Toronto is a very diverse city and like Philadelphia is organized around neighborhoods. Unlike Philadelphia where most residents are born and raised here, almost half of the residents of Toronto were born outside of Canada, not outside of the city but outside of the country. It is this diversity that was celebrated on our Neighborhood Food Tour led by local chef/restaurant owner/culinary school instructor/food stylist/etc., John Lee. John’s enthusiasm for the city was infectious – he spoke quickly making sure we understood how he grew up in Toronto in a few different neighborhoods and how this city was a part of his identity that he was proud to show off. He wears many hats and lucky for our small group, today was that of tour guide.
The tour arranged by Toronto Tourism was to cover five different neighborhoods. We left the convention center and drove up Spadina (a major street) passing remnants of the textiles/garment district. The Hudson Bay company was originally set up by the queen in the fur trade and there are still a few furriers left in the neighborhood. Other fashion vendors are represented in the area utilizing the older factory spaces mixed in with loft condo conversions. Chinatown now is located on parts of Spadina with a nod to the old fashion district as John pointed out the Rothman Hat Shop in between stores. Sadly, the store closed when Mr. Rothman passed away. John regaled us with stories of his youth and visiting Mr. Rothman asking for him to make him a hat. The personal stories brought the city to life for me.
When we reached Bloor Street (another major street), we turned left toward Korea town. John motioned us to follow him into a Korean supermarket and look at the variety of foods available to residents. He then told us to pick an exotic drink/juice to enjoy. Walking around in the neighborhood, he continued with his stories, showing us a famous restaurant that the celebrities frequent and then as with the rest of the city turning a corner to show us the grand houses on a quiet street off of Bloor. The large homes for the most part are split up into rentals with a few whole homes remaining.
Back on the mini-bus, we drove a few minutes away to Little Italy stopping at the oldest Italian bakery, Rivera on College Street. The bakery was full of cannolis, breads and a display of desserts. We each chose a treat to enjoy -I went basic with a sugar donut. Yes, quite plain, but growing up in Philly and having our own Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia, I am well versed in the Italian cannoli and pastries.
Back to Spadina, we would walk around Chinatown watching daily life with residents in/out of the markets, ladies selling fresh produce/herbs on the street and the bustle of the busy city.
Our last stop was a bit of a drive out toward the infamous beach (i was denied on my second tour the view of said beach). This last neighborhood was Indian Bazaar. John arranged for us to sample the garlic naan and a few shared plates as our group sat at two tables. This was a nice way to get to know the other TBEX attendees before returning to the city for the opening party.
Visiting Toronto through its food was a wonderful taste of the diversity of the city. Having John Lee guide us through his love of his city and his childhood stories was the added bonus to make each neighborhood come to life.