When a good friend of The MALESTROM revealed he was leaving the smoky city we call London behind for a business trip, stroke opportunity to have a little birthday break with the missus in vibrant blossoming Toronto, we asked if he’d very kindly fetch us the lowdown, and that’s exactly what he did.
When you think of Canada what comes to mind? I’ll wager it will be a range of predictable, if not patronising images – Mounties? Maple syrup? Ice hockey? Moose’s? (Meese?!).
Actually these days it may be Justin Trudeau – Canadian PM and natural successor to Obama as the new poster boy for global liberal politics who, in this crazy world, often appears to be ‘the voice of reason’. Certainly the contrast with his counterpart ‘south of the border’ couldn’t be starker. An orange-faced, belligerent right wing septuagenarian windbag (if he actually counts as right wing in these days of ‘Alt politics’), who sports an ill-fitting tent of a suit, versus the youthful, handsome, suave and erudite Trudeau, who cuts a dash whether he’s hanging out in jeans and hoodie or meeting world leaders in a stylish tailored suit.
With these stock perceptions at the back of my mind, along with South Park’s harsh lampooning of the country, I excitedly boarded the plane for my first ever trip to Canada, flying to Toronto on a business trip, followed by a few days with my good lady who was coming out a few later for my belated birthday city-break.
Boy, were my preconceptions blown away…
I checked in at the huge, grand and beautifully traditional Fairmont Royal York hotel – right opposite the equally magnificent Union Station, two grand old dames of the city facing each other and perhaps gossiping about the changing demographics of the tiny creatures scuttling between them, and the gleaming skyscrapers shooting up around them.
Following my usual business trip routine of ‘get on local time’, I had a quick freshen up and headed out to find a local bar for a swift pint, well, it was now my birthday in the UK! I didn’t have to walk far, just a block away on Front Street I found a Toronto sports bar stalwart, ‘The Loose Moose’ – just the ticket! The lovely old brownstone building houses a stylish oak-panelled bar with an array of big screens above showing multiple hockey games.
I enjoyed a couple of excellent Canadian craft beers and half a dozen ‘hot wings’, not to mention some avid people watching; despite it now being near 11pm, people were still flooding in, groups of party girls and even one or two rather conspicuous ‘pick ups’ among the singletons sitting at the bar – Sunday night? Canada? Really? Despite the lively atmosphere I toddled off to sleep off any jet lag. Good birthday boy.
I won’t bore you with details of my three work days – other than a great lunch with a couple of old colleagues at Lenas Restaurante on Young St. in the business district. Exceptional Argentinian tapas were preceded by ‘old fashioneds’ and washed down with an excellent Canadian red (another surprise!).
Walking to and from our office on Adelaide St. E through the business district I was really struck by the size of the towering office blocks – when I say towering, I mean towering! – but also how attractive they all were, individually and collectively. Each building seemed sympathetic to the next. Many years ago I recall Clive James saying in his ‘Postcard from…’ TV series “In New York skyscrapers went up because they had to, in Chicago they went up because they wanted to”, and it felt exactly the same in Toronto. Quite often you’d see a lovely ‘NY style’ brownstone nestled in between giant skyscrapers – yet somehow it didn’t feel at all incongruous, more like big hard-backed text books interspersed with beloved leather bound classics on a library shelf. Everyone seems to be comfortable with themselves in Toronto, even the buildings.
So, work over with and the wife in town it was time to see the non-corporate side of the city. We moved to the west side of downtown – to Le Germaine Hotel on Mercer Street, a boutique hotel with a certain urban cool and in a great location for exploring the city. Mercer Street itself, a short block tucked behind the bustling King Street is something of a microcosm of Toronto offerings: a sushi bar and a rather nice French restaurant at one end; Canadian ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzsky’s sports bar at the other; sandwiched between them a cool little micro-brewery (Mascot Brewery) and the Second City comedy improv club, the sister site of the original in Chicago. Canadian comedians John Candy, Mike Myers, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mockery, to name but a few, cut their comedy teeth there. I’ve always wondered, why does Canada produce so many great comedians?
We mooched around the local area that night for food and drink, ironically ending up in a British themed pub! The next morning was filled with getting the bearings of our new neighbourhood, and ticking off some of the more touristy itinerary items like going up the CN Tower – sorry, but these things have to be done.
