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Eating, Drinking, and Shopping in Toronto: An indieWIRE Insiders Guide

Eating, Drinking, and Shopping in Toronto: An indieWIRE Insiders Guide

Tens of thousands of people are about to converge upon Canada’s largest city for one of the world’s largest film events, socializing and networking all over town. 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 occasional Torontonian) Peter Knegt. The results of our informal, subjective survey follow. 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. We’ll take another look at it next year. But until then, here’s to a lively, productive and fun 10 days in Toronto.

Insider tips and suggestions were provided by playwright and screenwriter Daniel MacIvor, Judy Gladstone, Executive Director of Bravo!FACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent), local filmmaker Sara St. Onge, TIFF staffers Jennifer MacFarlane and Kelly Thompson, Pandyamonium Artist Management‘s Michael Gorman, local artist Shannon Linde, Lisa Clapperton, of the Toronto-based post-production team for Showtime’s “The Tudors,” film and theatre producer Brad Horvath (“The Book Lady“), and University of Toronto student Alex Knegt.

Just as it was last year, the area west of downtown finds across the board recommendations in most categories and particularly this one. 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 ginger lemonade!) is amazing.” Another insider warns though: “Try to get there in between the early brunchers and the hung over crowd to avoid the line-up.”

Even further west finds a bigger group of options. Shanghai Cowgirl (538 Queen Street West), Squirly’s (807 Queen Street West), School Bakery and Cafe (70 Fraser Ave), Petit Dejeuner (191 King Street East), and Saving Grace (907 Dundas Street West) all received mentions, while Easy (1645 Queen Street West) got particular notice as its “themed after ‘Easy Rider’ and has the best Huevos Divorciados!”

But if you reasonably can’t make it that far, perhaps Wish (3 Charles Street East) is a better option. “It’s perfect location from which one can dash to TIFF screening or for meeting at the Sutton Place Hotel.”

The recently remodeled Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. West), originally designed in 1889 by local architect G.M. Miller in the Romanesque Revival came up a lot in regard to nights out, as well as in regard to the possibility of an earlier drink. “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 (built a year after the Gladstone in 1890) 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 bar crawl with nearby Unit (1198 Queen St. West), The Paddock (178 Bathurst St.), Reposado Bar & Lounge (136 Ossington Avenue) and Sweaty Betty’s (13 Ossington Ave.). 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.

Happy hour doesn’t really exist in Toronto (due to archaic liquor laws). “I wish we had happy hour here,” noted one local. Her suitable stand-ins came in the form of The Embassy (223 Augusta Street) or Ronnie’s (69 Nassau Street), both in the Kensington Market area. Another suggested The Black Bull (298 Queen St. West), and The Pilot (22 Cumberland Street), which has a much more festival-friendly location and “a fantastic rooftop patio.”

Other festival-centric spots include the Park Hyatt rooftop patio, which offers more of a swank environment (and a late-night opportunity to really get your schmooze on with film industry execs) and a chance to ponder the architectural question mark that is the Royal Ontario Museum. It was recalled a few years back that the roof bar was divided between two rooms. Some patrons called one side of the divide “Los Angeles” and the other “New York.” Check out for yourself if you can guess which is which…

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. While centrally located suggestions include Truffles, in the bottom of the Four Season’s Hotel, and One Restaurant (116 Yorkville Avenue).

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 last year opened Shanglocated in the Thompson Hotel in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Other suggestions came in the form of Chinese restaurant Lai Wah Heen (108 Chestnut Street), La Palette (256 Augusta Avenue), a fantastic French restaurant in Kensington Market, Japanese restaurant Blowfish (668 King Street West) Oddfellows (936 Queen Street West), which features one long table in the middle of its narrow space and serves up a delicious array of meals (try the quail), 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!

