It can be overwhelming trying to explore a city as lively and diverse as Toronto. There is so much to see and do (and eat!) that it’s hard to know where to start.
Lucky for me, I’ve always had friends who lived in the city and could point me in the most delightful, delicious or entertaining directions. And lucky for you, I’ve decided to share some of their recommendations in a little series called Favourite Places.
Long before I moved back to the city as (what apparently passes for) an adult, my very first Toronto guides were my mom and dad, who settled in the city for a few years as newlyweds after galavanting around Europe, building boats in France, camping on the beaches in Italy and just generally making the most of their 20s.
I definitely inherited my appreciation for and adoration of good food and my fairly adventurous palate from these two, and I love taking them to all of the new amazing restaurants I’ve come across in Toronto. Still, we can never go to long without a trip back to their old favourite: Astoria Shish Kebob House on the Danforth.
When did you first discover Astoria?
Mom: We first went there with my roommate Jill when she and I were living in Cabbagetown. She learned about it from her office.
Dad: We first went to Astoria in the late 70s or early 80s when we were introduced to it by our good friend and sometimes roommate Gerry.
Glad we’ve got that straight. You two should be on the Newlywed Game. How did it become a favourite?
Mom: They served a giant plate of souvlaki with tons of garlicky tzatsiki and garlic bread and Greek potatoes and some very drinkable cheap Greek wine. I know they had other good stuff but we always had the same meal. The only difference is that now we get the smaller portions. Usually there were long line ups because the restaurant was about half the size it is now. It was always noisy and fun for big groups of friends and after we had kids, it was still the perfect family restaurant and we lived about 5 minutes away.
After we left the city we used to get take out if we were in Toronto. First we’d get the Greek food and then we’d get a box of our favourite Greek cakes around the corner on Pape. We’d put them in the trunk of the car and bring it all home to savour the food and the memories.
Dad: It became our favourite because the food was great, the prices were good and it was a noisy family place, always busy. Sometimes you had to wait either in the lobby or outside to get in. once we moved into the ‘hood, living on Eastmount and then Garnock ave. it became our first choice for restaurants. we did lots of eating in and lots of taking out. The takeout was always bigger.
What is the best item on the menu?
Dad: The best item on the menu when we first went there was the large souvlaki platter -on a platter not a plate. It was two giant skewers of bbq pork with rice, potatoes, salad and pita bread with killer tatziki.
Mom (listening in on dad’s answers at this point): We never had room for dessert.
What is your favourite memory/story from the restaurant?
Dad: When you guys were older, we were living in Stratford and drove in to go to the zoo, and we wrapped up the the day with dinner on the patio and watched a huge thunderstorm pass by to the north, and we found out later on the news that it washed out some of the roads to the zoo
Mom: Also, the old Greek men who were career waiters and who got to know us over the years, and always remembered us, and just the memory of when Sarah was little and would stand on the seats to peek over the booth and talk to everyone in the restaurant.
Some things never change.
As much love as I have for Toronto, I will acknowledge that “love” is not the first thing you might associate with our skyline.
Somehow the CN Tower’s silhouette, while impressive in its own way, just doesn’t lend itself to romance the way, say, the Eiffel Tower’s lacy and intricate structure does.
That said, this time of year, the cold brings with it plenty of excuses to cozy up to some lovely someone in the city.
With that in mind, and the help of some of my trusty Toronto advisers, I’ve come up with a list of places to take your sweetheart that will surely help you see the city in a different light.
Escape chilly northern nights at Southern Accent, a sparkling, mysterious treasure box of delicious spicy Cajun food to get your blood pumping. They have amazing cocktails AND an on-site psychic, if you dare to find out what the future has in store for you and your lovebird.
For thrill-seekers with $175 to spare, the CN Tower edge walk would definitely make for a memorable date. Plus, if you’re one of those Torontonians who has no fondness for the image of our iconic sky-scraping structure, look at is this way: if you’re dangling from the edge of it, you don’t have to look at it.
For a slightly less terrifying, but equally spectacular view of the city, Emily recommends swapping your jumpsuit and harness for some fancy duds and popping up to the Panorama Lounge at the top of the Manulife Centre for a romantic cocktail or two.
Take your beloved bookworm to BMV Books – Not your typical date spot, I grant you, but someone who knew I was a reader once took me there on the way to dinner and insisted we run around the giant used bookstore and pick out a book each that the other person then had to read. It was a fun way to break the ice a little before dinner and I really appreciated that he had obviously paid attention to my interests and put a little creative effort into our date.
Cozy up with tea or hot chocolate in the (fairly ostentatious) sumptuous purple dining room and treat your honey to a little box of beautiful bonbons to take home from the sparkling, jewellery shop inspired chocolate boutique on your way out the door of Moroco Chocolat in Yorkville.
Though she acknowledges it isn’t situated in a particularly romantic area, Emma says lately she swears by bistro cafe Zocalo for a cheap and cozy (and flatteringly lit) date spot. She also says, and I quote: “There is also an outrageous hipster tea shop across the street, so if the date doesn’t go well and you need a confidence boost, just pop over there and you’re guaranteed to be hit on by half a dozen toque-wearing bearded men who will try to tell you about their performance art. I’m not exaggerating.”
So. there’s that.
Step inside the Sultan’s Tent to feast on seriously incredible Morrocan food and be entertained by equally incredible belly dancers.
For the Goth couple, a stroll through the gorgeous and historic Mount Pleasant Cemetery is the perfect way to while away an afternoon (or for the really goth couple, an evening).
The Distillery District (another Emily recommendation) is terribly charming in a cobblestone sort of way. There are plenty of galleries and shops to poke your head into, and it’s also host to an annual Christmas market. Mulled wine by an outdoor fireplace anyone?
For adventuresome winter dates, pack a flask and a thermos of hot chocolate, and go tobogganing either in High Park or at Riverdale.
And for the super successful date, Emily also suggests breakfast at Aunties and Uncles.
Also, if you’re an app-y sort of person, this week, Toronto is the featured city on Spotted by Locals and they are offering a free app download of our fantastic city guide, so be sure to take advantage of that while you can!
Do you have a go-to great date spot? Have you ever been on a really unique, memorable date? You know I want to hear about it in the comments!
One of the projects that has been keeping me the aforementioned busy bee the last little while has been writing for the brand new Toronto section of Spotted By Locals, a European and now North American city guide for travellers who like to get off the beaten path, for tourists who don’t like to feel like tourists.
I really love this approach to travelling, don’t you? It’s so much fun to get out of the tourist traps and experience a city and culture in a way that approximates what it would feel like to live there.
The concept behind Spotted By Locals is simple. Founders Bart and Sanne Van Poll select 4-6 local “spotters” from each featured city to write about their favourite places to eat, drink, shop, play etc. in their city, and rely on them to check back frequently to write about new spots and update old ones so that the information is seasonally appropriate, accurate and never stale.
So, if you want to know where to take me for dinner in Toronto, pop on over and check out my recommendations. Or, better yet, do what I’ve been doing and read through the European city pages and plan the ultimate Euro-getaway in your head.
Let me know what you think! Would you use this as a travel guide? Are there any spots we should add (I’ll be writing about a few spots each month)? Is it weird that my profile page on their website so prominently features the year of my birth? haha. (the answer is yes.)