Patrons of a Chinatown market, November 1998. Photo: Thereza Santos.

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By Laura Hysert

Little India

A forest of silk sarees and shawls, flutter from their racks.  You want to touch them, but you hesitate, aware of the man watching you alertly from his plastic chair.  But he smiles.  He doesn’t mind.

And silk is everywhere — sequined sarees draped on Caucasian mannequins, silk shoes with gold embroidering, delicately coloured paintings on silk canvases.  They’re not just for decoration — they’re for sale.

Gerrard St. E., between Coxwell and Greenwood , is Little India.  People from the Indian subcontinent first settled in this once impoverished neighbourhood  during the 1960s, drawn by the small business opportunities started by a handful of Indian jewelry stores, food shops, and restaurants along Gerrad St.

Now, both sides of Gerrard St. are crowded with stores offering sarees, lengas, and other suits made of silk or cotton.  Maharani Fashions (1417 Gerrard St. E.) has a wide range of prices with fabrics in every imaginable colour — patterned, plain, sequined, or embroidered.  The store also sells bindis (body jewelry), makeup and mehndi design patterns.  If you can take your eyes off the blaze of fuscia and emerald silks, explore the jewelry corner of the store.  You’ll find racks and racks of thin metal and beaded bracelets in numerous colours, just $2.99 a dozen.

Of course, you’ll want to eat after the long street car ride.  Try the Bar-Be-Que-Hut (1455 Gerrard St. E.).  Despite its misleading name, this restaurant serves traditional Indian food and is well-known for its Tandoori chicken (marinated in yogurt and spices).  This small but elegant restaurant also boasts Toronto’s first clay oven on which is cooked the Hut’s chicken mutton and fish dishes, as well as their fresh Tandoor-baked bread.

Don’t leave Little India without wandering into Maharani Emporium (1417 Gerrard St. E.).  This store sells Indian religious items, books, and art, but also offers musical instruments like stairs, tablas (a kind of drum) and bamboo flutes, as well as incense and incense burners, statuettes, mehndi kits, and cricket bats.

And before you jump on the streetcar, buy a peacock feather.  Small ones cost only 65 cents.

Little Italy & Corso Italia

Grab a cappuccino in one of many cafes where they actually know how to make one.

Little Italy (College St. between Palmerston and Shaw) tries to be relaxed, family-oriented and hip at the same time.  Sleek cafes occupy old brick townhouses in a neighbourhood that was first settled in by Italian immigrants during the Italian civil war in the 1880s.  Their descendants have returned to the area to start new eateries or take over family businesses.

One place to try is the Rico Club (at the corner of College and Crawford, next to Blockbuster’s), a restaurant and nightclub that offers Latin dance lessons every Sunday night at 9 a.m.  Or Il Gatto Nero (656 College St.), a dim café dominated by a magnificent glossy pine bar.  Here you can get pastas or pizza for less than $10, and a mini cappuccino for $2.  The cappuccino is perfect — full-bodied and sweet.

As you walk along the broad streets smattered with elegant wrought-iron railings, stop in at Angle and the Mermaid (657 College St.).  Owned by artist Wendy Hutchman, this store sells hand-made jewelry by Hutchman, other local artists and imported from New York City.  Victorian costume jewellery, papier maché picture frames, decorative boxes, even hat pins — you will have no trouble finding a magical Christmas gift under $20 here.

Corso Italia formed as the Italian community grew and moved north.  Now, St. Clair Ave. W. between Oakwood and Landsowne is the hub of Toronto’s Italian community.  While it may be less glamorous than its trendy southern sister, you’ll find no lack of good food or chic clothing here.

Jump off the Dufferin street car and roll down St. Clair’s sloping sidewalk to Café Jolly (1256 St. Clair Ave. W.), the most popular joint in the neighbhourhood.  Part sports bar, part coffee house, Café Jolly serves baked 10-inch pizzas from $6.25 (basic cheese and herbs) to $10.75 (shrimp and calamari).  You can get antipasto while watching a WWF brawl or a soccer game on a large screen TV, or sip espresso an devour cheesecake while listening to Mix 99.9 blare the Wallflowers.  It’s busy and boisterous and the people here love it.

