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Eating, Drinking, and Shopping in Toronto: An Indiewire Insider's Guide

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire September 6, 2012 at 10:34AM

Tens of thousands of people are about to converge on Canada's largest city for one of the world's largest film events, socializing and networking all over town. And while many of them have probably been around the Toronto block a few times in the past, you never know what's new to discover in the area.
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Dusk in Toronto. Photo by Peter Knegt.

Tens of thousands of people are about to converge on Canada's largest city for one of the world's largest film events, socializing and networking all over town. And while many of them have probably been around the Toronto block a few times in the past, you never know what's new to discover in the area.

Indiewire surveyed a group of Toronto locals and insiders about their favorites places to eat, drink, shop and chill, including some of our own tips from Indiewire staffer (and former Torontonian) Peter Knegt. The results of our informal, subjective survey -- which keeps in mind the southern geographic shift of the festival -- follow.

Insider tips and suggestions were provided by local filmmaker Sara St. Onge, TIFF staffers Jennifer MacFarlane, Colin Druhan and Lynne Crocker, Alliance Films's Milda Yoo, Kerry Butt, co-owner of Queen West clothing staple The Future of Frances Watson,  local media artists Shannon Linde and Alexis Ronse, Art Gallery of Ontario photographer Ian Lefebvre, Frank Griggs, the man behind !! omg blog !!, Brad Horvath, Head of Acquisitions at Toronto-based Ouat Media and executive producer of TIFF 2012 film "Life Doesn't Frighten Me," and M30 Communications' Alex Knegt.

READ MORE: Indiewire's Interactive Map to Eating, Drinking, and Shopping in Toronto

We invite readers and TIFF attendees alike to discuss, dispute and react to the suggestions offered. Comments and corrections are invited at the end of this article, so go for it. Also check out this interactive map that displays the entire guide for a better sense at how to get where.

BEST BREAKFAST/BRUNCH:

Just as it was in last year's survey, the area south-west of downtown finds across the board recommendations in most categories and particularly this one. And thanks to festival's recent move, a lot of these places are much more geographically accessible.

A five-minute walk from TIFF Bell Lightbox is brunch at Le Select Bistro (432 Wellington Street West). One insider's recommendation: "The croque monsieur and a mimosa are my favorites!"

Also super close is Sadie's Diner (504 Adelaide Street West) and the Lightbox's own Canteen (literally at the bottom of the Bell Lightbox, so it doesn't get any closer than that).

There's also the 24-hour diner at the new Thompson Hotel (550 Wellington Street West), which serves a mean breakfast... but more on that place a little bit later.

Aunties and Uncles (74 Lippincott St., near College and Bathurst) was on nearly every list, with one insider noting "hidden away from the main street, Aunties and Uncles has been a local favourite of many for a long time." She continues that "the summer/fall waiting list is usually quite long," but that "it's worth it though as the staff are friendly (even in the early morning!) and the food is not only delicious and fresh but it's also reasonably priced. The fresh squeezed juice (try the ginger lemonade!) is amazing." Another insider warns though: "Try to get there in between the early brunchers and the hungover crowd to avoid the line-up."

Another suggestion was Hoof Cafe (923 Dundas St W), where one insider exclaims that "the bone marrow donuts are worth fighting over, and you can't go wrong with anything else on their innovative menu." Another warns that Hoof is "not so veggie friendly but if you want to have pork 15 ways before noon, this is your spot."

There's also the "stereotypical Sneaky Dee's hangover breakfast" (431 College Street) which one insider says "still trumps all other options."

Even further west finds a bigger group of options. All of the following had at least two recommendations (if not three or four): Shanghai Cowgirl (538 Queen Street West), Squirly's (807 Queen Street West), Cowbell (1564 Queen West... "try the duck eggs benedict and the beermosa!"), Luna Cafe (181 Dovercourt Road), Swan (892 Queen Street West... a favorite brunch spot for Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel all summer), La Palette (492 Queen Street West... "the best egg benny I've ever had!"), Drake Cafe (1150 Queen Street West... "the patio is amazing, the service is just aloof enough to still be endearing -- and not obnoxious or plain bad -- and they serve fried chicken for breakfast), Keriwa (1690 Queen Street West... "kind of amazing for brunch or otherwise. Good cocktails too"), Mitzi's on College (890 College Street) and Saving Grace (907 Dundas Street West), while Easy (1645 Queen Street West) got particular notice as it's "themed after 'Easy Rider' and has the best Huevos Divorciados!"

