Guest Post by Jennifer Sharp
It is a bright, brisk January day, thankfully with no precipitation. The tour meets on the corner of Broadview and Queen Streets, in the Riverside area of the city. Our tour guide, Kevin Durkee, aka “The Big Cheese”. He is the former owner of Canada’s only restaurant dedicated to cheese, CHEESEWERKS, and now the owner of the Culinary Adventure Co.
There are only seven of us on the tour today, allowing our guide to wrangle us with ease as we begin our adventure. We soon find that Kevin is a trove of amazing stories; about the neighbourhood, as well as from his own history. He explains also, that his company does many similar tours of Toronto in other neighbourhoods: Little Italy, Little India, Chinatown, Ossington, etc.
We walk down the street to Cannonball Coffee,a quaint little shop on the south side, and after making a selection from the standard offerings, we meander a little further west to Mary Macleod’s Shortbread Company. The goods here are iconic. Traditional shortbreads in all shapes and flavours, giant cookies, and countless other delights line the walls and counters in the shop. Mary founded the bakery in 1981 and soon after was approached by Holt Renfrew to be featured in their holiday collection. The rest is history. Mary has been in Riverside ever since, with the factory right in the back of the shop. The outfit provides mail order all over the globe.
Kevin guides us back eastwardly, stopping in the heart of Riverside to give us some charming history of the area: across the street is the site of the original Canadian Tire store, a fact that is lost on American visitors! He also points out the home of the former Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team, the city’s original Coca-Cola Bottling factory, and the site of the old Unilever plant, once a growing operation, now defunct.
We cross the street and enter Prohibition Gastrohouse: This Toronto tradition resembles a swanky speakeasy with dark decor, offering an array of draft beer & a menu of upscale comfort food. We are treated to various kale slaws, tempura cheese & cauliflower, (note incredible dipping sauces!) and rosti with shaved, braised beef. My favourite among the tasty morsels is the amazing mac and cheese, which uses a unique curly pasta shape to capture all the cheesy goodness. The recipe uses the perfect amount of garlic — delicious. Kevin mentions that Prohibition is celebrating 10 years in the neighbourhood.
As we exit, and proceed east, we are in view of the old Broadview Hotel, still undergoing a major renovation. The former “Jilly’s” strip club (another great Toronto tradition!) is being restored to its former splendor, but due to unforeseen construction woes, there is no anticipated opening date, as yet.
Up the street from the hotel is St. John’s Bakery. A charming, artisanal bakery run by St. John’s The Compassionate Mission, with social-service employment ethos. The bakery is a first-class operation, not only providing delicious, organic products, but giving back to the community to provide services for new immigrants and others on the fringe of society. A real gem in the area.
Onward east we travel. Kevin points out on the north side, the White Lily Diner. He describes it as Toronto’s hip new IT spot, dishing out all-day breakfasts and deli sandwiches with house-smoked and -cured meats. The Diner is open Wednesday through Sunday.
As we meander along Queen Street, it is obvious that the gentrification of the neighbourhood is in full-swing; there are quaint shops and restaurants, virtually every step of the way. We pause outside La Carnita, one of four locations that offer the best of Mexican “street art, street food, and street vibes”. Must return for this one!
Finally, we reach Tabulé. Billed as one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in Toronto, the place is a feast for the eyes. Our server, Carla, greets us, who is enthusiastic to explain the background of the restaurant and describe the foods we will be sampling. She returns with perfectly executed falafel, tabouli salad and “saj”, a delicious traditional flatbread. As I sip a glass of Syrah, more delicious items are delivered to the table. The labneh, a yogourt-like spread with sumac, which Kevin describes as “cream cheese meets love meets taste!”
It is beyond heavenly! Next up is grilled eggplant, cooked to perfection, not oily and very flavourful. The outfit has three restaurant locations (Leslieville, Midtown and Bayview Village) and has recently opened SOUK Tabulé, in the Canary District. Decidedly more casual, offering Lebanese dishes plus coffee, pastries, and groceries in a modern setting with soaring windows.
Bellies all but full, we move on down the street. Next stop is Hooked. The “knowledgeable” fish store, as they call themselves, certainly has a lot to offer: sustainable fish, seafood, accessories; home-jarred beets, beans, olive oils, etc. All sorts of gastronomic delights! They believe in only sustainable practices for their harvest and deal personally with fishers, processors and other suppliers. The company handles its freight so that they can guarantee the chain of supply. We sample delicious cured arctic char with fennel, coriander and paprika and maple syrup glaze. Amazing! Hooked has locations in Halifax, Muskoka (seasonally) and Leslieville and Kensington Market, in Toronto.
As all good things must come to an end, so our tour concludes on a sweet note! A Toronto legend for years, Ed’s Real Scoop is a bright place, serving up house-made ice cream, gelato & frozen yogurt, plus chocolates, fudge, and other treats. I have “Hogtown Fog,” which is a play on Earl Grey tea and a Mercury Espresso, a collaboration with the coffee house just doors down the street. Founded by local Ed Francis 19 years ago, the company now has four locations: Leslieville, The Beach, Mimico, and Roncesvalles.
The sweet treat is the perfect ending to a most enjoyable tour of the east side of the city and all it has to offer, in the way of creative food and drink and inspirational history and architecture. The Culinary Adventure Co. and Kevin Durkee have a good concept here and one which I hope to experience again very soon!
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Jennifer Sharp is a life-long Torontonian and avid traveler. Jenn lives in the Beaches with her two teenage sons and fat black cat. She loves dining well, creative cocktailing and everything and anything vintage, especially wine.