Despite its name, The Big Slice (1154 St. Clair Ave. W.) sells cheap pasta.  Here, among other places, you can also find Sicilian ice cream.

If you’re shopping for designer clothing expensive Italian shoes, Corso Italia may be an alternative to Yorkville, though it’s probably not much cheaper.  But 66 Degrees (1196 St. Clair Ave. W.) has low-priced women’s clothing, including clubwear, and probably ahs the widest selection of Versace anyway.


As you climb out of the Bloor St. subway at Christie, you’ll think you’ve somehow left Toronto (how far do these trains go, anyway?).  You’ve magically stepped into a stereotypical small Canadian town.  Children race down the sidewalk on bikes; wide, leafy branches canopy sloping suburban streets lined with neat houses.  People leisurely walk their dogs and children in the large, grassy hollow of Christie Pits park.  In fact, you’re only reminded you’re in a Korean neighbourhood in Toronto by the sushi bars dotting Bloor and the homeless people lounging in the park.  And Honest Ed’s Vegas-style lights blinding the tourists just down the street.

But Bloor St. W., between Bathurst and Chirstie, is indeed Koreatown — not just Ed Mirvish’s backyard.  During the 1940s, and then in the 1960s and 1970s, many Korean students came to Toronto for university and then moved to this area to start small businesses and professional offices.  Now, for authentic Korean and Japanese food at low prices, this area is the best in Toronto.

So resist the temptation to line Ed Mirvish’s pocket and try one of the many restaurants and cafes instead.  The spicy smell of stir fry wafts onto the sidewalk from the simply named Korean restaurant (corner of Palmerston and Bloor), where you can get a big meal including noodles, dumplings, and stir fried vegetables or beef, for under $5.99.

Or enjoy the rich, dark wood furnishings and paper lanterns of Korea House restaurant (666 Bloor St. W.).  It’s a little  pricier, but it serves stir fried squid, tofu, and Korean liquors, including sake.

Portugal village

In the 1950s, Portuguese families settled between Lansdowne and Bathurst from Queen to Bloor, to participate in the Great Lake fishing industry.  Soon Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants joined them, making Portugal Village vast eclectic.

Unusual stores and restaurants are crammed between fish markets, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and cafes.  If you want to find mind-stunning bargains on items you might actually use, go to The Dollar Joint (1168 Dundas St. W., near Ossington).  It’s one of the few dollar stores that actually lives up to its name.  You can buy underwear, coffee mugs, tupperware, or decorative wine bottles, all for a dollar.  The Dollar Joint also sells groceries: animal crackers (large box) for $1, Italpasta spaghetti for 85 cents, and canned pop (not no-name brands, either) sells at three for, you guessed it, a dollar.

You may come to Portugal Village for the bargains on duct tape and baby shampoo, but stay for some pastry at one of its numerous cafes.  Most of them are called bakeries, but serve coffee as well.  Nova Era Bakery has two locations in the area, one at 1172 Dundas St. W., and another at 770 College St. W.  The Dundas St. location is open 24 hours a day and is packed every night.  Nova Era’s selection of pastries will bring out the glutton in you.  Moist punch cake with chocolate and vanilla icing dribbled thickly down its side, chocolate mousse cupcakes spiked with Grand Marnier and topped with plums, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and aveirense (a cupcake made with milk, sugar and cinnamon)… you will not leave without buying something and the prices are reasonable.

The Community Café’s (207 Ossington Ave., just south of Dundas) menu may be less orgasmic, but the prices are attractive.  The subsidized Café charges only what you can afford to pay for nutritious, vegetarian meals.  The Café also houses the Anarchist Free School, which offers free evening courses on topics such as the conflict in Chiapas and “Dance and Anarchism.”

Cervejaria Downtown (842 College St.), a sparsely-furnished sports bar with a large screen TV, offers Portuguese sea food and is passionate about soccer.  You can’t walk down College St. without noticing the giant soccer ball peering at you from Cervejaria’s roof.  Imagine you’ve strolled into a Monty Python cartoon and the ball is threatening to plop down and squish you.  Very unsettling.


