Toronto: Next Great Neighborhoods
Not long ago, Danforth Avenue was a masculine stretch of murky bars, tailor shops, and dark-suited men arguing about soccer, a place where Greek immigrants re-created the life they had left behind. On weekdays, there was a sense of conspiracy that excluded the casual visitor; on weekends, the scenes at the oversize, reliable restaurants looked like crowded wedding receptions. Over time, the street's name embraced the entire neighborhood, which came to be called the Danforth.
But as the residential area to the north and south of Danforth Avenue became increasingly coveted by local media types and young professionals, the street made allowances. The theme is still Mediterranean, but the feel is now celebratory rather than conspiratorial. Among the butcher shops with unshorn lambs hanging in the windows, the busy vegetable markets and pinched tavernas, a crop of sleek restaurants has emerged. Almost every eating place in the Danforth opens onto a patio in back, and in summer, late-night dinners feel carnivalesque.
Near the eastern periphery of the strip is Colori Ristorante (561 Danforth Ave.; 416/466-6231; dinner for two $55), an elegant dining spot with rich pumpkin-colored walls and stained-glass windows. The menu has a strong strain of innovative Italian— lots of risotto, pasta, and gourmet pizza— but it wanders elsewhere, too, with dishes such as swordfish tataki with shaved fennel and hoisin vinaigrette, and jumbo quail stuffed with dried apricots, pine nuts, and spinach. For dessert, try the cathedral-like dark rum chocolate mousse, rimmed in pistachio tuile.
At Alteriors Home Furnishings & Design (527 Danforth Ave.; 416/466-3622), keep an eye out for Mark Lewis's handblown glass vases in arresting greens and blues. Owner Wendie Cohen also has classic bent-teak steamer chairs from the late Thomas Lamb, whose prototype steamer design is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
On the next block, among the old neighborhood's Greek social clubs and tiny pastry shops, you'll find Byzas (535 Danforth Ave.; 416/778-1100; dinner for two $35). The restaurant was named for the Greek king who was, according to legend, the founder of Byzantium— the city that gave its name to the empire that spanned parts of Africa, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Greece. Those regions also lend the menu its interesting variations. Owners John and Dean Kekkas wisely installed heaters on the lovely sandstone terrace so you can dine outdoors even in Toronto's unpredictable spring and autumn. The Kekkas brothers also own Christina's Ristorante across the street (492 Danforth Ave.; 416/463-4418; dinner for two $35), a Mediterranean bistro bursting with the happy colors of a finger-painting session.
Greek cuisine is notoriously predictable, but chef Laura Prentice gives it a fresh twist at Pan (516 Danforth Ave.; 416/466-8158; dinner for two $58). Rack of lamb is prepared with a sour-cherry glaze, and grilled sea bass is topped with roasted-garlic salsa.
You won't have to look for the lime-green façade of Lolita's Lust (513 Danforth Ave.; 416/465-1751; dinner for two $52); the graffitiesque sign will find you. Pan's funkier, more libidinous cousin, another Prentice project, serves such unusual food as baked red snapper in a Syrian pepper crust and grilled breast of chicken stuffed with yogurt, herbs, and onions. The restaurant's martini list is sure to make purists squirm: among the blasphemies, a Hawaii Five-O, made with vodka, curaçao, Malibu rum, lime, and pineapple juice.
Just past the profusion of storefront posters for tragic-looking Greek singers is Ouzeri (500A Danforth Ave.; 416/778-0500; dinner for two $32), a breezy taverna with bright splashes of color on its white walls and a ring of naive art around the high ceiling. Both the extensive wine list and the "meze sum" (the Greek version of dim sum) are noteworthy.
Farther west, the Soda Market Café (425 Danforth Ave.; 416/466-5227; dinner for two $35) has the spare, beige look of a Martha Stewart layout. The menu is lighter than those of its robust Greek neighbors: salmon grilled with lemon and sambuca butter served on couscous; grilled calamari with julienned vegetables.
Postmodern ventures like this were precipitated by Myth (417 Danforth Ave.; 416/461-8383; dinner for two $50), one of the first area restaurants to depart from the classic Greek formula. Myth's eclectic Mediterranean cuisine borrows from Lebanon, Italy, and Israel, as well as Greece, and the interior resembles a set from a Victor Mature movie; his films sometimes play silently against the walls. Five custom-made pool tables and a 4 a.m. weekend closing time have made it the preferred hangout of the hip and unencumbered.
The Carrot Common (348 Danforth Ave.; 416/466-3803) is a loose alliance of stores and cafés that share an interest in all things natural. Hemp pants, healing crystals, and holistic remedies flank a narrow courtyard. The place is generally mime-free, though an earnest folksinger could blindside you with Neil Young's "Helpless." It's worth the risk for a dish of papaya frozen yogurt at the Fresh Pot (416/ 462-9612), or to peruse the beautiful knitwear in seductive colors at Robin Kay Home & Style (416/466-1211). Another essential stop: Book City (416/469-9997), for good deals on literary remainders.
Settle in with your new novel and a cup of robust Jamaican Blue Mountain at Dark City Coffee House & Roastery (307 Danforth Ave.; 416/461-1606). It's the kind of place that Kafka might have written in if he'd gotten out more. The moody interior is perfect for hangover breakfasts, but it also has a bright terrace for those who wake up feeling like the Partridge Family.
About a block west, Allen's (143 Danforth Ave.; 416/463-3086; dinner for two $40) purveys 90 kinds of scotch, ranging from $5 to $30 a glass. It has the lively atmosphere of a neighborhood pub, a feeling reinforced by a menu that includes halibut in Kilkenny Ale batter and Dublin lamb shank braised in Guinness.
Beer at Café Brussel (786 Broadview Ave.; 416/465-7363; dinner for two $60) is best appreciated in the mug. Among the 21 kinds of Belgian brew, there are fruit beers made from raspberries and cherries as well as beer made by Trappist monks in the Ardennes. To complete the Belgian experience, order one of some two dozen mussel dishes from the hearty Franco-Flemish menu.
At its western terminus, Danforth Avenue opens onto the Bloor Street viaduct, which was immortalized in Toronto writer Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. The bridge was originally named for Prince Edward, but the name, like many royal marriages, didn't take. A few hundred feet below, the Don Valley and the Don River form an extensive green ribbon that bisects the city, and miles of hike-and-bike trails snake off into a network of ravines. For those who have overindulged, there is the opportunity for exercise; for the rest, there is the marvelous view.
DON GILLMOR, based in Toronto, is a contributing editor of Saturday Night.