Toronto’s Evolution
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Toronto’s Evolution

Frances Juriansz Sharp Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design Frances Juriansz
The capital of Ontario—long comfortable in its own skin—has been quietly trying on a new identity. Raul Barreneche maps the changing cultural terrain.

From a Toronto timeline of the last ten years, you might cherry-pick three events, fortunate and unfortunate, to help explain how a friendly, but not exactly thrilling, provincial capital became the go-to city it is today. First, in 1997, city leaders baldly asked voters, "Are you in favor of eliminating the city of Toronto and all other existing municipalities in metropolitan Toronto and amalgamating them into a megacity?" The answer, even from the suburbs, was a big, loud No, underlining the already emphatic attachment Torontonians felt to their communities. Then, two years later—as if to suggest that some people, at least, knew the difference between megacity and city—the Ontario Provincial Government established Ontario SuperBuild to coordinate infrastructure investment, public and private. Money had started to water some interesting seedling projects just when the third event came to pass: the SARS outbreak of 2003. The ensuing fear and fleeing crippled Toronto’s hotel and restaurant industries, cost the Canadian economy about $2 billion, and, after sensible jaws snapped shut again, jump-started a massive campaign to bring the city, and its visitors, back.

Now, on a breezy afternoon, I’m sitting outside at a popular downtown power-lunch spot, enjoying a salad of perfectly grilled octopus and calamari with a glass of crisp Riesling. At the next table, a well-groomed banker in towering heels, with a Gucci handbag hanging on the back of her chair, chats over caipirinhas with her pinstriped beau about an upcoming trip to Italy. This could be lunchtime in midtown Manhattan or the Chicago Loop, except that here, the sporty BMW that just sped by had a shiny canoe strapped to its roof, and there’s an orderly queue of taxis outside—not honking. This is Toronto, whose intimate, tree-filled neighborhoods make the city feel more like a string of villages. Here, somehow, in a sprawling metropolis of 2.5 million, where the first language is English, the second Italian, the third Chinese, and so on through Polish, Tagalog, and Gujarati, a notion of community still thrives—and everyone is learning the meaning of cosmopolitan.

The latest innovative restaurants and world-class hotels are filling up again and are booked solid throughout September’s Toronto International Film Festival. New buildings by global architects are dramatically changing the landscape. Toronto as movie set—think Cinderella Man, Chicago, X-Men, to name a few—is becoming a Hollywood franchise. You can feel the loosening-up of creative energy, the quickening of the civic pulse.

"Culturally, Toronto is in its adolescence," says local entrepreneur Jeff Stober. "The arts—music, film, design—are driving the city and starting to get recognition. We’re not there yet, but I think our confidence is growing." We’re talking over cappuccinos at the Drake Hotel, a former flophouse on a grungy stretch of Queen Street West, that Stober turned into a hub of art, design, music, and hospitality. Thanks to the Drake, which opened in February 2004, locals confusingly now call this stretch "West Queen West" to distinguish it from the stuck-in-time section closer to downtown, still lined with the same music stores and punk shops I remember from my first visit, in 1989.

In many ways, the Drake embodies the spirit percolating in Toronto, even if it’s so totally now it feels art-directed, like a reality-TV show. (The hotel even has its own in-house curator). Almost as soon as it opened, the Drake became a magnet for bohemian types and cool-hunters from all over town. "It’s oxymoronic: building a hotel for the neighborhood that would attract global travelers," Stober tells me. "I wanted them to benefit from what’s happening here in Toronto, but it’s also about giving back to the community."

Designed by the Toronto firm 3rd Uncle, the hotel’s 19 rooms—which include "crash pads" and "dens"—are beyond eclectic: floral wallpaper, flea-market décor, and bathrooms set off by vinyl curtains or partly frosted glass doors. Downstairs, the plywood dining room walls are covered in trippy felt Rorschach blots; the lounge has mismatched vintage chairs and leather sofas. There’s also a raw bar, exercise studio, a basement-level performance space, and the rooftop "sky yard," a covered outdoor deck.

After the sensory overload of the Drake, I’m relieved to find myself in the spare, underdesigned Czehoski restaurant, a West Queen West hot spot, where I’m joining Arthur Mendonça, the 31-year-old darling of the Canadian fashion scene, and his friends for dinner. The Czehoski’s owners left the former butcher shop’s faded sign above the front door, furnished the store’s interior with dark wooden tables edged in steel, classic Mies van der Rohe chairs, and brown velvet curtains, and turned an old deli counter once filled with kielbasa into wine storage beneath a new bar. A beautifully worn wooden door from the original meat locker now leads to the kitchen.

Mendonça was born in Toronto, spent his childhood in the Azores, and returned to Canada as a teenager. Shy and soft-spoken, with movie-star looks, he launched his ready-to-wear line in 2003 and was soon dressing Canada’s singers and actresses—pop star Nelly Furtado wore his designs on a recent tour. Mendonça set up shop in the Toronto Fashion Incubator, a renovated warehouse building of 10 studios, on nearby Dovercourt Road in the Queen West area (private donors subsidize rents and provide designers with sewing machines, an arrangement that would amaze anyone starting out in fashion in New York). "That $5,000 you don’t have to spend on a machine you can use to hire a sample-sewer," Mendonça says. "Queen West is definitely attractive for creative types, though when I first moved here it was very sketchy," he says.