Greektown, known as “the Danforth” because it hugs Danforth Ave., is the second largest Greek settlement outside of Greece, topped only by Queens in New York City.  After World War II and a series of civil wars in Greece, many educated, urbanized Greeks congregated in this working class area in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  They formed political and philanthropic clubs around which the Greek community coalesced.

Now restaurants, their outsides tiled in mosaic patterns, their insides lined with murals of Greek mythology and history, are the focus of the neighbourhood, which has its heart at Danforth and Pape.  Don’t just buy a gyro at Mr. Greek and congratulate yourself for experiencing Greek cuisine.  Venture into one of these elegant establishments to try some Mediterranean food.

Greek Olives restaurant (752 Danforth Ave.), with its meringue-yellow plaster and brick walls, potted indoor trees, and Greek string music playing in the background, tries to replicate the feel of Mediterranean décor.  Though it’s a little pricey, the menu offers delicious appetizers such as stuffed tomatoes and peppers or pickled octopus, and for dinner, quail and red snapper.  Some dishes are very low priced.  Octopus and calamari cooked in wine and tomato-onion-herb sauce costs only $5.95.

For a great Greek dinner under $15, the Pantheon (407 Danforth Ave.) offers lots of dips, souvlaki, sea food, salads, Tartufo ice cream, and Greek coffee.  Mezes (456 Danforth Ave.) is more expensive, but its selection is enormous.  With its wrought iron columns and vine-tangled railings, Mezes is a beautiful place to spend an evening talking and eating with friends.

You might want to do your grocery shopping at the Danforth’s Sungrown Fruit Market (773 Pape Ave., right by the Pape subway station).  This market sells enormous peaches as well as chilies, peppers and other vegetables heaped outside in round green containers.  Inside, you’ll find mint leaves, pineapples, fresh break, okra, and olive oil in bulk.  Greek House (565 Danforth Ave.) will finish off your shopping list with pastries, cheeses, and candy.

Or you could do your grocery shopping at Suckers CandyCo., a microcosm of what Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory must be like.  Jelly Belly jelly beans, giant suckers, Pez, and other confectionary flow like water beneath flashing gumball machines and TVs showing old cartoons.  If it would send your dentist into cardiac arrest, it’s here.  Bring a toothbrush.

Little Jamaica

Little Jamaica was originally a working class Italian neighbourhood.  When Africans and West Indians came to Canada in the 1960s, many chose to live in this area because of its cheap rent.  Now, the neighbourhood is a mix of is a mix of Caribbean, African, Asian, and European cultures, though predominantly Jamaican.  You can buy bread at an Italian bakery or order some jerk chicken from a West Indian grocery store, all on the same block.

Buy reggae CDs, tapes and vinyl at Treasure Isle Records and Gifts (1514 Eglinton Ave. W.), which advertises its music loudly you can practically hear it from the opposite end of Little Jamaica, which stretches along Eglinton Ave. W. from Oakwood to Dufferin.  Or you can relax and get a pedicure and manicure for $35 at Le Crazy Nail’s (1721 Eglinton Ave. W.).  This is the spot to get your nails buffed, polished, trimmed, pierced, airbrushed, and inset with gems.

At United Caribe Foods, next door to Le’s, you can buy your typical groceries as well as eucalyptus leaves, whole nutmeg, or jerk seasoning.  United Caribe also has taken out dinners: jerk chicken or curried goat, for example, with rice and vegetables, only costs $4.95.

But if a sit-down meal suits you better after your long trek north-east to the former city of York, head to Red Seas restaurant (1704 Eglinton Ave. W.), which specializes in Eritrean food for low prices.  With Shania Twain chirping from the radio and a video poker terminal in the corner you’re not quite sure if you’re in an African restaurant or a country diner.  The live Eritrean music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights should clear up the confusion.  So should the menu, which offers lamb or chicken zigni — a dish seasoned with herbs, butter, and delek (a type of pepper) — and Gored Gored made of lean beef cubes in awaze, a hot sauce.  The prices here range from $7.99 to $15.99, but most are under $11.