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Toronto has many hot dog stands grilled to order and various weenie options. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

On the other end of the scale, The Beaconsfield (1154 Queen St. West) serves up a dinner special every weekday from 5-7. $8 will get you a pint of Amsterdam and a “delicious – yet a little bit smaller than normal – meal”. There’s also Salad King (335 Yonge St.), a Thai food wonder that is “cheap, fast and upscale.” For vegetarians or the health nuts, one insider suggests “the lunch special at Papaya Hut (513 Yonge Street) as a great deal: “The organic falafel sandwich is yummy. The out-of-this-world Health Nut smoothie could just be the best-tasting thing in the entire city.” A personal suggestion is Ho Su Bistro (254 Queen Street West), home to affordable, fresh and delicious sushi and some of the nicest staff one could hope for.

And, of course, one can’t beat those ubiquitous hot dogs on the street (personal faves are on the corner of Bay and Bloor and right by the Church of the Redeemer on Bloor and Avenue). 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. So, settle down to a dog or two by the church and sit in their conveniently located benches across from Prego (an industry favorite with its own share of celeb frequenters) and watch the schmooze fest.

Toronto also offers “A La Carte,” a pilot project of street vendors that just started this past Spring (check out a list of vendors, their food and locations here).

As or coffee, Toronto’s a largely Starbucks-fueled city (there’s six in and around the Bloor & Yonge intersection alone), or Canadian chains Second Cup (or “second choice,” as it’s personally referred) and Tim Hortons. An alternative was offered by one of our insiders in I-Deal Coffee, which has three locations across the city (162 Ossington Avenue, 84 Nassau Street, 1560 Queen Street East)

Toronto is not a city where getting food after 10 is an easy proposition. Other than those hot dogs, many cited Chinatown (Spadina between Queen Street and College Street), specifically the Vietnamese soup at Pho Hung (350 Spadina Avenue), and 7 West (7 Charles St. West), a 24/7 restaurant in the heart of the festival.

There’s also 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 in The Black Hoof (938 Dundas St. W), a “meat lover’s dream.”

If you’re feeling adventurous, one insider raved about the Greek gyros at Messini (445 Danforth Avenue), located in Toronto’s Greektown: “They stuff their delicious gyro pitas with french fries. Open until 4am Friday and Saturday, midnight or 1am on week nights.”

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. One of such bars, The Beaver (1192 Queen St. West) was mentioned numerous times and noted as “small and dirty but banging on the right night.”

For the more traditional minded LGBTs (or LGBTTs, as it’s correctly regarded in Canada – adding an additional “T” for “Two-Spirited” to reflect its native community), there’s Church St. “You can get both cock and tails pretty much anywhere on Church Street,” said 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 St.) 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 (open only to men except Sunday night, which typically attracts a large rabble-rousing crowd of industry of both sexes), located just north of Dundas St. on Yonge.

John’s Italian Cafe (27 Baldwin St.) is an eatery located on the adorable Baldwin Street that makes great Italian coffees and sodas. In addition to the calm atmosphere, their pizza and pasta heavy dinner menu definitely make it worth the venture. More generally, insiders suggested Kensington Market (located just west of Spadina Ave between Dundas and College Streets), which has a weekly “Pedestrian Sunday” for patrons to parooze the cafes, shops and stands without any motorized vehicles ruining the fun. A highly recommended (but 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, a clothing-optional beach, and bikes that you can rent, 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 (, which has a gorgeous patio facing Lake Ontario.

The Yorkville are 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. Other major shopping areas include the Times Square-imitation that is Dundas and Yonge Street, centered around the giant Eaton Center, a mall that offers pretty much every chain you can coinsider. Queen West offers a hipper alternative with a seemingly endless array of clothing, furniture and unique-product shops from Spadina Avenue westwards. One insider noted Vintage ’69 (1100 Queen Street West) as “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 another offered nearby League of Lovers and Thieves (1156 Queen St. West) on Queen West West: “Two local designers (Thieves designer Sonja den Elzen and League of Lovers ‘Dana Kiyoko Takeda) joined forces to create sustainable digs that will make you want to whip out your plastic.”

Check out the Toronto Transit Commission‘s weekly pass ($30 for adults) for a relatively economical and environmentally friendly way of cinema and party hopping during the festival. The passes are transferable so you can share with whomever you’d like. 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 under-construction 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.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This a new and improved version of last year’s edition of this guide.

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