Toronto – for sports, arts, food or the sheer hell of it

Toronto will be hosting the Invictus Games in September, which is expected to draw 550 competitors from 17 nations.

Founded by Britain’s Prince Harry in 2014, these extraordinary games are limited to active duty and veteran service members from participating allied nations, among them Team USA.

For sports enthusiasts, there can’t be a better time to visit Toronto. The sports venues are stunning, tickets at this point are still in plentiful supply and prices are low — with some key events such as cycling and wheelchair tennis being entirely free of charge. 

Tempted? You should be. But it’s not just sport that should be luring you north of the border. Because Toronto, as I discovered on a recent revisit, is a city on the move, fast-paced but not frenetic, orderly but not homogeneous. It has great art, great music, an influential film festival taking place Sept. 8 through 18 and that most vital ingredient for any city — a civic sense of humor. Urban redevelopment projects continue apace and cultural festivals abound. Peter Ustinov’s famous moniker for Toronto, “New York run by the Swiss,” may not tell the whole story, but it tells a lot of it.

In the hospitality stakes, too, Toronto is no slouch.  An exciting new hotel, the Broadway, an 1891 landmark building in the city’s East End, launched in June. Another, the Bisha, a 44-story “private-label” hotel with residences in the Entertainment District, is slated for a late summer opening. The city’s bar and restaurant scene is blossoming.  

Toronto had never been much of a “fine dining” city, which, now that fine dining is dying a near-universal death, has been all to the good. Casual is cool — and it reigns. When David Chang opened Momofuku Toronto five years ago, a gastrodome now made up of four restaurants and bars in a three-story glass cube — Noodle Bar, Daishō, Shōtō and Nikai — he was endorsing the city’s already vibrant food and dining scene. What’s happened since then is that rents have stayed relatively low, so with no shortage of talent, most of its homegrown, startups have rocketed. 

The food scene is huge, so where do you start? A great way would be book a walking tour with Foodies on Foot, a company founded by a local, Steve Hellman, in 2008. A tour might take in one of the budget Bahn Mi Boys outlets for amazing Vietnamese subs and visits to The Burger’s Priest (whose founder was studying for the priesthood when he discovered that burgers were his real calling) and Fancy Franks, for gourmet hotdogs. Also on the itinerary might be the spicy fish tacos at The One that Got Away. Or the sausages and craft beers at WVRST, which GM Bram Zimmerman tells me, with a smile, is “a German beer hall run by Italians and Jews,” where “there’s stroller gridlock every weekend.”

Among this year’s most exciting newbies are Jonathan Poon’s hipster pizza joint, Superpoint, and Brandon Olsen’s La Banane, both in Ossington, in the city’s West End. At La Banane, Olsen — a French Laundry alum — does everything from a fabulous pâté en croute with mustard violette to the wonderful “Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg” dessert, a coffee-bean-studded chocolate egg with chili, filled with Peruvian chocolate truffles. Both restaurants are terrific. And I’m glad I got to look into a couple of Rob Gentile’s Buca restaurants (in food-focused King West and conservative Yorkville) and Patrick Kriss and Amanda Bradley’s Queen Street West restaurant, Alo, for its high-end tasting menu from a kitchen team with culinary pedigrees longer than both my arms. 

BarChef, on vibrant Queen Street West, is also a must-try, with its immersive and multisensory cocktails. “When we opened BarChef nine years ago,” owner Frankie Solarik says, “there was no cocktail bar in the city, if you can believe.”  Now, BarChef’s “liquid in a plated form” cocktails have created a new genre, picking up Food & Wine’s prestigious Best Bar in the World award along the way.

Earlier this year, Solarik participated in “Taste of the Six,” a series of three dinners in partnership with Bosk, the highly regarded restaurant at Toronto’s Shangri-La hotel.  (The Six, or 6ix, as it is written, is a nickname for Toronto, coined by homegrown hip-hop star, Drake.) “Liquid” dishes included Ontario Strawberry Manipulation in Soil Carbonic Negroni and Cascumpec Bay Oyster with Dill Cream and Mezcal. Think elaborate, multilayer cocktails from BarChef fully integrated into cerebral dishes from Bosk’s talented chef de cuisine, Richard Singh, not a “pairing” but a single entity. The final “Taste of the 6ix” dinner takes place on Oct. 19 this year, a collaboration between Bosk and Momofuku Toronto’s Jed Smith, and it promises to be quite an evening. Tickets, at the time of going to press, were still available.

Bosk, of course, is a great restaurant in its own right, offering a cuisine that Singh describes as “always local, sustainable, simple and elegant.” This could in fact be a metaphor for Shangri-La, Toronto itself, which IMHO just happens to be the city’s loveliest hotel, perfectly placed at the junction of University and Adelaide. The bellhop remembers your name, greeting you as a special friend each time you return to the hotel and guest rooms are the last word in comfort and unflashy, understated luxury. I’ve also rather fallen for the hotel’s state-of the-art beehive, designed by Toronto jewelers Birks and situated in the hotel’s beautiful yellow rose garden. For the Games, for the Taste, for the bees, for the bellhop’s smile or just for the hell of it, this is a great address in the Ontarian capital. 

For Invictus Games ticket information, visit invictusgames2017.com

For Foodies on Foot, visit foodiesonfoot.ca.

For hotel reservations, visit shangri-la.com.

For “Taste of the 6ix” reservations, call 647-788-8846.

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