Five years ago, when Chris Flanagan and Emily Alfred made the move from the east to the west end, Bloor and Lansdowne was riddled with seedy strip clubs, bargain furniture stores and more than a handful of crack dens.
"We figured out routes for our friends so they didn't have to pass by crack houses when they came over and Chris used to meet me at the subway every day because there were really sketchy homes right by the station," says Ms. Alfred, 32.
Still, the couple staunchly stuck to their relocation decision and made the most of their newly adopted 'hood. Among the slim roster of local haunts was Café Stella, a divey-looking drinking hole in the heart of Bloordale, owned by Ronti Hosen, a Bangladeshi immigrant. Though the place was not much to look at, both Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Alfred fast became regulars and brought along their roomie, Vincent Pollard, to revel in Stella's peculiar charm.
Mr. Hosen's pride in ownership and culinary prowess was the initial draw: "Emily and I are both vegetarian and the first time we came into Café Stella, Ronti insisted on heading out to a convenience store to pick up chickpeas so he could cook for us. We were floored by his generosity and impeccable skill," says Mr. Flanagan, a 31-year-old installation artist and part time DJ.
Soon Mr. Hosen started allowing Mr. Flanagan and Mr. Pollard, a music writer, to host DJ nights and various parties at the bar.
"I have lived in this area for 10 years and am so proud when I see how the area has changed and how we are changing it." says Mr. Hosen.
Indeed, in the last five years, the strip has seen significant change: Galleries such as Mercer Union and Toronto Free Gallery have moved in; homey cafes such as the Bloordale Pantry and the Starving Artist and vintage shops - gentrification's dead giveaway - are popping up.
This month, Café Stella, once a reggae record shop and label, also became part of that change, by returning, in some ways, to its musical roots. Mr. Pollard, Ms. Alfred, Mr. Flanagan - the house DJ - and Mr. Hosen relaunched the bar with a refreshed look and a new, simpler name: Stella. All are equal partners, but Mr. Hosen is stepping back into the kitchen and letting the new kids run the front of house. "I like the clientele my partners bring in, I don't have to worry any more about the shady crowd and can take care of my real love, cooking."
Antique school chairs accompany vintage hardwood tables, select bottles of scotch line a reclaimed wood bar, and Steam Whistle, a brand the new team introduced to Mr. Hosen when they first starting patronizing the place, is now on tap.
"Even though I now have to queue up behind a bunch of mustache-donning hipsters, instead of waiting for one aging Portuguese man when I get off the subway [at Lansdowne]" says Mr. Pollard, "Stella is still going to cater to the locals. We are by no means reaching for the swanky Ossington thing."
But, don't be fooled, the hipsters will come. The new Stella's threesome are self-proclaimed music snobs that plan to curate the space with tasteful sound - everything from live synth, to DJ spots, to reggae nights - that will, to this true melting-pot venture, be as much of a draw as Mr. Hosen's traditional Bangladeshi food.
Special to The Globe and Mail