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Toronto: a city of surprises


I was an infant when my parents left Toronto for the U.S. Six months old to be exact; and I never looked back. Probably because I was a baby and moreover because Toronto never seemed particularly exciting in my imagination. My cousins still lived there so we would go back to visit them every now and then, but I never learned enough about the city to become attached. Had I a say in the matter, I would have preferred to have been born in Montreal or Vancouver. Montreal was rebellious, French, and distinctly different. And as far as I was concerned, more cosmopolitan. Vancouver offered drop-dead gorgeous scenery and was eco-friendly before it became trendy.

So like many Americans, I knew little of Canada beyond the aforementioned cities and the stereotypes of maple syrup, (in all fairness, my Canadian cousin was obsessed with maple syrup), hockey, and a preoccupation with their flag. So when I finally went back to Toronto after a long hiatus, to visit a childhood friend and to check out Toronto’s annual music festival, North by North East, (NXNE), I was pleasantly surprised. The festival proved itself to be progressive and innovative and I not only had the pleasure of discovering several new up-and-coming bands, but of rediscovering Toronto itself. Fresh music, cutting-edge art galleries, trendy boutiques, and a blossoming of Toronto’s culinary scene, had changed Toronto from a city that no one thinks twice about to a cultural mecca.
I knew I had to come back.

I decided to stay at the Drake, a hotel recommended to me by a friend who had stayed there on business. Though the locals may have a love/hate relationship with the over-the-top scenester hotel, I figured if it was good enough for Mick Jagger it would be A-OK for me. Calling the Drake a “scene” was an understatement. People were oozing out of the restaurant, the club, and rooftop bar by the time 9 pm rolled around. Upon checking into my room with its clear glass shower in the middle of the room, I quickly noticed the “pleasure” menu which included a variety of sex toys and porn for rental or purchase. That was not what I was expecting. Clearly, Toronto had a lot of surprises in store.

With one of the biggest immigrant populations in North America, Toronto is remarkably diverse boasting South Asian, Latin, and Caribbean people amongst its inhabitants. It’s one of the qualities that make Toronto energetic. Local designer, Paige Cowan of Muttonhead Collective concurs, believing its Toronto happy multicultural environment is what makes the city so vibrant. “It all contributes to the diverse variety of incredible music, art and culture of the city.” Toronto-based journalist and writer for Time Out Toronto, Patchen Barss adds, “While it is a city of neighborhoods – Little India, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Koreatown, Chinatown, Greektown, the best thing is how integrated these neighborhoods are.”

Canadian actress and native Vancouverian, Gabrielle Miller says she was drawn to Toronto for many reasons. “It has some history in its architecture as opposed to Vancouver, which is pretty new. The home I’m living in was built in 1858. People are friendly. There are festivals every weekend in the summer. There’s a Latino Festival and the Afro Festival. And last weekend the whole family went to gay pride.”

The result is a city of different thoughts, ideas, and tastes. The perfect breeding ground for musicians, designers, foodies, and artists hanging out in neighborhoods like Leslieville, Ossington, and Queen Street West. These areas are buzzing with galleries, bars, boutiques, restaurants, and of course, the aforementioned Drake Hotel as well as its rival down the street, the Gladstone Hotel.

The artsy scene that pervades the 19th century Gladstone is not one that is just cultivated for appearances’ sake. The hotel is committed to the arts and even hosting art exhibitions and a pioneering Artist-in-Residence program designed for international artists who want to create art in Toronto. While the historic hotel retains its old-fashioned feel, (there’s even a hand-operated elevator), modernity pervades on the inside with each room being designed by a local artist.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the recently opened ultra-sleek Thompson Hotel caters to a more of a chic jetsetter and celebrity-driven crowd. And it’s easy to see why. A fave for local celebs-gone-big, like hip-hop star Drake, the rooftop bar and infinity pool offers stunning panoramic views of the city, while the much hyped about restaurant Scarpetta, wows diners with Italian fare.

Upon Cowan’s recommendation, I decided to visit the Show & Tell Gallery, one of the best venues for pop art in the city. Located off Ossington, the industrial run-down brick exterior belies the beautifully clean white space inside. I happened to be there while there was a William Hundley show, entitled Panic Fear Hallucination. His haunting, beautiful photographs capture swathes of fabric suspended in mid-air.

At the MKG 127 gallery, also on Ossington, Toronto-based artist Laurel Woodcock was showcasing her latest exhibition, composed of sticky notes and aptly named Note to Self. Over at the Clint Roenisch contemporary art gallery on Queen Street West, a diverse array of international and Canadian artists were on display. The group encompassed everything from painting to sculpture to photography and installation.