Nearby all day Belgian brunch option Goed Eten (188 Ossington Avenue), meanwhile, has a "waffle benedict with apple slaw that is so light and decadent that I'm always tempted to order two," one insider said.

In the other direction, though also not so far from fest central either, there's Le Petit Dejeuner (191 King Street East), and as one insider notes the peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery (in St. Lawrence Market) is "perfect, made even better with a bit of hot sauce."

A bit north is Terroni Bar Centrale (1095 Yonge St.), an outpost of one of the city's staple restaurants. It has a real breakfast menu seven days a week. Highlights are "the Scandinavian fried donut balls and Torta Rustica."

And if you're feeling really adventurous, head north and west to the Bloorcourt,  Junction areas, for either Starving Artist (584 Lansdowne Avenue), where "everything is made with waffles!," 3 Speed (1163 Bloor Street West) and Cool Hand of a Girl (2804 Dundas Street West), to which one person noted: "For those willing to venture to what the New York Times called the Abbott Kinney Boulevard of Toronto -- The Junction -- Cool Hand of a Girl offers tasty free range, local and organic foods."

DRINKS/COCKTAILS:

There's a slew of options in around the Bell Lightbox (not to mention the new TIFF filmmaker's lounge for those with a badge). But specifically, our insiders offered The Black Bull (298 Queen St. West... "just for the amazing patio"), Finn's of Temple Bar (489 King Street West... try the bacon-infused vodka Caesar), The Village Idiot Pub (126 McCaul Street... "just don't try the food"), C Lounge (456 Wellington Street West), Wide Open (139A Spadina Avenue... which has, take note: 2 for 1 Mondays, $3 Amsterdam bottle Tuesdays, $4.50 pint Wednesdays, $2 everything Thursdays between 5-8pm, $2.50 rails on Saturday and $3 rail and beer Sundays), Grace O'Malley's (14 Duncan Street.. and with 17 beers on tap!) and, once again, The Thompson Hotel (550 Wellington Street West and the talk of the town). The recently opened Ritz Carlton (181 Wellington Street West) and its outdoor patio is also likely to be quite the festival staple from this year onwards.

Then of course there's Goodnight (the alley behind 431 Richmond), which requires you to phone in to make a reservation if you want to have a drink there. It's shockingly not as pretentious as such a requirement would suggest, and is just down the street from TIFF Central (call 647.963.5500 any time after 3pm).

Happy hour doesn't really exist in Toronto (due to archaic liquor laws). "I wish we had happy hour here," noted one local. But suitable stand-ins come a 10-minute walk from the Bell Lightbox in Toronto's famed Kensington Market area. The Embassy (223 Augusta Street) or Ronnie's (69 Nassau Street... "lots of dudes in bands drink too much here") -- both in the Market -- had numerous recommendations.

More west there's Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. West), "The Gladstone makes the most filling and delicious Caesar," said one insider. "Not only does it come with your standard celery stalk but it also boasts a dill pickle and a huge chunk of cucumber. Two of those and who needs breakfast?"

Also noted was The Gladstone's more famous down-the-street cousin, The Drake Hotel which has become a haven for industry folk during the festival. One insider raved about the patio but asserted to "avoid the lobby." There's also room for a crawl with endless awesome options in Toronto's west end: Unit (1198 Queen St. West), Reposado Bar & Lounge (136 Ossington Avenue), Unlovable (1415-B Dundas St West),  Get Well (1181 Dundas Street W),  3 Speed (1163 Bloor Street West), Parts & Labour (1566 Queen Street West), Sweaty Betty's (13 Ossington Ave), and The Yukon (1592 Queen Street West... noted for a special on Tuesdays for beer and a soft pretzel for $7).

Many insiders also noted Dakota Tavern (249 Ossington Avenue), specifically for "great music, has amazing fish tacos and other southern comforty foods - cheap." Though one warned, "you won't get a cell phone signal from within the bar."

