The Toronto International Film Festival beckons film lovers from around the world. The second great benefit of heading to Toronto for an international collection of quality movies, is the ability to tour the city, dine in top restaurants and mingle with the most diverse crowd of people in the western hemisphere; 50 percent of the population is from another country and they speak over 150 different languages. Touring and dining go hand-in-hand when you're in Toronto.
(Photo by Dwight Brown)
Toronto's City Hall sits in Nathan Phillips Square.
Getting Around on Two Wheels
Toronto Bicycle Tours, founded by owner Terrence Eta, takes customers on tours all over the city. Whether you're a Tour de France champion, a bike novice or even bike-phobic, you'll feel at ease on any of TBT's eight scheduled tours.
Their "Heart of Downtown" tour, affectionately known as "Toronto 101," is perfect for putting Downtown Toronto into perspective. Says Eta while starting the tour in Chinatown: "Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America by population (2.8 million). The original Chinatown, near Spadina Avenue, is the oldest and dates back to the late 19th century. But now Toronto has four Chinatowns. Chinese people first appeared in Toronto after the construction of the TransCanada railroad; thousands settled in Toronto after it was done. Today about 11 percent of the population is of Chinese origin."
Kensington Market is a unique, neighborhood in downtown Toronto. It was first populated in the 1920s by Jewish people from Europe. Due to their need for kosher food and longing for items from their homelands, the market rose around their neighborhood with kosher food stores, tailors, bakeries, synagogues.
The tradition of an open market began back then, and these days, there's a very casual, multicultural Bohemian feel here, with Asian-run fruit and vegetable stands, taquerias featuring empanadas owned by Latin immigrants, international cuisine at the small intimate restaurants on Baldwin St. and sidewalks filled with college students.
During the four-hour tour, you view Victorian row houses, well-renown dumpling houses (Rol San Restaurant with All Day Dim Sum), noteworthy synagogues (Anshei Minsk Synagogue dates back to 1912) and intimate Baldwin St. restaurants (Vegetarian Haven). The cycling progresses to the University of Toronto's idyllic St. George campus, where students flow from class to class or play pick-up soccer games on the main lawn. Then the tour heads down to Nathan Phillips Square, to view City Hall. The concrete-colored buildings, built in 1965, look like two behemoth semi-circles; one is 27 stories tall and the other 20. The square is home to outdoor markets and concerts, and has a reflecting pool in summer that's a skating rink in winter.
TBT's "Twilight" and "AM" tours to the Toronto Islands include a ferryboat trip, visiting the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the Royal Canadian Yacht club, the park and beach. The "Flowers, Cows and Chocolate" tour rides along the Don River, and goes to Riverdale Farm to see horses, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. There is something very cool about touring a city on bike, versus an off-putting sky-high tour bus.
Drinking In the Distillery District
Aaron Binder has dubbed himself the Chief Fun Officer at Segway of Ontario, which does tours of the Distillery District, a 13-acre historic neighborhood with 40 Victorian industrial buildings, just east of downtown. Don't be intimidated if you have never ridden a Segway before. It takes some balance and skill, but if you can't get the swing of it, walk. The original Gooderham and Worts Distillery dates back to the 1830s and at some point was the largest whisky distillery in the world. In the 20th century, the redbrick buildings in the surrounding area eventually became desolate until the district became part of a redevelopment plan in 2001. Since then, people have moved into three Distillery condo buildings, and those tenants along with tourists and other locals keep the streets jumping.
Binder leads groups of sightseers through the neighborhood like a wayward son returning home and introducing friends to his family. He knows all the restaurateurs, shop owners, gallery directors and takes you to the head of the line, if there is one. He'll get you to sip on some premium Ginjo sake at the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, Toronto's first sake brewery. You nibble on the delicious chocolate candies at SOMA Chocolatemaker (the Dark Peruvian chocolate is exceptionally smooth for a dark chocolate of that caliber, and there's the almond milk chocolate truffle.) Snack on a Pulled Pork Sandwich at Brick Street Bakery. Or eat some amazing Mexican cuisine at Elcatrin Destileria.
Galleries, dessert shops and clothing stores abound. Without a guide, the neighborhood would be a series of nice shops, but Binder connects the dots and points you in the right direction. Binder: "The Distillery District has 10 theater groups and one of the most popular is called 'Soul Pepper.' That theater company resides in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and is known for producing plays by Harold Pinter, Anton Chekov and Tom Stoppard with Canadian casts."
Binder ends his tour at the Mill Street Brewery, a brewery with two restaurants: Mill Street Beer Hall and the Mill Street Brewpub. Dan North runs the Mill Street retail store and loves to talk about the 13 beers his establishment has on tap and a smile comes across his face when tells you about the brewery's unique beer schnapps. North: "It's a specialty from northern Germany, distilled straight from beer and it tastes very close to a fine whiskey. It's 45% alcohol; you're only going to find it here and one other place in North America." Even if you're not much of a drinker, take a little taste. It's smooth!
The unique blend of locals and visitors stops the Distillery District from being a tourist trap like New York's South Street Seaport. The place feels organic, authentic, warm and inviting. It's steeped in history.
