up much about the city except for where to eat, and then strategically chose an Airbnb based on that criteria. We ended up on Queen Street, one of the most utterly hip and quirky streets I’ve seen (and I lived in Brooklyn for a year).
Fortunately, we were able to fly out Friday morning, but unfortunately, I still had to work remotely, so we only were able to explore for lunch and after work hours. However, we still had a great first day. We took a ghost tour (it was Friday the 13th) with Haunted Walk Toronto. While the stories are always a little hokey on ghost tours, they are a super fun way to orient yourself in a city, and likely hear lore and history you otherwise wouldn’t. This was no different. We started at the Hockey Hall of Fame and wandered the downtown area, checking out several buildings that used to be courthouses or “hanging grounds” for public executions back in the early days of Toronto’s history. We saw an especially spooky cathedral, called St. James.
For anyone wondering, there’s only one church on Church Street (we all failed that trivia question). The architecture was truly beautiful – Toronto is a little like Shanghai, where the old, historic buildings have been preserved right there next to the latest high rise condos.
We ended the tour at the Mackenzie House, where a local politician used to live. The house itself is a great museum, and definitely had a creep vibe to it that exceeded expectations (the fact that we could see in a basement window during the tour before entering, and there were shadows moving around, amped up the ~spook~ factor). Then, we wandered back into the financial district to grab dinner. As with every big city, Toronto has its own glamorous concrete and glass appeal if you happen to be into corporate downtowns.
We grabbed dinner at a restaurant called Lena, which was fine but nothing too special. If I were taking a client to dinner, it would be ideal – great service, good cocktails, dim lighting, normal food that presumes no interest in anything overly special or creative at a business price.
Full disclosure, we headed home and watched some Andrew Zimmern before heading to bed early. The next day, we decided to wander around some of Toronto’s more “tourist” destinations. We started with St. Lawrence market, which is basically Toronto’s answer to Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, or any other vendor-based open-air grocery with a decidedly tourist flair. We snacked on some mediocre Chinese food before heading towards the Distillery District, Toronto’s savvy, cool neighborhood.
The area is perfectly manicured, filled with cute antique shops, bistros, assorted specialty stores (in case you REALLY need a hipster cooking product or vitamin), and the odd sports bar.
We ended up grabbing brunch at one of the more trendy spots to eat, a Mexican restaurant with a literal fire pit in the center of the dining area (much needed, as it was rather chilly). The food itself was good, although I firmly believe I ordered the wrong thing (fish burrito, which was accompanied with “cabbage” that decidedly tasted like sauerkraut). My boyfriends burro (basically a quesadilla) was great though, so I would give it another try. My take is that Toronto is not a fish city, despite its hipster trends.
Perhaps most intriguing about the distillery district is that most of the alcohol production has moved on, with the exception of a very small sake distillery. It was some of the most exquisite sake I’ve had cold (hot sake, like I had in Japan, is a totally different product in my opinion). The tasting room is tiny, but they offer tours of the distillery twice a day on weekends.
That afternoon, we did some shopping in the main shopping district, and then just wandered along Queen Street, grabbing espresso or coffee at every third cafe we saw. It’s amazing how many different walks of life you’ll see on the street (again, similar to Brooklyn). We walked by one of the best restaurants, George, and realized it was somewhat out of place among the pawn shops and weed dispensaries. Then, two blocks later, the neighborhood looked super upscale, with a cute Starbucks and fancy mall. Several blocks after that, it gets into corporate downtown, and then even further west, it becomes much more trendy, then seedy, then gentrified.
We went to dinner on Queen Street at an incredible restaurant called Loka (sorry the photo quality is low, it was quite dark). Loka’s premise is easy: foraged, local, Canadian food with a “no waste” concept. It more than delivered, and was a steal at the price. Did I mention it was the first Kickstarted restaurant, and has won several awards? The menu concept is simple as well – two options: one carnivore, one vegetarian. You can do either, both, mix or match, or just do a la carte. We did a mix and match option.
We started with brussel sprouts with a tangy sauce and fried ramps with a spicy glaze, both of which were incredible bites. Unfortunately, they weren’t too photogenic, but they were delish. Second is pictured above – a wild mushroom and deer lichen dish, which was incredibly earthy, deep, and had great texture. Haven’t had lichen before, but feel confident that I would enjoy being lost in the woods for lunch now.
Followed that with handmade pappardelle, with local arugula, tomatoes, and parmesan chips, in a rich cream and cheese sauce. I was also very amused by the pepper flourish to the plate (#art). Again, incredible food, and we could taste the craftsmanship of the flavors.
Last was the seared haddock, which was pleasantly smoky and had a great black bean sauce with tatsoi, a bitter leafy green I recently bought at the Union Square green market and totally failed to cook correctly. The fish was cooked expertly, and they made the greens not only edible but delicious, which was a huge improvement from my attempt. Overall, the meal was what I always hope to receive when I’m paying a lot for fine dining – the quality was spot on, and to be honest, it was a steal. If it were in NYC, I would go back frequently and try every option on their seasonal menu.
The following morning, we woke up and headed to the airport bright (well, “cloudy”) and early. Overall, a good escape from New York City. I’ll post about my time in Montreal in a later blog and would love to get to more of Canada: Quebec City, Halifax, PEI, Vancouver… and I guess I should see Niagara Falls at some point. Hopefully some day, when tickets are cheap!