Toronto in winter: so cool
L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service
Fashionably dressed locals stroll Mink Row, along Bloor Street, Toronto’s upscale shopping district that’s akin to New York’s Madison Avenue or Chicago’s Miracle Mile. Among those blithely ignoring the winter cold: a stately woman in a Chanel coat and hat, pushing a stylish baby carriage that holds a freshly groomed Afghan hound.
A couple of miles away, in an edgier section behind one of Toronto’s four Chinatowns, I stumble across the Hungary Thai, a restaurant that features Hungarian and Thai food. I misread it as Hungry Thai and was sufficiently intrigued to walk inside. Unfortunately I was too stuffed with dim sum to eat just then, but even so I was tempted by the #3 combo plate: spring rolls, cabbage rolls, pad thai and Wiener schnitzel.
After mulling over my recent three-day trip to Toronto, I concluded that the woman pushing a hound and the Hungary Thai formed iconic images of Toronto, more so even than the CN Tower or the Hockey Hall of Fame.
For one thing, more than ever the city is displaying and celebrating its wealth and success. It’s a great city in the process of becoming a world-class city, with a new opera house; a new and glittering $270 million addition to the Royal Ontario Museum; a cutting-edge, $254 million addition designed by Frank Gehry to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which will open later this year; and a new center that will be the home of the Toronto International Film Festival, considered by many second only to Cannes. The film festival’s new home, Festival Centre, includes screening rooms, full-size cinemas, a gallery, a library, shops and restaurants.
The city is also building a 150-acre shopping and entertainment complex centered on extensive studios for filmmakers, who last year spent more than $700 million in Toronto, which has become a kind of Hollywood North.
Private enterprise has followed, drawn by the scent of wealth and growth.
Trump, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Shangri-La are building combination luxury hotels and residential condos. Recently opened: the Hazelton Hotel, a five-star boutique hotel with a glamorous restaurant that is getting raves.
Yet Toronto has retained its distinctiveness. You can still easily find the eclectic and the eccentric.
Among the glittering tributes to high culture and wealth, there is still room for dives like Graffiti’s Bar and Grill, where talented young musicians come from all over Canada to perform in exchange for whatever patrons put into a hat. There are edgy, youthful neighborhoods, historic areas built to the human scale and immigrant neighborhoods that could make a person of any nationality feel at home, even a Hungarian Thai.
But Toronto in winter? Sure, average temperatures are in the 20s. But my hotel in Yorkville, the Park Hyatt, was just across the street from the Royal Ontario’s new galleries, which, by the way, are built in such a way as to have no right angles.
I was also only a few blocks from the Bata Shoe Museum, a rare space devoted entirely to shoes and much more fascinating than you might expect. But I also walked for miles and, when feeling chilly, found I was never more than steps away from some warm and interesting place.
Besides, there is nothing cozier than sitting in a restaurant near a window and watching the snow fall on city streets. For romance, that’s at least competitive with a Caribbean sunset.
In fact, I’m sorry I can’t return sometime between Jan. 25 and Feb. 7, when the city is throwing a major party called WinterCity Festival, with free entertainment. Outside, for example, the Flying Canucks, an Olympic-level acrobatic troop, will perform aerial stunts and gymnastics. Inside a temporary lodge built on a major city square, partygoers can warm up at fireplaces, watch free comedy on Friday nights and attend free dance parties on Saturday nights.
Among the special exhibits you won’t easily find elsewhere: “fire art” created by France’s Compagnie Carabosse. This particular installation involves the lighting of fuel in 1,500 clay pots arranged on an intricate metal sculpture.
No great city can be seen in a few days, but here are my don’t-miss picks:
– Royal Ontario Museum: Even if it were empty, it would be worth stopping by the ROM (100 Queen’s Park, http://www.rom.on.ca) just to see the new addition, a series of crystal-shaped protrusions made of glass and aluminum that jut high into the air. Part of the new structure has 18-foot ceilings in order to house the ROM’s collection of 50 dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. (Admission is $20, free 45 minutes before closing.)
Both the addition and the dinosaur exhibit are wildly popular, so if you happen to arrive when there are long lines, consider popping over to the Bata Shoe Museum (327 Bloor St. West, http://www.batashoemuseum.ca, admission $12) and hope ROM lines have dissipated while you were gone.
If you’re anywhere close to the ROM after dark, check out the light show projected on the side of the new addition. (Ditto for the CN Tower, where a new, computer-driven light show projects images over the 1,815-foot-high spire.)
– A night at the theater: Toronto theater, always plentiful, is undergoing a resurgence, and it would be sad to visit and miss seeing a show.
Mirvish Productions is famed for bringing shows from London, in addition to Canadian premieres. Mirvish currently is showing the only North American production of “Dirty Dancing.” Coming in September: the North American premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
A new production company, DanCap Productions, is specializing in bringing top Broadway shows to Toronto. Coming soon: “Jersey Boys” and “Avenue Q.” While live theater in Toronto used to be an incredible bargain, the tanking of the U.S. dollar has made it less so, although you still may save compared with Broadway prices. A good place to find what’s showing: http://www.onstagetoronto.ca.
– Catch the local talent: Toronto’s large performance centers offer a broad array of performances by world-class musicians, dancers and actors, but also consider a performance at some of the smaller venues.
Among places to check: Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar (www.therex.ca); Hugh’s Room, the premier folk venue in Canada (www.hughsroom.com); Dakota Tavern, a new venue for country (www.thedakotatavern.com); and Graffiti’s Bar and Grill, which features some of the city’s exciting new singer-songwriters (www.graffitisbarandgrill.com).
Also find what’s playing at Now Magazine (www.nowtoronto.com) or Eye Weekly (www.eyeweekly.com).
– St. Lawrence Market: A farmers market has been at Front and Jarvis streets since 1803. In one of two enclosed buildings is a farmers market on Saturdays and an antiques market on Sundays. A second building, open daily, has 60 specialty markets and is a great place to stroll and pick up a prepared meal and desserts.
Don’t miss the potato pancakes or the pirogi at the European Deli, or the tarts at Carousel Bakery.
– Queen Street West: The hippest street in Toronto runs for miles and is lined with cool art galleries, restaurants and small boutiques with cutting-edge fashion, especially for young people, with stores such as “So Hip It Hurts.” Find the heart of the neighborhood at the corner of Queen and Spidina, then walk in either direction along Queen.
– Walking tours: There is no better way to come away feeling that you actually know a piece of the city than to go with an expert.
The secrets of Chinatown were unveiled to me by one such expert, Shirley Lum; you’ll see things you never guessed were there, and it’s worth the price of a tour just to learn what to buy in a Chinese bakery. A 2 1/2-hour tour for 12 begins at $22 per person. Details: 416-923-6813, http://www.torontowalksbikes.com.
Another guide, Bruce Bell, knows the history of the city cold and will focus on a particular section or give an overview, on foot or by a combination of walking, public transportation and cabs.
If you pass through the Toronto University campus, ask him to show you the “Harry Potter”-like dining room in Hart Hall. Two-hour tours for groups of 12 start at $12 per person. Details: 647-393-8687, http://www.brucebelltours.ca.