I started to explore the trendy Queen Street West, a main drag of sorts with a plethora of cafés, boutiques, restaurants and bars. I popped into Balisi, a cutesy store with casual summery rompers and dresses, handbags, and shoes. Some of their best items were the surprisingly unique handbags. While most stores stick to the basic studded satchels or hobos, I was treated to a variety of shapes and styles which made use of ruffles, rosettes, and cutouts. After choosing a handbag, I gave into my shoe fetish, making a beeline for the shoes. I spotted a sunny pair of lemon yellow sandals, which I quickly snatched up.

Lavish & Squalor, I had heard, is the epitome of hipster chic, and as a denizen of hipster enclave Williamsburg in Brooklyn, I felt like it was my duty to investigate. As if to drive the point home, the store was designed to have the appearance of an old-fashioned general store. I spotted zig zag leggings, loads of denim, quirky charm necklaces, and hand-painted tees from local Toronto designer Oligarchy.

Shopping is always my forte, but when it comes to food, sometimes I need a little help. I decided to ask my friend Laura Viddo, a local model agent, for some recommendations. Her boyfriend, who was on Top Chef Canada, is opening a new ceviche restaurant and as such she has the scoop on all the local faves. She recommended the low-key Arepa café for a late lunch. The café specializes in empanadas, a sort of South American style calzone, made out of corn bread and stuffed with a variety of fillings. I chose the lip-smacking cazon, filled with cod fish, sweet peppers, onion, and garlic, served with a variety of sauces for my culinary pleasure. I promptly wolfed all two of my empanadas, leaving my stomach full and happy.

Later that evening I met up with some friends at The Black Hoof, a restaurant on the forefront of the nose to tail movement. Though they don’t accept reservations or credit cards, it hasn’t stopped the locals for coming here in droves. Not only are they known for their inventive menu, their finely crafted drinks enjoy a stellar reputation of their own. As a pescetarian, I wasn’t too sure how I would feel about the Black Hoof’s meat-heavy menu, so we decided to meet for a drink at the bar instead so I could try one of their famed cocktails. While he snacked on horse tartare, I downed a few too many “One Night in Pueblas”, a cocktail of vanilla tequila, roasted pineapple puree, lime, and honey powder. More like four nights in Puebla if you ask me.

Canadian actress and native Vancouverian, Gabrielle Miller says she was drawn to Toronto for many reasons. “It has some history in its architecture as opposed to Vancouver, which is pretty new. The home I’m living in was built in 1858. People are friendly. There are festivals every weekend in the summer. There’s a Latino Festival and the Afro Festival. And last weekend the whole family went to gay pride.”

The uber-trendy area Leslieville, where Miller lives, is ground zero for design stores and swank bars. The former industrial area has since been transformed in what is considered by many to be the “Brooklyn of Toronto”. Miller suggested, Swirl, a wine bar on Queen Street East. Located above a pet store, the interior invokes a shabby chic feel; the kind of thing you would expect at an English tea party, not a wine bar. A friend I headed there for a couple drinks before heading to Gio Rana’s Really Really Nice Restaurant, a place we chose based on its name alone. Loud, fun and unpretentious, it’s the perfect spot for hearty Italian food.

That evening we high-tailed it over to hit the bars on Ossington. Being a dive bar aficionado, I had made it my mission to visit the Crooked Star. Whether or not it’s really a dive is debatable, but the drinks were cheap and the crowd was scruffy yet casual and laidback. We finished the night off at the Communist’s Daughter, a bar reminiscent of the kind of retro working-class neighborhood joint that one might expect to see in Latin America. Or perhaps old Brooklyn.

The next morning, I was jonseing for something sweet after a night of drinking. At the suggestion of the members from Little City, a friend and I headed over to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. Shaun Axani says they loved it so much, “that at [their] last gig two of [their] band members decided to skip dinner instead grabbing a sour-cherry pie from Wanda’s.” I scarfed down a scrumptious strawberry rhubarb crumble that was undoubtedly trying to make the button on my shorts pop open. But needless to say it was well worth every calorie, buttons be damned.

In the long expanse of time I had been away, Toronto had shed its braces and glasses and turned transformed from an ugly duckling to a swan. Not content to live in the shadow of its more popular neighbor Montreal, Toronto had grown up, gotten its cultural wings and flown the coop. I had rediscovered Toronto. I had came. I had seen. I had conquered. And there was no doubt I would be back for more.

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