After SARS scare, Toronto rebounds for tourism
TORONTO — Tourism in Toronto was crippled last spring when a SARS outbreak killed 44 people. But there’s nothing like a brush with death to make you embrace life with fresh energy. The SARS scare forced this city — always better at work than at play — to wake up and realize it needs to take care of its guests.
“I don’t think tourism got the recognition it deserved before,” says Tricia Hosking, spokeswoman for Tourism Toronto. “It’s definitely more front of mind now.”
In practical terms, that means plenty of deals on airfares and hotels. But it also means that the city’s boosters are highlighting Toronto’s evolving image as a cutting-edge metropolis.
Sure, there are the longtime, obvious attractions like the zoo, the CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, the breezy lakefront, a pulsing theater and live music scene.
But Toronto is also becoming a destination for hipsters. I grew up in Toronto but left a decade ago, and on returning this past summer, I was surprised by how much my old hometown had changed.
There’s a growing art scene, centered in the West Queen West area, and the annual Toronto International Film Festival has evolved into North America’s premier film showcase. The government is also taking steps to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and to legalize same-sex marriages.
But the biggest factor in Toronto’s changing identity is its extraordinary ethnic diversity — and for tourists, that means great food and interesting neighborhoods.
Toronto takes its name from the Mohawk word for “meeting place,” and culturally that’s exactly what it is. It’s the multiethnic neighborhoods that make up the city’s patchwork soul. They have a low-rise human scale and offer visitors many appealing choices.
Start in Little Italy, centered along College Street. Once an old ethnic enclave, it’s become an almost too-trendy party zone of bars, bistros and lounges, many of them utterly un-Italian. Try Bar Italia, L’ily (for Little Italy), or the Asian inventions at tony Tempo. Cafe Diplomatico has the best people-watching patio around.
Farther north is the student-filled Annex, centered along Bloor Street. To its west is an emerging Korean district. South is Little Portugal, where churrasqueira chicken grills rub shoulders with Brazilian cafes and Vietnamese karaoke bars.
Toronto is also home to a vibrant gay and lesbian population, concentrated downtown on Church Street between Wellesley and College. Last spring, the Ontario Supreme Court issued a court ruling permitting homosexual marriages, and by August, over 450 same-sex couples had taken their vows in Toronto. City Hall even kept its office open on a Sunday in June for weddings during Pride Week, one of the largest events of its kind on the continent.
The Canadian government is also considering making the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana about the same as a parking ticket. The city isn’t about to open Amsterdam-style brown cafes, but police in Toronto say that until there’s a final legal decision, they won’t charge anyone found carrying less than 1.05 ounces. That has led to some smoking in public in bohemian neighborhoods like Kensington Market.
For an entirely legal cocoa fix, try Kensington’s Chocolate Addict, with truffles in 20 flavors, and a Jamaican bakery selling homemade ginger beer. Check out the ramshackle, open-air Louie’s Coffee Stop and nearby delis proffering all manner of imported gourmet temptations, along with the legendary Courage My Love, one of various vintage clothing shops.
Go east from Kensington on Baldwin Street and you’re on a leafy block that combines hip eateries with small-town friendliness. South and east is the city’s original Chinatown, the place to try mouthwatering dim sum at Lai Wah Heen and other authentic Chinese restaurants.
South of Kensington and Chinatown is the stylish strip of Queen Street West. It’s been gentrified and commercialized, but old favorites like the Rivoli, Le Select Bistro and the Horseshoe Tavern still draw crowds of discerning revelers.
Below Queen is the Entertainment District, a hub of dance clubs, theaters and top restaurants like Susur, Rain and Blowfish, all examples of Toronto’s cutting-edge Asian-fusion cuisine. To experience the embryonic edge of Toronto culture, you have to head west: to West Queen West. The emerging area is luring artists and designers and now sports over 40 small galleries.
“This is probably the hippest neighborhood in Toronto because it’s a collective mix of individuality,” says Dante Larcade, co-owner of Roseland Antiques, which sells an ingeniously eclectic blend of old and new art and furnishings.
With a haphazardness typical of West Queen West, the galleries here share a stretch of street with erotic accessory shop Miss Behavn, Vena’s “Best Roti in Town,” the old-world Prague Deli, and Coupe Bizzarre, the place to go for a head-turning hairdo. In a short walk, you can sample Dufflet for pastries, Quasimodo for furniture, Songbird for music, or the Downward Dog Yoga Center for chakra alignment. For dining and drinking try Bar One, the Habitat Lounge, or the indispensable Gypsy Co-Op.
“The diversity is what makes the mix work. There is no rhyme or reason,” Larcade says.
West Queen West doesn’t have a lock on creativity. On the east side of downtown Toronto, developers have transformed the 19th century Gooderham & Worts industrial complex into the Distillery Historic District. Wisely, they have retained enough patina of age that the new entertainment destination doesn’t feel too contrived.
A shooting location for films such as “Chicago” and “X-Men,” the family-friendly Distillery District’s hulking brick-and-stone structures now house small galleries, cafes, restaurants and performance spaces. Like West Queen West, each shop has its own vision: there are no chains.
And like Toronto itself, the allure of the whole comes from the disparate uniqueness of the parts.
If You Go
Fall is one of the nicest times of year to visit Toronto, with moderate temperatures, scenic foliage and the new film and theater season. The International Festival of Authors is held Oct. 22 to Nov. 1.
Getting Around: Buy a day pass for the quick and clean subway, streetcars and buses. It’s also useful for exploring more distant neighborhoods like Greektown on Danforth Avenue, the Beaches, Little India and the second Chinatown.
Theater: Visitors can buy half-price tickets to same-day performances at the T.O. TIX booth at 208 Yonge St.
Things To Do: The ‘Time Out Toronto Guide’ (Penguin, $16.95) is the most useful general guidebook. The magazines Where Toronto, Toronto Life , Eye , and Now all detail the city’s arts and entertainment.