Toronto’s lower east end is full of fascinating history, and good food. Riverside, Corktown and the Canary districts are some of the oldest in the city and the stories run deep. What better way to get to know an area than take a walking food tour?
Culinary Adventure Co. offers tours in Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg year round and from June until end of September in Charlottetown, Kingston and Halifax.
“Sixty-five per cent of our business is local, people celebrating the city or using gift certificates,” noted the company’s “Big Cheese” (aka owner) Kevin Durkee who was leading the tour along with Leo Moncel, the company’s city manager for Toronto. In Toronto’s east end their tours are usually either Riverside/Leslieville, or Corktown/Canary districts but today, special for my little group they merged Riverside into the Corktown/Canary district tour.
Kevin used to own a restaurant called Cheeseworks, at Bathurst and Niagara Street. The Culinary Adventure Co. was started by a couple who separated in 2013 and Kevin, tired of the restaurant business, bought it in 2014. “Good tastes better when you know where it comes from,” he explained.
We met at the Broadview Hotel in Riverside (Broadview and Queen Street East) and Kevin explained that the tour would cover history and background of establishments and areas; stories of the team in the kitchen; and diversity. “Toronto is the most diverse city on the planet,” he explained.
We took a gander at the rooftop bar, then headed down to the cafe for a delicious plate of hot (temperature) smoked salmon and cucumber salad with Easter egg heirloom radishes. The salmon was flaked and the warmth was a delightful contrast to the cool, crisp cucumbers and radishes.
Leo gave us the background on the hotel, and the area. Back in the day, the east side of Toronto was populated by the working class because the winds here tend to be easterly and the gentry, who lived on the west side of the city, didn’t want to get a whiff of stockyards, tanneries and sundry industries.
The Broadview was originally built by Archibald W. Dingman, a soap tycoon. Known as Dingman’s Hall, it was sold in 1907 and converted into the Broadview Hotel. Now an upscale boutique hotel, The Broadview previously spent 40 years as Jilly’s, a notorious strip club.
Walking west on Queen Street, we went past the storefront that was the original Canadian Tire hardware store, then veered north to Merchants of Green Coffee, overlooking the Don Valley Parkway. Standing in front of the two-story brick building, Leo held up a picture of Shirriff marmalade. “Remember this?” I did. My mother bought it when I was a child. “The Shirriff factory owner was from Scotland. He brought the marmalade recipe back and in 1909 built his plant here,” Leo explained. Inside we were greeted by Megan Thibeault, part-owner and marketer. She gave us the scoop on importing green beans that were certified Free Trade and organic. “We buy from a collective in Honduras. We helped them get financing from the International Development Bank. Now the collective members have a sustainable livelihood, plus this kind of crop helps to save the rain forest.” She told us the company’s two founders, Derek Zavislake and his brother Brad, have three bottom lines – profits, people and the environment. For our coffee tasting, the first step was to roast the beans in a mini roaster, similar to a hot air popcorn maker. We watched the beans turn from green to brown, going through “1st crack” when they start to roast and the chaf comes off, and “2nd crack” when the sugar inside the beans becomes caramelized. Once it was steeped and filtered, I had a small sip and found the flavour to be intense, with a spike of sharpness and a sweet finish.
Crossing the bridge over the Don River into Corktown, we came to the Dominion Pub and Kitchen, a gastro pub located at 500 Queen St. East. Hearty comfort food awaited, including tater-tot-pulled-pork poutine, a freshly baked pretzel with grainy mustard, a flight of Henderson’s Best, named after the 1st brewery in Toronto, and Brickworks 1904 cider. “1904 was the year of Toronto’s second great fire, and much of downtown was destroyed,” Leo explained. Delicate, with a soft apple flavour, there was nothing hot or fiery about the cider.
The street art in the Canary District at Underpass Park attracted us next. Tucked below Corktown at River Street and Eastern Avenue, the underbelly of this section of the Gardiner Expressway is covered in colourful graffiti art, complete with mirrored ceiling.
“It took 10 years to clean the soil before they could build the Athletes Village here for the Commonwealth Games. This area was once home to William Davies pork producers, one of the biggest abattoirs in the world at the time,” Leo told us.
What better time to taste some Canary District vegetarian delights? At Souk Tabule Middle Eastern Restaurant we munched on the chef’s platter with labni (creamy garlic yogurt cheese), beet mutable (with tahini and lemon), muhamara (roasted red pepper and walnuts), babaganouj (eggplant and tahini), quinoi tabule and Arabic slaw. “The owner, chef Rony Goraichy is from Beirut. He came to the city as a student and worked at Jerusalem Restaurant. He became an actuary and got married to the boss, Diana Sideris,” Leo explained. In 2005, Goraichy traded his suit for chef’s whites and he and his wife opened their first location at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. The other two are in Riverside and Bayview Village Shopping Centre.
Our final sop was Roselle Desserts, a bakery at King Street and Parliament Street in Corktown. “The owners, Bruce Lee and Stephanie Duong, got married a month ago,” Leo told us with a big grin. We tasted what the bakery is best known for, a Banana Fosters Éclair.
The upside about a culinary adventure like this, along with the tasty treats, is the calorie-burning walking involved. My waistline agrees.
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