Meanwhile, the Black Hoof Cocktail Bar (923 Dundas St. West) just opened across the street from The Black Hoof (where the cafe used to be). "Creative cockails and cheese plates," one insider notes. "And it's easy to miss -- the only signage is the initials BHCB etched in the corner of the window."

And there's still the Park Hyatt (Avenue and Bloor) rooftop patio, though TIFF's move south a few years back suggests that won't quite be the old standby it once was. The roof still received numerous recommendations, though, so perhaps it's up to fest goers whether it remains a Toronto Film Festival staple.

Hot dogs!
EXPENSE ACCOUNT DINNER:

As for that place to go when someone else (or their company) is paying, one insider suggested Canoe (66 Wellington Street). at the TD Centre in the financial district. The restaurant offers an astounding view at the top of one of Toronto's tallest buildings, and "inspired Canadian cuisine" to boot. It's also a 10-minute walk from the Lightbox.

Even closer is the Lightbox's own Luma, located upstairs in the festival's hub and offering "global and Canadian artisanal cuisine featuring the finest local and regional ingredients."

But the two restaurants that came up most often were Guu (398 Church Street) and Paramour (94 Ossington Avenue). Guu is a new Japanese restaurant opened by Yoshinori Kitahara that has seen instant popularity since it opened late last year ("it's wild and everyone yells at you when you walk through the door," one insider said). They don't take reservations and you can wait up to two hours for a table, but seemingly everyone that's experienced the restaurant is yelling out recommendations from rooftops. Paramour, meanwhile, was noted for its "incredible food and great service."

There's also famed chef Susur Lee's famed restaurants Madeleine's (formerly Susur) and Lee, located side by side (601 and 603 King St. West). Lee's the same chef that two years ago opened Shang located in the Thompson Hotel in the Lower East Side of New York City. Even closer to fest central is Origin (107 King Street East) which has "fusion that's actually well-executed, plus fresh meat they're so proud of, they leave it sitting on the counter," one insider notes.

Also near the fest is Rodney's Oyster Bar (69 King Street West), noted for its "delicious oysters, very old building, and fun night out."

READ MORE: TIFF List 2012: A Complete List of All Films at the Toronto International Film Festival

Other suggestions came in the form of Terroni (a Toronto staple with locations at both 106 Victoria Street and 720 Queen Street West that has some of the best pizza in town), Pizza Libretto (221 Ossington Avenue.. more pizza, and in many opinions even better pizza), Buka (604 King Street West), Marben (488 Wellington Street West), Gilead (4 Gilead Place... "Jamie Kennedy's new restaurant features comfort food and produce grown on his farm outside the city plus a great wine list including some of his own"), La Palette (492 Queen Street West), a fantastic French restaurant on Queen Street, Japanese restaurant Blowfish (668 King Street West.. "awesome sushi"), Yours Truly (229 Ossington Avenue.. "Tasting menus and great vegetarian options. One of the best meals I've had all year"),  Woodlot (293 Palmerston Avenue), Kaji on the Queensway (860 The Queensway... "Toronto's best sushi and you won't waste time on ordering because you get what the chef feels like feeding you"), and Cowbell (1564 Queen Street West), which was noted as having "great ambiance with naturally-raised, organic meat and produce, sourced from local farmers." Support the Toronto-area agricultural commmunity on your company's dime!

COFFEE OR A CHEAP BITE:

On the other end of the scale, there's loads of options in and around and a bit of a hike from the Bell Lightbox (including aforementioned Canteen, located in the lobby):

The closest bet (other than Canteen) was recommended by many a TIFF staffer: The Y Cafe at Metro Hall (55 John Street). Run by the YMCA, they have a different menu of items daily, and everything is $5.99 (tax-included). "It's popular with TIFF staff because of the lack of affordable options that aren't Subway in the neighborhood," one person said.

