Treasure Hunting in Toronto’s West End

What’s old is new again in hip neighbourhoods such as the Junction.

Living in Toronto for most of my life, I’ve learned this city is full of surprises. Shops and galleries pop up in unusual places, restaurants and cafes emerge in new spaces and neighbourhoods stretch and evolve. On a recent tour of the city’s west end, I reconnected with old favourites and found plenty of new treasures, as well.

Head north of Bloor, along Dundas West, and after the road curves, voila, you are in the Junction. This area got its name because it was where four railway lines came together. The region runs roughly north of Annette, south of St. Clair, and between Runnymede Road and the Canadian National Railway corridor to the east. Once home to the Ontario stockyards, it was the centre of the province’s meat packing industry at the turn of the last century. At one time it was chock-a-block with bars and taverns, but bad behaviour from clients caused residents to ban alcohol from the neighbourhood in 1904. Alcohol was not again served in the neighbourhood until 2001. Although a somewhat blighted area for many years, the Junction has become one of the city’s hippest, happening neighbourhoods.

A recent space to open is the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada (MOCA), which was formerly housed on Queen St. West. MOCA Toronto is now on Sterling Road in the former Tower Automotive Building. Erected in 1919, it was designed by architect John W. Woodman of Winnipeg, and was once the tallest tower in Toronto. Originally a factory that produced aluminum products for World War II, it later made items such as kitchen tools, bottle caps and car parts. In 2006, the factory shuttered its doors.

Contemporary art now finds itself in a space that was cutting edge in its day. Instead of beams for support, the building uses concrete flat slab architecture. Each floor is a slab of reinforced concrete and is supported by concrete, mushroom-shaped, columns which distribute the weight to the floor below. What’s old is new again at this site, and it is a fitting spot for provocative exhibits that push boundaries.

Back up on Dundas West, we stopped into Latitude 44, a more traditional space with gallery, framing service, and décor objects. “We started as a framing business and now we sell art and gifts from Canadian creators, east to west,” explained the shop’s Mary Ann DiBernardo.

One of the oldest continuously running restaurants in the Junction is Vesuvio’s, opened in 1957. The popular family run pizza parlor attracts newcomers and old. “We often get people coming in who had their first date here and are now grandparents,” said Piera Pugliese, who helms the operation with her husband Ettore. There was a dining room filled with families and a take-out counter where patrons lined up for a quick lunch. My favourite was the “super” with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, bacon, ham, onions.

There are many sweet nooks to relax and enjoy a beverage in the Junction. At Famous Last Words you can read a book at the scrabble tiled bar while sipping a cocktail named after a famous novel. At Junction City Music Hall, a secret music venue, you can play pinball, listen to local talent, or power through a karaoke night. You have to look carefully for it, though ­– an orange door on Dundas St. West, beside Silk Restaurant, in the basement.

The Junction is a fabulous place to find one-of-a-king items. At Snug as a Bug, Liz Heyland has carved out a niche for onesies, in adult and children’s sizes (from 10 lb-350 lb). Leopard print? Lumberjack plaid? You name it, she has a onesie for you. The business is thriving. She started out selling the cuddly wear online in 2005 then opened the shop in 2007. Now she supplies 150 stores across Canada and all over the world. “We can make your whole family cosy, even your pets,” she told us with a big smile.

Want to create something yourself? Check out Pinot’s Palette where groups can drink wine (or beer) and paint – colours, canvas and aprons are all supplied.

If you’d rather contemplate someone else’s creativity, Zalucky Contemporary art gallery showcases works from Canadian artists, many who live in the neighbourhood.

Lunch was on Sterling Road at the Drake Commissary. “The Drake has been more than 15 years on Queen Street and we thought it was time to grow,” said Sarah Lyons, executive director of the Drake Hotel Properties’ food and beverage. Homemade bread, pasta and charcuterie are all created at the commissary, which does a booming take-out business (the duck pate is a favourite). Housed in a former warehouse, the commissary has become a neighbourhood hang out and handily sits next to Henderson Brewing.

After all this food and shopping, how was my throwing arm? Not so good, as witnessed at Batl, an axe-throwing event site in the Stock Yards village near the Junction. Starting out in a backyard in Little Italy, the axe throwing grew into a beloved league organization and the location also services groups and private parties. There is a real trick to throwing the axe and getting it into the dart-board style targets hanging on hunks of plywood. At least I hit the wood (after about 10 tries). It was oddball and exhilarating at the same time. Who would have thunk?

Last stop on the tour was the Cider House, where owner Sasha Steinberg offered delicious, four-glass flights of Ontario-produced cider. Two of my favourites were the Local Press from Hamilton and the 401 Cranberry, from the Big Apple near Colborne, Ont. These were streets I had walked many a time over the years. And yet, I found they were full of delicious surprises. Even though you think you know a neighbourhood, it might be time to look again. You never know what new treasures you may find.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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