Getting Something to Eat
Fine dining and horse racing have had a happy marriage at Turf Lounge. Located at 330 Bay Street near Adelaide, Turf is a restaurant that's also an off-track betting location that broadcasts live simulcast horse racing from tracks across North America, Australia, Canada & Dubai on two 70-inch, an 80-inch LCD TV and on plenty other screens. Turf Lounge allows its customers to bet on the horses, and will even start you off with a $2 wager for free. It's fun to root for the horse you think is a winner while sipping on Turf's Blueberry Amaretto Sour. Turf Lounge is a great place to catch your favorite sports as the monitors also display NHL, MLB, NFL, Golf and especially during TIFF, the U.S. Tennis Open.
The restaurant is set in a building that dates back to the early 1900s, and was once a bank. These days, with a very businesslike but hip interior, it attracts the downtown crowd and sports fans to three private rooms, a large bar and main dining room. The new chef, Tom Brodi, previously the Chef de Cuisine at Toronto's Canoe restaurant, has left his fine-cultured mark on all the appetizers and entrees that use fresh and local ingredients: Try the Glazed B.C. Black Cod with cauliflower, butternut squash, leek dressing; the Braised Butcher Block Short Ribs with creamed semolina, mushrooms and shallots; or the Pan Seared Calamari with arugula, fennel, citrus and red onions.
For a taste of Northwest Africa, trek down to Sultan's Tent & Café Moroc at 49 Front Street East, where you'll get a flavor of Morocco's nomadic Berber culture. The restaurant's interior is swathed in purple, orange and gold satin curtains and fabrics imported from Morocco. The menu brings the taste of Berber cuisine to your palette. You'll start your meal with a debate over which is better, the Signature Maftoul (a Moroccan Cigar, an appetizer made with ground beef, raisins and chipotle Aioli--it looks like a small enchilada and has a very subtle but distinct beef flavor) or you may prefer the Lobster Maftoul (lobster, seasoned vegetables mint leaves and sage oil). The entrée you'll talk about is the Australian Lamb Provencal (made with housemade Pesto rub and served with mashed potatoes, cherry tomatoes and Moroccan ragu). Lamb is a staple in Moroccan diets, and this delicious, tender dish will make you come back for more. Time your dinner correctly and catch the belly dancing show. Ladies clad in veils, with bells around their waists and chiffon flowing skirts dance down the aisle and in front of your table, tempting you, like you're a sheik in waiting.
The best Japanese restaurant in Toronto, and arguably one of the best in North America, Ki Modern sits at the base of the soaring Bay Wellington Tower. The clientele consists of fancy businesspeople, young hip white-collar workers and tourists who like fine cuisine, tasty sake and Japanese beer like Asahi 'Super Dry' beer.
The cozy sushi bar with its wingback chairs provides a very intimate place to dine. Start dinner with the Duck Confit Salad (with pickled red cabbage, arugula, green beans and saikyo miso vinaigrette). Move onto the Kushiyaki plate of Shrimp & Scallops (brushed with mango hot sauce); languish with the grilled Short Ribs (marinated with Asian pear-soya and sesame seeds). End the night with Mochi Cake (with soy milk creme anglaise, shiso, edible flowers and candied pecans). And, who could blame you if the last thing you remember is drinking a warm sake like Samurai's Addiction (warm sake, Kahlua, Fernet Branca, cardamom, angostura and cardamom bitters).
The Shore Club sits regally adjacent to the Ritz Carlton, and its inviting, upscale interiors and exquisite cuisine are on par with the Ritz. Walking down the hallway alongside a glassed off wine rack, is impressive. Peering through the vast main room with views of the kitchen and artwork by celebrated Canadian artist David Bierk adds a sense of sophistication. For openers the Scallop & Prawn Ceviche (cilantro citrus marinade) does things to your taste buds. The succulent Bone-In Ribeye Steak is about as tasty as the Canadian Rock Lobster Tail that's broiled and served with drawn butter. Don't pick between the Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée, Key Lime Pie or Terrine of Sorbet. Have them all. If you started your meal with a Dandylion cocktail (Beefeater 24, Green Tea Simple Syrup, Bar Lime, Cucumber) cap it off with a Stratus Riesling/Sémillon Ice Wine.
TIFF is the Heart of Toronto
The Toronto International Film Festival is a destination in and of itself. Unlike the New York Film Festival, you can actually buy a ticket, get into a movie and it is people-friendly. King Street West, in front of the TIFF headquarters was closed to traffic this year. Restaurants and cafes extended themselves into the lanes and a pedestrian mall made people watching an all-afternoon and evening excursion.
Crowds gathered in front of the Princess of Wales Theater to watch stars walk in and actors like Chris Rock didn't disappoint. He mingled, signed autographs and took selfies before the premier of his film Top Five. Inside the theater, Artistic Director Cameron Bailey introduced films, their directors and casts before screenings. After the film, the cast sat on stage and answered questions. The night the comedy St. Vincent screened, Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Chris Dowd seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience.
The motto of the festival this year was "This Is Your Film Festival." And it was. Tour around Toronto, visit the shops, eat in the restaurants and you'll think, "This is your city." That's how Toronto welcomes you.
Visit travel writer Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.