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24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

by Sabrina Smelko

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

Photographer and writer Ryan Bolton and I have run in the same circles for a few years now, but somehow we’ve never crossed paths in person — probably because he’s always out and about running around Toronto; and me? Well, I’m a bit of a homebody. But somehow, some of his favorite spots in “the city” (as people call it who live in the towns neighboring Toronto) are some of my favorites as well. It’s safe to say that his taste is impeccable — or perhaps I’m being biased. But regardless, having lived in Toronto for just under a decade, Ryan’s 24-hour guide is spot-on and super relevant considering Toronto’s ever-changing landscape of shops, restaurants, bars and attractions. From Americanos to vintage shops to the best tattoo parlors and nachos fit for a king, if you’re ever spending some time in this great city, be sure to hit up these spots to soak in what Toronto is all about. (Go Canada!) —Sabrina

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

I’m a writer and photographer living in Toronto. I’ve been around these parts for the past eight or so years. Having worked in historic Cabbagetown for five years, I now work on Queen Street West at a creative agency. (According to Vogue, Queen West is the world’s second coolest district. We’ll take it.)

And I damn well love it here.

Like any major North American city, Toronto is ever the shape-shifter. There’s a constant swing of new shops, haunts, record stores, music venues and eateries. So. many. restaurants. It’s actually a little ridiculous. Here’s a snapshot of some of my favourite spots in downtown Toronto, albeit there’s way more out there. I wanted to keep it focused to the downtown core to make it a little more, well, digestible. Here’s my guide to Toronto.

MORNING

8-9 am: First things first: coffee. Toronto is well known for its love of third-wave coffee spots. The city is brimming with cafes. My go-to is Jimmy’s Coffee, which now boasts a couple of locations. Its Americanos are next to none. If not there, I’ll hit up Sense Appeal or a longstanding favourite, Dark Horse Espresso Bar. It’s a little pricier, but worth it.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

10-11 am: With a healthy dose of caffeine pulsing through my veins, I’ll head out to do a little record shopping. My go-to is the newly moved and renovated Sonic Boom record store. They have pretty much any record (new or used) you could want. If not there, I’ll hit Rotate This or Grasshopper Records.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

11-12 pm: Having an unruly beard, a clean-up is a must. The barbershop is having a modern-day revival, and Toronto is loving it. There’s a new barbershop popping up on every corner across the city. My favourites are Crows Nest Barbershop, Hastings Barbershop or Bellwoods Barbers. For the ladies, try out the Grateful Head.

 

AFTERNOON

12-1 pm: Oh, lunchtime. An infinite number of options. Like its barbershops, Toronto can’t get enough of its craft burgers. It’s a burger explosion, and I’m totally okay with it. My all-time favourite is P&L Burger because they’re as ridiculously big as they are good. A close second is Burger’s Priest, especially with their secret menu. Look it up first. You won’t be disappointed.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

2-3 pm: You can’t visit Toronto without checking out Kensington Market. This hodgepodge market boasts a little bit of everything, but is strictly independent. If you’re on the hunt for some vintage finds, Kensington St. is riddled with them. My favourites are Courage My Love and Ego.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton 24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

On the same street is my favourite tattoo shop, Pearl Harbour Gift Shop, (I have a sleeve by Daniel Innes there) with its traditional Japanese inspired work. Also in Kensington are a lot of authentic Mexican taco shops alongside Big Fat Burrito for a quick snack that you won’t be able to finish. Yes, that’s a challenge.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

4-5 pm: To kill some time before dinner, I would hit up one of my favourite stores quite possibly ever: She Said Boom! Its curated collection of used books and vinyl just warms my heart and empties my pockets. I want every damn record and book in there. If you’re looking for an antique to remember Toronto by, Abraham’s Trading Inc. may be hard to leave. It’s a spacious place, but you can’t tell because it’s chock-full (seriously, it’s hard to navigate) with antiques that you’ve never seen before, including taxidermy if you’re into that kind of stuff.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

EVENING

5-7 pm: Where do I even start for dinner? Okay, let’s see what I can jam into here. For tacos, head to Parkdale for Grand Electric. Or La Carnita. The best Thai in town is definitely Kao San Road, though Soko Thai is a close second. One of the owner’s of Kao San Road just opened a new shop called Nana on Queen West, too. If you’ve never tried Venezuelan food, Arepa Cafe and their cornbread sandwiches (arepas) will change your life. Trust.

