Out of Town - Getting to Know Toronto
North America’s fifth-largest city, Toronto ranks among the world’s favorite gay urban destinations, with exceptional art and history museums, superb shopping, two stellar theater districts and a tourist board keen on courting the lesbian/gay market (www.seetorontonow.com/Visitor/Gay-Community.aspx). The name Toronto means “meeting place” in the language of the native Huron Indians, an apt moniker given how easy it is to make new friends in the city’s affable Church Street Gay Village.
Toronto’s popularity in recent decades among immigrants of numerous and far-reaching ethnic backgrounds has helped infuse it with a diverse personality, exceptional culinary offerings, and an eclectic visual and performing arts scene. Adding to the colorful mix is that Toronto has Canada’s largest gay and lesbian population, including openly gay city councilors, school trustees, and other public officials, and in general a highly progressive political climate. The city’s Pride Parade is one of the world’s largest, held each year in late June and early July.
Toronto may be enormous, but it’s still pedestrian-friendly. In the early ‘70s, planners debated whether to tear down much of the city’s historic infrastructure and replace it with high-rise housing and concrete office parks. By enlarge, the government decided to keep things as they were, promoting the restoration of many older neighborhoods. This policy has worked out favorably, and downtown now contains a bounty of invigorating neighborhoods filled with well-kept, mostly Victorian and Edwardian homes.
Some favorite areas for exploring include Chinatown (really more of a “Pan-Asian town), this also near to the esteemed Art Gallery of Ontario, which received a stunning new addition when famed architect Frank Gehry redesigned the museum in 2008. You’ll find not just top-notch Chinese but also Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Korean, and other Southeast Asian eateries throughout this neighborhood, especially along Spadina Avenue and its neighboring blocks.
North of the city’s central Financial District, the domain of many sleek hotels and office towers, is the University of Toronto, where more than 65,000 students are enrolled. The heart of the campus is at King’s College Circle, a small ellipse dotted with impressive 19th- and 20th-century school buildings. Due east lies Ontario’s governmental center, Queen’s Park, where you’ll see the Ontario Legislative and Parliament buildings. Just above the park is the vast Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which is the second-largest museum in North America (after New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art).
South of the Financial District along the lakefront is the 100-acre Harbourfront Centre, a former industrial wasteland that now that’s been reinvented into an entertainment-and-retail district with a massive antiques center, performance spaces, restaurants, and The Pier: Toronto’s Waterfront Museum, which has exhibits tracing the city’s considerable maritime history. Gaze across the Inner Harbour, and you can make out the Toronto Islands, which you reach by a 10-minute ferry ride from the terminal, just behind the Westin Harbour Castle. Choose the ferry headed for Hanlan’s Point (boast leave regularly throughout the day, the cost is $6.50 round-trip) to reach the clothing-optional beach, which has a huge GLBT following, and keep in mind that Lake Ontario can be windy, and the islands are always several degrees cooler than the mainland (which, on hot summer days, is a blessing).
Astride the Financial District are the city’s two major performing arts areas, the King Street theater district (to the west) and the Front Street theater district (to the east - keep going and you’ll reach the bustling St. Lawrence Market, with its incredible food stalls, and the smartly redeveloped Distillery District, with its chic shops and eateries). Toronto has the English-speaking world’s third largest performing arts scene, with outstanding theater, music, opera, and dance. Also near the King Street district is the 1,815-foot CN (Canadian National) Tower, whose 1,465-foot-high Space Deck is the tallest observation deck in the world.
It’s an easy walk from downtown to the Gay Village (aka Church Street Village), whose commercial spine is Church Street, from about Bloor south to Gerrard streets. In addition to finding most of Toronto’s gay bars and restaurants in this area, you’ll also discover several great fashion, book and gift shops.
Toronto’s most colorful ethnic neighborhoods lie west of downtown, where the hipster-factor is also highest. Walk along Queen Street West to experience the heart of the city’s alternative culture - you’ll find everything from offbeat antiques stores to vintage clothing boutiques to shops specializing in witchcraft to divy tattoo parlors. Farther west, Queen Street intersects with yet another strip of trendy, hipster-infested bars, cafes, and shops, Ossington Avenue, which is definitely worth a tour.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, Toronto endured a reputation as a hard-working, earnest, but rather dull metropolis. The incisive writer Jan Morris once described it as “a small provincial city of almost absurdly British character.” A walk through the many bustling ethnic neighborhoods, around the vibrant Gay Village, and past the quirky, counter-cultural businesses along Queen Street West reveal just how dramatically times have changed.
You’ll find dozens of gay-friendly restaurants in Church Street Village, but it’s often more about socializing than eating fantastic food in these parts. One of the best ethnic neighborhoods for noshing is Greektown, a short drive east of Church Street Village, where you’ll find numerous tavernas lining Danforth Street - Mezes (www.mezes.ca) and Pantheon (www.pantheonrestaurant.com) are good bets.
Close to many theaters and a 15-minute walk south of Church Street Village, the Wine Bar at 9 Church Street (www.9church.com) serves wonderfully inventive, farm-to-table fare and features a terrific wine list. A bit east of the area, for arguably the best Thai food in the city, check out Mengra (www.mengraithai.com), which is set inside an atmospheric old warehouse and turns out beautifully prepared food.
Head farther east into up-and-coming Leslieville, sometimes dubbed “Lesbianville” in light of one of the neighborhood’s most visible demographics, and you’ll find some nifty little eateries along the main avenue, Queen Street East - Pulp Kitchen (www.pulpkitchen.ca) is a favorite over here, as is Lady Marmalade (www.ladymarmalade.ca), a funky place serving delicious breakfasts.
Queen Street West has scads of outstanding eateries, from high-end superstars like Nota Bene (notabenerestaurant.com), which specializes in stellar mod-Italian cuisine, to romantic Paramour (www.paramourdining.com), a sophisticated modern bistro on the trendy Ossington Strip. Also consider Clafouti Patisserie for delicious baked goods, Quaff Cafe (cafequaff.ca) for perfectly brewed lattes and espressos, and Pizzeria Libretto (pizzerialibretto.com) on Ossington, for incomparably good wood-fired, blistered-crust pizzas. Not too far from this area, at Chiado (www.chiadorestaurant.com), you’ll be treated to some of the most sophisticated Portuguese cooking in North America, from rabbit braised in Madeira wine to poached salt cod.
Finding Gay Nightlife
Contrary to its long-ago-pious reputation as “Toronto the Good,” a distinct naughty side has grown up over the years around the city’s gay club scene, which is centered in Church Street Village. There are quite a few favorites in these parts, including Slack’s (www.slacks.ca - an attractive restaurant and bar especially popular with the lesbian see-and-be-seen set), the long-famous Woody’s and neighboring Sailor bar (www.woodystoronto.com —fairly youthful, good mix, fun videos), Fly (www.flynightclub.com — a pulsing nightclub that appeared regularly in the U.S. version of Queer As Folk), Zipperz/Cellblock (fun for drag shows and cabaret), the Barn (www.thebarnnightclub.com - super-cruisy men’s bar), and Crews &