Toronto, of late, has been sprouting fashionable neighbourhoods in the unlikeliest places, as real-estate prices push trendsters farther afield. There was a time, in living memory, when Ossington Avenue was a strip of wine wholesalers, car mechanics and restaurant supply stores. There was nary a red-lit boîte to be seen; the only music thumping on the street came from a passing car, gliding along a cushion of purple neon ground lights. Now, of course, that's all changed, and the streets are clogged of a weekend with gawkers and good-time kids wanting to be where the action is. Businesses catering to the demographic have begun metastasizing onto Dundas Street West, a shift that even five years ago would have seemed unthinkable.
A city neighbourhood grows in stages: First the coffee shops and cafés move in, then come the chefs. Suddenly, people from all over the city are visiting new parts of town and spending money there. Here is a look at some restaurants that were the catalyst for big change in their respective 'hoods.
Leslieville & Riverdale
Gio Rana's Really Really Nice Restaurant
1220 Queen St. E.
This Italian joint brought rustic class to a strip that had embraced the former too heartily and forgotten the latter completely. Says owner Gio Rana, "I was looking at the space here and lots of people thought I was out of my mind. It was a very rough area. But after we opened, people thanked me for increasing their property value." A chef named Edward Levesque came in one day looking for a job. Mr. Rana told him to open his own place and Edward Levesque's Kitchen was born. A few years later and Patrick McMurray started smoking Irish salmon over peat moss at Ceili Cottage, followed shortly by Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk dishing up luxe comfort food at Ruby Watchco. Now first-time restaurateur Richard Henry has opened a bistro, Le Rossignol and gastro-pub, Le Canard Mort, a few blocks away.
mcewan in the Shops at Don Mills
38 Karl Fraser Rd.
Not a restaurant or a bar, but a grocery store in a mall. Much more than the sum of its parts, this collaboration between Cadillac-Fairview and Mark McEwan has changed the face of Canada's model modernist community. Fabricca's Chef, Rob LeClair, was excited to get in on the scene early, joining other restaurants already in place, Linda, Joey and Glow. "The population out here is so under-serviced," he says, adding, "It would be great to be part of the buzz that starts a revolution, that would be really exciting."
With two new condo towers going up, four-bedroom bungalows selling for less than $500,000 and a team of crack chefs from Mr. McEwan's ranks behind the stoves at Fabricca and the eponymous grocery store, expect to see big changes in the next few years.
Cool Hand of A Girl
2804 Dundas St. W.
Lunchy, brunchy joints such as Cool Hand of a Girl have paved the way for the Beet Organic Café, Crema Coffee Co., the Junction Eatery, Littlefish and Junction Fromagerie and they are slowly changing the unkempt feel of this part of town. Grocer Digs Dorfman, owner of The Sweet Potato, has watched the progress. "In 2008 it was still quite seedy, there was no foot traffic." He hopes to see what has happened to the Leslieville restaurant scene happen here. "We need some more restaurants. With those, the neighbourhood will really blossom."
1564 Queen St. W.
2007: Enter Mark Cutrara, a young chef nobody had heard of, but one with an ace up his bloodstained sleeve. A stint working at the Healthy Butcher, breaking down whole beasts, had planted a seed in his carnivorous brain - he was ready to hang up a shingle and bring Tamworth lardo to the masses.
Soon, Mr. Cutrara was wowing Parkdale with plates of lamb sweetbreads and pig snouts. Zoomers, hipsters and foodies braved the crackheads to line up for his ever-changing chalkboard menu. The strip was shortly hit in quick succession with the opening of Local Kitchen, Yummy Stuff and Parts & Labour. "We've had customers come in and thank us for opening in this area. There was nothing here before," says Michael Sangregorio, owner of Local Kitchen and now Bar Salumi with chef Fabio Bondi. EnRoute named Local Kitchen one of the best restaurants in Canada.
Ossington & Dundas
Sweaty Betty's, 13 Ossington Ave., 416-535-6861, 2004.
Black Hoof, 923 Dundas St., 416-551-8854, 2009.
Betty's magic 'it' factor was a hit with the American Apparel crowd from Day 1. Says owner Pol Christo-Williams, "This was a ghost town lit up with the occasional shooting." He saw the bars such as Crooked Star and the Dakota Tavern open; the restaurants soon followed. "This street is awesome now. I haven't had a break-in for two or three years."
Max Rimaldi opened Pizzeria Libretto at 221 Ossington Ave. in '08. "I had lived in this area for a long time. When Foxley and Delux opened, I saw it slowly turning into a restaurant-friendly strip."
He is looking to open more locations. "I've been offered spaces in commercial malls but we need a neighbourhood. Like Queen East, it has that intangible 'something' we're looking for."
Around the corner, on Dundas, Grant van Gameren took the charcuterie revolution to eleven and decided to let them eat cake - sticky toffee pig's blood cake - at the Black Hoof and the soon-to-be-opened Black Hoof and Company. The neighbourhood is now home to Enoteca Sociale, Brockton General, the Atlantic, Campagnolo, Provenance Cuisine and the insanely popular Porchetta & Co.
"This is going to be the next Ossington but without the bars, more food-focused," says Porchetta & Co.'s chef-owner, Nick auf der Mauer.
Special to The Globe and Mail