The best smoked meat outside of Montreal can be found at Caplansky’s Delicatessen. You’ll get a second sandwich, guaranteed. If you’re feeling Chinese food, Toronto’s Chinatown will make your jaw drop.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

My favourite is Mother’s Dumplings. There menu is exhaustive. Their food is filling and always delicious.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

If you’re into beer, take some friends out to Toronto’s waterfront to Amsterdam Brewery’s Brewhouse. This sprawling lakeside restaurant has all of their beers on tap to sample while you eat swordfish, woodfire pizzas or good ole wings in a beer sauce. Because, beer.

 

NIGHT

8-10 pm: One of the best parts of living in Toronto is that all of the world’s greatest bands come to town. One of my favourite venues anywhere, not just in Toronto, is the Horseshoe Tavern. Having opened in 1947, the “Shoe” is a Toronto mainstay where bands like the Rolling Stones and The Band have taken to its legendary stage.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

If you’re in for a quieter night, head down to Cameron House to hear some up-and-comers test their mettle. If you get the chance to check out Lee’s Palace, you’ll know why it’s on this list. A perfect venue size with nary a bad place to stand to see a show. An up-and-comer venue is also the Danforth Music Hall.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

If you’re going out for a date, try Snakes and Lagers where you can get drinks and play board games. Or if you’re into the more touristy attractions, you can take that special one to the newly-minted Ripley’s Aquarium for one of its Friday Night Jazz events. Can’t go wrong there.

11 pm -?: This is when the city comes alive. As of late, the number of “cool spots” for drinks has exploded. Anywhere along the base of Ossington St. is coveted, which has now creeped up along Dundas West with a bevy of great drinking holes like The Communist’s Daughter, Get Well, Camp 4, Unlovable and The Dock Ellis, a terrific “hipster sports bar.”

But to be specific, the best dive bar in Toronto easily goes to Wide Open, which is pretty much just a roof on a spray-painted alleyway with some of the cheapest drinks around. A good place to start or end the night.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

If you’re into dancing you might as well do it to rock ‘n’ roll classics at Stone’s Place, a Rolling Stones themed bar. It’s a delight. But every visitor to the “T Dot” should check out the longstanding Sneaky Dee’s for their King’s Crown nachos, good music and a pitcher of beer. Or three.

Perfect end to any night, really.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

OTHER NOTABLES

  • If it’s the summer, you need to check out the Toronto Island. Hit Hanlan’s Point.
  • If you’re looking for a green hostel, Planet Traveler is your spot.

24 Hours in Toronto with Ryan Bolton

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Comments

  • I love Toronto! My ten years there were amazing – game changers in so many different ways but especially creatively.

    We moved out to Vancouver 3 1/2 years ago to care for my MIL but get back 3-4 times a year. My annual TIFF visit every September (Toronto International Film Festival) is non-negotiable!

    Great choices. I’ll add Sam James Coffee Bar for lattes and Fat Pasha for Mediterranean food. And there’s nothing like a halibut burrito at Burrito Banditos after a late night…

  • Love this guide, Sabrina and Ryan! I’m a former Torontonian living in LA, and I miss my city sooo much. It’s great to see some favorite spots mentioned, as well as some new ones to check out next time I’m home. Thanks!

  • I have to say I love this guide. I am very biased however because I live within less than 5 minute walking distance to nearly all these places. I see that Ryan’s love for Kensington runs deep. I feel the same, which is why I chose to live there. Thanks Ryan & Sabrina for spreading the Toronto love!

  • Ryan…thanks for the mention. Arepas sort of changed my life when I first visited Caracas in Venezuela many years back. Now I help run an arepera. We are always happy to see posts about Toronto, especially ones that help showcase the plethora of places to see and neighbourhoods to check out in Toronto.

