We visit the hip district of Ontario’s capital and find it full of creative, independent enterprise.
My Kind of Place: West Queen West, Toronto, Canada
Why West Queen West?
The man behind the counter at the organic market inadvertently manages to encapsulate the West Queen West Area: “We don’t sell water,” he says. “Water should be free. Drink coconut water instead – it’s good for you.”
West Queen West is the part of Toronto that changes perceptions about the city. The pleasant but bland image gives way to something a bit cooler, a bit more happily independent and considerably more creative.
Queen Street West gets interesting in the two-kilometre stretch between Bathurst and Dufferin streets. It sprouts with restaurants, cafes, shops and galleries, and strolling along turns into a hugely pleasing mooch of discovery.
A comfortable bed
The Drake (www.thedrakehotel.ca) is the knowingly hip hotel-meets-nightspot that the area has flourished around. Wooden-floored rooms with clever space-saving design, original art, grey boxer-style robes and little Inuit dolls bring plenty of character. The little postcards featuring bad TripAdvisor reviews show more than a little sass. Rooms cost from 230 Canadian dollars (Dh642).
The Gladstone (www.gladstonehotel.com) is the other, slightly more restrained artsy boutique hotel on the strip. It hosts all manner of events, from karaoke to colouring-in sessions for adults. But it has kept its heritage features, such as the creaky, vintage lift, and each of the rooms is strikingly individual. Double rooms cost from 199 dollars (Dh556).
The Beverley (www.thebeverleyhotel.ca) is just outside the West Queen West zone, but an easy bus ride or walk away. Emphasis is placed on the restaurant downstairs, but the crash pads upstairs are fresh-looking and well kitted-out, if a little small – expect to pay from 179 dollars (Dh500).
Find your feet
It’s all about serendipitous discoveries, but a few galleries are worth planning a route around. Starting at the western end, the David Kaye Gallery (www.davidkayegallery.com) is one of the first encounters – it specialises in ceramics, and there are some marvellous, hypnotically curvy works inside.
Farther along, the Stephen Bulger Gallery (www.bulgergallery.com) offers rotating exhibitions of photography, alongside selections from its permanent collection. There are also free movie screenings on Saturday afternoons.
Meander along, dipping into shops and cafes, and you will eventually end up at Trinity-Bellwoods Park, where people lay out picnic blankets, throw Frisbees, walk dogs and coo at the squirrels. There always seems to be something going on there – whether a live music performance or art installation.
Meet the locals
Ossington Avenue branches off at a right angle from Queen Street West, and is fast turning into a little brother with a similar vibe. There’s no shortage of places to eat, and many people spill out onto terraces. Boralia (www.boraliato.com) – which serves food influenced by the diets and ingredients of Canada’s indigenous First Nations people – is the hot table here.
Book a table
Selling local and seasonal organic produce, Good Son (www.thegoodsontoronto.com) tries to reflect the cultures that have gentrified the area. There’s a wood-fired oven and grill imported from Italy, which makes for some pretty excellent pizzas, but the more interesting options are elsewhere on the menu. The 26-dollar (Dh73) bulgogi short ribs, with kimchi fried rice and sunny-side quail eggs, is particularly great.
Closer to the city centre, Carmen (www.carmensayz.com) now almost qualifies as a stalwart. Spanish flair is allowed to shine through, and the tapas menu throws up several intriguing options. But the paellas are the stars. Made for sharing, the options include confit rabbit and sous-vide snail paella for 65 dollars (Dh181.50).
There are several interesting shops opposite Trinity-Bellwoods Park, including the Paper Place (www.thepaperplace.ca), which offers gorgeous stationery, including decorative paper imported from Japan.
The Drake General Store (www.drakegeneralstore.ca) is part of the ever-expanding Drake Hotel empire, and keeps up the knowingly hip vibe. There’s a barber’s shop at the back, a store-within-a-store solely selling New Balance trainers, plus a range of goodies from small-batch piccalilli sauces to colouring books for adults. It’s opposite the hotel.
What to avoid
Make sure you get the right part of the Queen Street West strip. East of Bathurst Street, there’s a bit more faded glory. There are still some good entertainment venues, but the creative energy moved west a few years ago.
Artscape (www.torontoartscape.org) is a Toronto-wide non-profit movement that acquires old buildings then turns them into sustainable living and workspaces for artists and magicians.
One of the most remarkable of these locations is Artscape Youngplace (www.torontoartscape.org/artscape-youngplace), which is inside the Shaw Street Public School. Former classrooms are now studios, a 55-seat theatre has been installed for intimate musical performances and a curated arts programme regularly puts something quirkily site-specific onto the stairways.