The neighborhood is still very much in flux: grubby appliance stores, hipster bars, art galleries, and Camera, a screening-room lounge owned by filmmaker Atom Egoyan (born in Cairo to Armenian parents—and entirely of Toronto) exist cheek by jowl. Funky shops like Delphic (one of Mendonça’s favorites), which stocks Acne denim and supermodel Alek Wek’s cotton and lambskin totes, and Commute Home, an industrial-chic design store, share the neighborhood with humble eateries. But now you can also find cutting-edge cuisine in between the Ethiopian and Vietnamese restaurants. Czehoski’s executive chef, Nathan Isberg, creates an experimental vibe with such touches as "butter-poached potatoes, tobacco jus, and five superfluous french beans."

Dinner at Czehoski is a far cry from my first culinary experience in Toronto 18 years ago. Friends and I had just braved a 17-degree afternoon scouting the outdoor food market in Chinatown. Famished and frozen, we cozied up to a booth in a restaurant and asked the waitress about a card, handwritten in Mandarin, propped on our table. She translated the daily special: New York strip steak, baked potato, salad, coffee or tea. This was a "Canadian-Chinese" restaurant, she explained. Which meant what?"A lot of times, Canadians don’t want to eat Chinese food at a Chinese restaurant," she offered. We couldn’t fathom choosing meat and potatoes over moo shu, but sure enough, as we walked home through one of the biggest Asian enclaves in the world, we noticed dozens of neon signs touting Canadian-Chinese Cuisine.

Now, local celebrity chefs and their restaurants are competing for attention. Susur Lee’s Southeast Asian- and Mediterranean-inspired plates (caramelized black cod and salmon ceviche, for example) at Lee echo those at his other restaurant, Susur, known for its six-course tasting menus served in reverse, from the entrée to the lightest appetizer. Bymark offers distinguished comfort food like chicken pot pie and roasted grouper. At the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, vintages plucked from the 400-bottle cellar are paired with small plates like Hokkaido sea scallops and grilled short ribs. Each spot rivals New York and Chicago’s finest dining.

Toronto’s architecture is also getting the kind of critical attention it hasn’t enjoyed since the 1960’s, when Mies’s blackened-steel Toronto-Dominion Centre and Finnish architect Viljo Revell’s retro-futuristic city hall went up. Until recently, the city’s most recognizable architectural icon was the quirky CN Tower. Things took a sudden turn for the better when British maverick Will Alsop’s small but influential Sharp Centre for Design, at Ontario College of Art & Design’s downtown campus, opened in 2004. A pixelated black-and-white box suspended nine stories above the existing facility on 12 giant angled steel legs painted a rainbow of colors, the whimsical building became an instant icon—and Torontonians began to awaken from the long slumber of gray steel and concrete.

Now, the city is slowly catching up, with new buildings by foreign architects and hometown designers alike. Daniel Libeskind’s crystalline addition to the 1914 Romanesque-revival Royal Ontario Museum opens this June. Its narrow slabs and expanses of glass slice through the original stone exterior, exposing the interior of the museum to passersby on Bloor Street. For the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto-born Frank Gehry has designed a glass-and-titanium structure—to house a center for contemporary art—and a glass-enclosed sculpture gallery promenade to open in 2008. Last summer, the Gardiner Museum, home to a superb ceramics collection, unveiled an elegant new wing by Toronto’s Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, and the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada inaugurated their new venue: the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (named for their hotel company benefactor)—Canada’s first building devoted solely to opera and ballet. By day, the simple, glass-enclosed box isn’t as eye-popping as the Alsop or Libeskind buildings, but at night it glows like a giant lantern while festively buzzing crowds flow up and down the lobby stairs.

Like many American cities in the 1960’s, Toronto made the great urban-planning blunder of erecting an elevated highway along its waterfront, leaving a desolate pack of high-rises trapped between an expressway and the water. Over the next four years, the winners of an international competition to redesign the lakeshore—a team headed by the Rotterdam design firm West 8—will implement their plan in stages: a boardwalk along the lakeshore; a new ferry terminal; and a floating park, shaped like a giant maple leaf. A double allée of maples will give the waterfront a green edge, and a new park around the foot of the CN Tower will link that landmark to all the new lakeside activity. It’s an ambitious undertaking, likely to draw even more residents and visitors to a city that knows how to go global, and make people feel at home.

Where to Stay

The Drake 1150 Queen St. W.; 416/531-5042;; doubles from $178.

Where to Eat

Bymark 66 Wellington St.; 416/777-1144; dinner for two $127.

Czehoski 678 Queen St. W.; 416/366-6787; dinner for two $65.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar 9 Church St.; 416/362-1957; dinner for two $120.

Lee 603 King St. W.; 416/504-7867; dinner for two $85.

North 44° 2537 Yonge St.; 416/487-4897; dinner for two $125.

Susur 601 King St. W.; 416/603-2205; dinner for two $205.

Where to Shop

Commute Home 819 Queen St. W.; 416/861-0521;

Delphic 706 Queen St. W.; 416/603-3334.

What to Do

Art Gallery of Ontario 317 Dundas St. W.; 416/979-6648;

Camera 1028 Queen St. W.; 416/530-0011;

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts 145 Queen St. W.; 416/363-6671;

Gardiner Museum 111 Queen’s Park; 416/586-8080;

Ontario College of Art & Design 100 McCaul St.; 416/977-6000;

Royal Ontario Museum 100 Queen’s Park; 416/586-8000;

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