In the afternoon we walked north up John St. until we hit Queen St. This is where we discovered an entirely different side of Toronto. Like most North American cities, downtown Toronto is laid out in a grid system, with streets marked ‘West’ or ‘East’ either side of the central thoroughfare of Yonge St. Downtown, east has the pristine modern skyscrapers, west has a smaller, more higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings – like walking from the ‘front of house’ in an Apple Store to the back storeroom where brown boxes are strewn everywhere. You are unmistakably aware that you are in a different part of town.
Queen St. has a slightly edgier feel the further west you walk, somewhat akin to the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The inhabitants are much more of a mixed bag than their be-suited east side contemporaries. This is Canada though and ‘edgy’ doesn’t imply there is any sort of impending personal threat, rather the atmosphere just changes; lower level buildings and the slightly grimier feel of the sidewalks, something of a relief after a few days in the well-tended, almost sterile east side.
There’s an open, liberal feel to the place and your body naturally slips down a gear or two to accommodate it as you walk past the eclectic tapestry of businesses, shops, independent coffee houses, bars and restaurants. Vintage clothing and record stores nestle next to digital agencies; fast food restaurants or cantines are aplenty – the waft of ramen noodle soup mixes with the unmistakable smell of poutine; a family tailoring business sits across from a G-Star RAW Store; Media companies abound, we saw on-street filming taking place in at least two locations on Queen Street, and the bars are a nice mix of traditional and uber-hip. We pondered over The Horseshoe Tavern, but elected to try The Queen Street Warehouse, attracted by its open frontage and small outside area, as well as the music from the old-style jukebox blaring out into the sunny sidewalk. The Warehouse advertises “all dishes $4.95” and this partly accounts for the line that forms outside to get a table. It’s also clearly a ‘place to be seen’, though not in an upmarket, pretentious way, rather it’s a low key, comfortably trendy hangout for the locals from the fashion, media and student communities. The nearby University gives the whole street a youthful, vibrant atmosphere as students migrate between classes.
After a fifteen minute wait, and a slight crisis of confidence that my Ralph Lauren checked shirt might be deemed too ‘square’ to get me in at all, we are ushered to an outside table. Sunny it may be, but we had quickly learnt that the Toronto climate can be deceptive – often seemingly experiencing four seasons in one day! So jackets were kept on, as well as sunglasses. We sit next to four girls in their teens or early twenties, looking stylish with 70s style afros and denim, and sporting classic old-school Adidas trainers. Giggling and gossiping, they flirtatiously call out to various passing college boys in Raptors basketball shirts and snap-backs. On other tables friends meet and chat, media projects are discussed, and groups plan the night ahead. Friendly waitresses navigate us through the food and drink menu; more excellent craft lagers, and delivery of fish tacos, corn tortillas and a spicy noodle salad ($4.95 each remember!). The large jukebox blasts out random hits – hip-hop, classic rock, the latest pop tunes. A few drinks later we depart as the air further cools and afternoon turns into evening. Bars will continue to rock, and adjacent late-night clubs with rooftop terraces will open in just a few hours.
Queen Street also has a vibrant live music scene. Among the highlights are the legendary Cameron House bar, a beautifully decorated venue and record label, and sweaty late night dive where local bands grind out guitar-based rock and indie like The Velvet Underground and the wonderfully named Bovine Sex Club. The partying hipsters of Toronto see out the night.
The following day is all about sporting endeavours – watching my team Southampton getting tonked 3-0 by Man City on the biggest screen I have ever seen at the Real Sports bar downtown, and witnessing the Toronto Blue Jays win at The Rogers Centre with a home run in the final innings.
We finish the night with a stand-out meal at high-rise Toronto favourite Scaramouche, with spectacular sunset views over the city and Lake Ontario.
We return to the Queen Street W area the following evening for more exploring, this time heading up the expansive Spadina Avenue towards Chinatown. After a long day of pacing the city we don’t get too far though, stopping at the excellent R&D restaurant for a drink and being drawn in by their outstanding Asian fusion small plates. Travel weariness is starting to kick-in.
We head back to Toronto Pearson airport the following day with a definite ‘we could live here’ feeling and a vow to return, at least for another break. Toronto, and Canada in general can’t be as perfect as it has seemed over the last week – there are the same social issues that challenge any big city or country, and I have already read about a Canadian ‘Alt-Right’ vehemently opposed to Trudeau and his Liberal party. But there is no doubt whatsoever that this particular metropolis has been in the shadow of its big city counterparts in ‘Merica for too long.
If you love visiting North America, but are raising your eyes at some of Trumps antics, you could do worse than consider this smart, comfortable, cool city – it’s a fantastic alternative. All of the upside, little of the down. Tru dat.