The Beaconsfield (1154 Queen St. West) serves up a dinner special every weekday from 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. $8 will get you a pint of Amsterdam and a "delicious - yet a little bit smaller than normal - meal". Fresh (147 Spadina Avenue) is a bit pricer but it's a block from festival central and has ultra healthy fare to even out with the hor d'oeuvres at festival parties. Fusaro (147 Spadina Avenue), Mother's Dumplings (421 Spadina Avenue... "I could stuff my face with these dumplings all night and it would still cost like $5), Grand Electric (1330 Queen Street West, a taco joint open late that has "been drawing huge lines" since it opened a year ago),  El Trompo (277 Augusta Avenue) with its "really f'n good authentic tacos." The Grindhouse (365 King Street West), a burger place close to TIFF Bell Lightbox that makes everything onsite even the ketchup (plus everything "can be made gluten free so Zooey Deschanel can eat there," an insider notes). And of course there's Ravi Soups (322 Adelaide Street West... seconds from the Lightbox): "As I said last year, Ravi Soup is the best f*%&ing thing in the world. I sometimes have dreams about the chicken wrap combo with corn chowder (with blue crab)."

Though not near the Lightbox, the festival is officially going food truck at new venue The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (Bloor and Bathurst), so if you're there for a screening definitely check that out.

Toronto's recently attempted to take a cue from Quebec with a bunch of poutine-fueled restaurants. There's many options, but Poutini's House of Poutine (1112 Queen Street West) seems like the unanimous best bet. One insider went so far as to suggest not listing Smokes Poutine, as "that shit is totally unacceptable."

There's also many a gourmet burger place as of late. The best of the lot? The Burger's Priest (1636 Queen Street East), Craft Burger (673 King Street East), and BQM (210 Ossington Avenue, 354 Queen Street West).

A new entry to the Toronto quick-bite scene is Urban Eatery, which is, yes, a food court. Opened last year at the bottom of the Eaton Centre (the entire block between Dundas and Queen on Yonge), which took $48 million and 14 months of renovations to transform a food court into an “urban eatery” inspired by the Danish. The Styrofoam plates and next-to-useless plastic knives are out, and strong crockery and cutlery are in. They’ve also brought in a handful of Toronto restaurants and mini-chains like Urban Herbivore, Amaya Express and Liberty Noodle. It's quite something, and close to the Lightbox.

And, of course, one can't beat those ubiquitous hot dogs on the street. No soaking in gross water, lots of condiments and they'll even grill the bun -- just ask. And vegetarians, they have veggie dogs as well (as long as you don't mind if it's grilled near where the Polish sausage was minutes earlier). They're the best in North America, if not the world.

As for coffee, Toronto's a largely and predictably a Starbucks-fueled city, or Canadian chains Second Cup (or "second choice," as it's personally referred... though Scott Pilgrim would beg to differ) and Tim Hortons. But there's alternatives to chain-mania that many an insider has suggested. I-Deal Coffee, which has three locations across the city (162 Ossington Avenue, 84 Nassau Street, 1560 Queen Street East), Capital Espresso (1349 Queen St. W... "They take coffee seriously and bake the best muffins you will eat in your life"), Sam James Coffee Bar (150 King Street West.. one the closest options to TIFF central), The Mascot (1267 Queen West) with "good coffee, yummy pastries and a very nice magazine collection," Thor Espresso Bar (35 Bathurst Street), La Merceria (506 Adelaide Street West.. "Sometimes I hide from my day job there"), L'Espresso Bar Mercurio (321 Bloor Street West... "you can stand at the bar and shoot your espresso without feeling like a douche or a poser"), Tequila Bookworm (512 Queen Street West), and a personal favorite, Dark Horse Espresso Bar (215 Spadina Avenue, just up from Queen).

Closest to the Lightbox among those favored is Sense Appeal (96 Spadina Avenue), where "model boys serve coffee and high fives." Another insider quipped: "Handsome, very social baristas (local offices call it "sexy coffee") and gourmet coffee. Try the iced Horchata with shaved cinnamon and truffle."

LATE NIGHT FOOD:

Toronto is often considered a city where getting food after 10 p.m. isn't an easy proposition. But things have definitely seen major improvements in recent years. Other than those hot dogs, many cited Chinatown (Spadina between Queen Street and College Street) and its myriad of options, specifically the Vietnamese soup at Pho Hung (350 Spadina Avenue); and Rol San (323 Spadina Avenue): "Great food ton's of space and open late.  It was oddly full of Russian prostitutes (and the odd Russian "wiseguy") the last time we were there at 4:00 am but that just added to the late night experience.  Also if you head there during the day they have great dim sum."