  • Everything in this is downtown, Kensington or Queen West — common of most Toronto tours. Come on over to the East Side where vintage furniture stores like Machine Age Modern, Zig Zag, Ethel, Guff and Studio Pazo have been operating longer than most in the city. Newcomers such as homewares retailer, Goodfolk, are great additions to the neighbourhood.
    As for restaurants, Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco, Table 17, Gio Rana’s, Prohibition, Aft, Skin and Bones, Edward Levesque’s Kitchen and the Social all rival anything on the west side.
    Coffee at Te Aro and Mercury are the great start to the day…
    Oh – and Queen East is also home to the original Dark Horse, I might add :-)

  • haha I was wondering if sneaky dees was going to make the list! I lived in TO for two year back in 2008 and lived that place then, along with Queen West. I so need to go back there and see how its grown!

  • going to add a few more for any future travellers who refer back to this post!

    la cubana – cute west-end cuban spot, i love the decor here and the amazing floor tiles
    glory hole doughnuts – way west on queen, if for nothing else go for the name
    farmhouse tavern – they use seasonal ontario ingredients, and are popular for brunch
    hogtown vegan – laidback diner vibe and great prices on comfort foods that i think most vegan places would be scared to attempt! (i.e. roast beef sandwiches, mac and cheese, etc.)
    oddseoul – korean fusion on ossington
    bangbang ice cream – also on ossington. massive ice cream sandwiches between two giant cookies! if you have the appetite of a normal human, the half-size is still a challenge. get there early because it is RAMMED in the summer.
    bellwoods brewery – toronto staple! tons of local beer, great atmosphere.
    lakeview restaurant – dundas & ossington. $4 pint specials every day. probably my favourite spot in the city.
    bent – japanese food and where drake spent his birthday (so uh, obviously need to go)
    guu – really popular izakaya
    liberty bellwoods – good for people and dogspotting in the summer

    K THAT’S ENOUGH. thanks for turning your attention up north, D*S!

  • so, most of this is in queen west. sorry but there’s more of toronto to see.
    not much more, but a bit more.

  • Some of the places here are OK, but really this is just a list of restaurants that were popular 3-4 years ago. Move on from the bad coffee at Sense Appeal or Dark Horse. And most Torontonians are over the mediocre food sold by wannabe-star Zane Caplansky at his restaurant.

    The same goes for Mother’s Dumplings. They’re starchy and dry.

    If you do come to Toronto, skip half of the restaurants and cafes on this list. P&L Burger is a win, as is La Carnita, but the rest are only so-so.

  • Just to follow up, go to the list of places C left in the comments above, not the list Bolton put together for this article. They are hands down some of the better food destinations in the West end of Toronto.

  • This is a great list, but am I only the one cringing at all the grammatical errors and misused words? DS–I think even a cursory proofread would have caught a few of the most glaring ones. Just seems a little below the usual standard.

    • Sam

      Our copy editor just went through this again and other than the word “ridiculous” popping up a few too many times, I don’t see all the cringe-inducing errors. Could you let me know what you’re seeing?

      Grace

  • Agree with Cara Cruz – there’s more to Toronto than just Queen West, East Side is less commercial and crowded, has many places worth visiting; also, good list by C.

  • Don’t go to big fat burrito, they’re just white man burritos. Go to Seven Lives, still in the market, for probably the best seafood burrito you’ll ever have in your entire bloody life.

    Caplansky’s is EASILY eclipsed by Free Times, just east of Cap’s on college. The best brisket outside of New York, and equally as impressive smoked meat. Ask for a plate of Latkes too.

  • Standout take on the city. Agreed with vast majority as a downtown adventure for anybody coming into the city.

    This is the true Toronto perspective, finally.

  • The food and coffee recommendations capture some key highlights of the West end but I agree with Cara though – it’s very Queen West/Kensington centric. Also, as someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in records and vintage wares, I would opt to pass on the suggestions noted.

    For a different aesthetic take, I’d suggest the following for those who are looking for Instagram-worthy moments:

    WEST
    Colette Grand Cafe, The Paper Place, Old Faithful Shop, Wilbur Mexicana, Her Majesty’s Pleasure, Nadege

    CORE
    Dineen Coffee Company, The Chase (Rooftop), Allan Gardens Conservatory, MUJI

    EAST
    Rooster Coffee House (Riverdale Park location – arguably one of the prettiest views of the city), Bonjour Brioche, Good Neighbour, Bobbette & Belle

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