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Toronto’s Evolution

Frances Juriansz Sharp Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design

Photo: Frances Juriansz

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.

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