There's also the 24-hour diner at Thompson Hotel (550 Wellington Street West), which is sure to be immensely popular during the festival; The Lakeview (1132 Dundas Street West), which is hugely popular with late night crowds that almost every insider listed, though one wasn't enthusiastic. "The food there sucks," one warned, "but it's 24 hours and has very nice booths."

Many also stated the 416 Snack Bar (181 Bathurst St.) with its menu that "pays ode to the city," Reggie's (571 King Street West), where "deep fried mac'n'cheese sticks with chipotle dipping sauce are magic"; Sneaky Dee's (431 College Street), with "the best nachos in the city"; aforementioned Poutini's House of Poutine (1112 Queen Street West), Vinny Massimo's Pizza (1130 Queen St. W), which had one insider wonder "why anyone still goes to the Pizza Pizza next door when they can have a fresh Massimo's margherita slice covered in garlicky olive oil that is one of Toronto's great mysteries," Vesta Lunch (474 Dupont Street), one of the few, and probably last, truly 24 hour greasyspoon diners in the city, and a much more expensive option is The Black Hoof (938 Dundas St. W), which is a "meat lover's dream" and open quite late.

Finally, if you want a particularly familiar taste, one suggested the McDonalds at Yonge and Grosvenor "purely for the entertainment" (in that it basically becomes a mix of gay bar afterparty and homeless shelter around 2:30am).

QUEER SCENE:

The city has become a case of old vs. new, east vs. west with the traditional Church Street "gaybourhood" finding itself losing more youth-oriented queer patrons to a bunch of bars opening up on Queen (Queer) West. In fact, Church Street barely got a mention from any of our insiders. "The West bars are more hopping than Church Street," one insider said, noting a bunch of weekly or monthly events like Big Primpin at Wrongbar (1279 Queen Street West), Her at La Perla every second Friday of the month (783 Queen St. W, Upstairs), Business Woman's Special at Augusta House (152 Augusta) and Yes, Yes, Y'all at Wreckroom (794 Bathurst Street).

The Henhouse (1532 Dundas Street West) and noted The Beaver are the everyday staples for Queer West Toronto. The latter was mentioned by every insider and noted as "small and dirty but banging on the right night."

Queen West will also host the second annual STIFF @ TIFF queer event at Wrongbar on Tuesday the 11th, which will run from 10pm to 4am and be hosted by the compiler of this guide. Extended liquor license (4am), so please reconsider early press & industry screenings.

For the more traditional LGBTs (or LGBTTs, as it's correctly regarded in Canada - adding an additional "T" for "Two-Spirited" to reflect its First Nations community), there's Church St. "You can get both cock and tails pretty much anywhere on Church Street," joked one insider. Really, you can just wander up and down the street between Carlton and just north of Wellesley and you'll find a wide selection of similarly old school gay bars. Try classics like mostly male Woody's (467 Church Street), Crews & Tangos (508 Church Street) and/or the just west Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.), which hosts a popular (and straight girl friendly) Saturday dance night. And don't forget male-strip club Remington's , located just north of Dundas St. on Yonge. Though stripper fans take note, there's a new kid in town: Flash (463 Church Street) opened last year next to Woody's (and "I've heard" its the better bet of the two).

Perhaps the best advice for Toronto's queer scene comes from the heterosexual brother of the compiler of this guide. "Wherever I'm taken," he writes.

PLACE TO CHILL OUT:

Insiders suggested Kensington Market (located just west of Spadina Ave between Dundas and College Streets), which is great to roam around through, particularly on weekends. Specifically noted was Last Temptation (12 Kensington Avenue). "Located at the very bottom of Kensington Avenue, it is hidden away from Kensington's exhaustingly cliquey hotspots," the insider wrote. "And it has cheap everything and they always play great music (usually full albums start to finish)."