You’ll notice there’s a lot — and I do mean a lot — of barber shops and hair salons here.  At Sparks, for example, you can get African braiding and weaving done.  And then there’s Discount Beauty Supplies and Salon (1557 Eglinton Ave. W.), which could very well be stocked with every hair product known to humankind.  Gels, relaxers, weavers, braids, oil treatments, wigs, dyes and salon equipment are sold for low prices, often in bulk.  Their selection of curling irons alone is staggering.

The Chinatowns

Red yellow signs flare against the night sky, lights sparkle, neon Chinese symbols flash, red dragons loop fiercely around poles standing guard over street cars rocketing down the street.  Visit Toronto’s largest Chinatown at night — you’ll feel like you’re in Hong Kong.

A wave of Chinese immigrants came to Canada in the 19th century to help build the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  Many settled near Toronto’s railway along York St. between King and Queen.  But when city hall was built in 1957, Chinatown moved west and claimed Dundas St. W. from McCaul to Augusta, and Spadina Ave. from College to Queen.

There are oodles of restaurants, stores, malls and markets here — too many to mention.  Worth mentioning is Excellent Peking House (263 Spadina Ave.), which specializes in Cantonese seafood.  You can create your own dinner combos starting $16.99 for two, and feed a party of eight for $59.99.  You can choose from Szechuan beef, mussels, vegetable lo mein, and much more and each meal comes with soup and spring rolls.  This restaurant certainly lives up to its name.

Ever wonder where Bruce Wayne buys his stationary?  Well, probably not at Dragon Seed Gift (next to Excellent Peking House).  But you can buy stationary with the Bat symbol splashed on every page and envelope.  You can also buy Snoopy stationary.  There’s a lot of Snoopy here — pens, pencils, stuffed toys, even air fresheners — as well as Garfield, Disney, and Asian characters such as Pochacco (a cuter version of Snoopy), Hello Kitty, and Sailor Moon, You’ll want to be a kid again.

As you walk to Ryerson, stop in at Ten Ren’s Tea Company (454 Dundas St. W.), an ornate little store that sells tea, clay and porcelain tea-ware, and ginseng root.  Buy some green tea — it’s good for you.

When Chinatown’s downtown real estate became too expensive, Chinese immigrants, began to settle around Gerrard and Broadview in the ‘60s for the east side’s cheaper rents.  Now, this plain neighbourhood of tiny houses and rundown apartment buildings has spawned a thriving outpost of Chinese culture.

Outdoor markets plying vegetables, herbs, and meat bunch along the sidewalk.  At Hiepp Phon Trading (583 Gerrard St. E.), right on the corner of Broadview and Gerrard, you’ll walk by a bucket of crabs — and jump when you see a leg move.  Shoppers pick the crabs up with metal tongs and carefully put them in brown paper bags that don’t seems much protection against snapping pincers.  Luckily the crabs are too groggy to fight back.

If you’re suffering from exam stress (and who isn’t?), stop at Tseun Tai Hong (651 Gerrard St. E.) for a pair of baoding iron balls.  By rolling  these in your palms you can stimulate points in the hand that, according to the instruction book, unblock energy passages to increase energy, and cure disease.  If you’re into Chinese animation (manga) or Japanese anime, check out the CD Gift Shop (597 Gerrard St. E.), which offers discounts for Ryerson Chinese Student Association members.  Your eyes will sparkle like Sailor Moon’s at the little manga character dolls and movies.  And yes, they have CDs, too.

This neighbourhood offers the cheapest and best Chinese food in the city, with nary a chicken ball in sight.  Pearl Court (633 Gerrard St. E.) has Szechuan and Cantonese food from $7.95 for a main course meal.  Golden Embassy restaurant (at the corner of Broadview and Gerrard), bustling even at four in the afternoon, sells Peking braised duck and other sophisticated fare for prices around the $8 to $11 range.

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