But the most recommended (though highly time-consuming) excursion is the Toronto Islands, a ferry ride from the Ferry Docks located at the bottom of Bay Street. With a small amusement park, bikes that you can rent, and a clothing-optional beach, heading to the Islands is "a great way to be in the city while feeling like you aren't." You can also grab a lovely dinner at The Rectory Cafe (rectorycafe.com), which has a gorgeous patio facing Lake Ontario.

Also noted was huge, hipster-friendly Trinity Bellwoods Park (between Queen and Dundas just west of Bathurst), which on a nice day can often look like one massive American Apparel ad.

One insider refused to answer this question, joking: "Honestly do these people even have any spare time during the festival? And if they do then tell them to get the f**k out of my way!"

SHOPPING:

The Yorkville area located just north of Bloor Street between Avenue Road and Bay Street has many higher end shops and boutiques. It also has the city's only Whole Foods. But since the festival's moved south, it might not be quite as easy to find time to make it up there.

But, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Much closer Queen West and surrounding areas offers a hipper alternative with a seemingly endless array of clothing, furniture and unique-product shops from Spadina Avenue westwards. One insider noted Sydney's (682 Queen Street West), with its "well-edited selection of designer brands makes it the top menswear destination in the city. Jil Sander, Marni, Dries Van Noten, and Rick Owens round out the high end and Kin (designed by Sydney himself and all made in Canada) will become your wardrobe staples."

Toronto also has one of the few North American Top Shop Well, kind of. The UK staple opened a section in Toronto department store The Bay (corner of Queen and Yonge). There's also Carte Blanche (758 Queen Street West), Girl Friday (740 Queen Street West), Courage My Love (14 Kensington Avenue), Robber (863 Queen Street West), Vintage '69 (1100 Queen Street West), "one of the best second hand stores in the city. Everything is hand picked by the owner and doesn't smell like your grandma's closet," and The Future of Frances Watson (1390 Queen West), which - disclaimer - is owned by one of the insiders polled here (though others noted it too). A quick plug:

"Just under a year old, the store is becoming a destination spot for men looking to find the perfect pair of raw denim and has a great selection of shirting and leather accessories as well. For women, they have rounded collar, silk dresses and other goods that are made in the inhouse studio and you'll also find your perfect high waisted jean and drapey t-shirts..."

More eccentric options include The Drake General Store (three locations: 1144 Queen Street West, 1011 Yonge Street, 82A Bathurst St.) "It's a great place to buy your third cousin twice removed a bar mitzvah gift or stock up on kitchy Canadiana souvenirs," one insider joked.

Other major shopping areas include the Times Square-imitation that is Dundas and Yonge Street, centered around the giant Eaton Centre (noted previously for its Danish style food court), a mall that offers pretty much every chain you can consider, including an Apple Store. It's only a 15 minute walk northeast of TIFF Bell Lightbox.

OTHER TORONTO TIPS:

"Cabs are expensive (base price at $4!)," one insider complained, "but the public transit system is awful too, so good luck."

That pessimism aside, the Toronto Transit Commission's weekly pass ($36 for adults.. up from $30 just a year ago) for a somewhat economical but definitely environmentally friendly way of cinema and party hopping during the festival. The passes are transferable so you can share with whomever you'd like.

But your best bet is the now year old Bixi bike share program. The rental bike program has already surpassed expectations and is due for expansion. For TIFF, it's pretty ideal, as stations are located all around festival central. Basically, you pay $5 for a day pass are given a code which unlocks one of the bikes on the rack (similar to programs in London, Montreal and Boston). Then all you have to do is return it to another rack (it doesn't have to be the same one) when you're done. It's perhaps better explained by the instructions listed on the rack itself, which are hard to miss downtown. More info here.

There's also a wide selection of museums and art galleries in the city. Besides the difficult-to-miss Royal Ontario Museum located at Avenue Road and Bloor Street, the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West) often brings unique collection and is one of Canada's largest and most renowned galleries. And if one's up for exercise after too many hours sitting in a movie theatre, one insider suggested "leap-frogging the lambs beside the CBC building on Wellington Street." If you have time to that, though, you're a lucky lamb.

Check out this interactive map that displays the entire guide, and have a great TIFF 2012!

This article is related to: Features, Toronto International Film Festival