Foodies on Foot: An insider’s look at Toronto’s food scene
This year I’ve had the amazing opportunity to judge the Ontario Culinary Tourism Awards, which celebrate “Ontario’s best and brightest in culinary tourism”. From a large pool of worthy applicants, we chose a list of finalists earlier this year, and have been researching each one with the goal of picking a winner in each of three categories, to be announced at a gala on November 14.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Today, I got to play tourist in my (adopted) home town, a nice break since I’ve spent only 10 days here out of the past seven weeks. (Yes, I just counted.) Fellow judge Rod Charles and I joined a group of local and international food lovers on the signature 501 (Queen) streetcar food tour put on by local operator Foodies on Foot. The tour fee (around $79, I think, including a TTC day pass, less if you have your own) includes respectable food and drink samples at multiple stops along the route as well as a bottle of water and a tote bag. Trust me, you’ll need it.
The route technically starts in the west, at the corner of Queen and Roncesvalles, at 11 am. I was running late and arranged to meet the group in Parkdale, at Glory Hole Doughnuts. I rarely make it to Parkdale and while I’d heard of Glory Hole, I’d never had the chance to sample their goods. Tour leader Steve gave us a bit of history of the restaurant – owner Ashley Jacot de Boinod started Glory Hole as a wholesale business then opened the storefront in August 2012 – and then set us free to grab a doughnut of choice and a coffee. With flavours like toast & butter, Nanaimo bar, margarita glaze and piña colada it was hard to pick, but I ended up with a Viva Puff doughnut – yes, a giant glazed topped with chocolate, marshmallow and jelly. If you’re on this tour, do yourself a favour and don’t finish your doughnut. There’s plenty more food to come.
I knew in advance that our next stop was Queen and Strachan, but had been wondering where we’d stop in: Clafouti, perhaps, White Squirrel, or Nadege? Turns out, it was none other than raw vegan takeaway Feel Good Guru, one of my favourite spots on the West Queen West strip. Three food samples helped our digestive systems recover a little from the doughnut, and we got to hear a little about the Trinity Bellwoods area and the support Feel Good Guru has had from the community. They’re now serving up their fresh, healthy fare seven days a week. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come by for lunch and borrow a picnic blanket to take to the park. And if you balk a little at the prices (“I’m paying what for nothing but vegetables?!”), remember that they buy organic and support local farmers as much as possible, a business model that comes with higher overhead but just as high dividends in the community.
We hopped back on the streetcar, which was being surprisingly reliable today, and kept going east toward Spadina. Every time we entered the car, Steve would tell us the next stop in case we got separated. But this didn’t prove to be a problem, and our group held together well, chatting about food experiences and theorizing about the next sample. At Spadina, it turned out, as we exited the streetcar?
Yes, none other than Banh Mi Boys, a spot that has been on my list for ages but which I’d never gotten around to visiting. Steve kindly got me the vegetarian (and very tasty) Panko Tofu Steamed Bao, while the others each enjoyed half of what I think was a beef Banh Mi.
Back on the streetcar and heading further eastward, I knew for sure I’d be trying new places – like many Torontonians, I have a bad habit (fueled to a great degree by bad traffic) for staying on my side of the city, and I rarely venture to the East End. After so many carbs I was getting sleepy, so I was happy when we got off at Queen and Parliament and went kitty corner to Redline Coffee, appropriately named after the streetcar line itself and known for making its own flavoured syrups.
While they had kindly whipped up a batch of pumpkin spice for us, earlier than its scheduled seasonal launch on September 21 (aka the first day of fall), I resisted its allure – they make it with their own fresh pumpkin puree, apparently – in favour of the toasted marshmallow latte, a vanilla latte (I had mine with almond milk) topped with marshmallows that they, yes, roast with a blowtorch. And it’s every bit as good as it sounds. If you think that’s not enough sugar, don’t worry – we each got to pick out a cookie as well.
Feeling more and more stuffed and hyped up on sugar and caffeine, we crossed the Don River and made a quick stop at Toronto institution Mary Macleod’s Shortbread for a sample of their buttery goodness. The chocolate crunch is the classic flavour but I couldn’t resist the old-fashioned wedges of plain shortbread, perfect to nibble on with a nice afternoon cuppa. If you’re looking for edible gifts, this is one place to consider shopping at.
With no streetcar in sight but not much farther to go, we keep walking toward Leslieville for half a grilled cheese sandwich and our choice of dip at Leslieville Cheese Market. I was convinced this would be our last stop and regretting the small bowl of yogurt I’d eaten before leaving the house this morning, but no, Steve kept us going a little farther, to none other than Leslieville Pumps, yet another new-ish Toronto eatery (I hate that word, but you can’t really call it a restaurant, nor a gas station) I’d yet to have a chance to visit. Leslieville Pumps is, indeed, a gas station, but it’s a gas station with a southern-style takeaway inside.
We settled in on the picnic tables outside and listened to Steve explain the business’s origins until he lost our attention to our final samples of the day: a sandwich, corn fritter and fried pickle, the latter both with dip. The sandwich was beyond my capabilities, but the fritter and its creamy parsley dip were the perfect blend of fresh, flavourful and fried, a perfect end to a day packed with new eating experiences.
I like to think I’m somewhat up to date on Toronto’s food scene, and yet this tour, which took us along 8.4 km (the distance from Glory Hole to Leslieville Pumps, according to Google Maps) of one of Toronto’s most interesting and diverse streets, included only one spot I’d been to before. Clearly, I need to get out more – though, judging by the number of locals that regularly take Steve’s tours, I’m not the only one. And while the Queen streetcar can be frustrating when you’re trying to get somewhere, it’s nice to remember that when you’re not in a hurry, it’s a lovely way to get around and see the city, better than any hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
But the real highlight of the tour was tour-guide Steve himself, who is clearly passionate about the city and its neighbourhoods. Toronto’s not the easiest city for tourists to get to know, and it can be overwhelming for food-loving travellers to choose where to eat. The beauty of a tour with Foodies on Foot is they do the hard work for you, letting you just enjoy the eating.
The restaurants we visited today were some of Steve’s favourites, but they’re far from the only businesses he works with, so don’t think the tour’s not worth it if you’ve visited many of them before. Let Steve know ahead of time and he can customize the route for second-timers and local experts, as well as for special meal requests – today was easy to vegetarian-ize, but it might have been challenging to do gluten-free, though I’m more than sure that’s doable given advanced notice.
Last but not least, some tips to avoid rookie mistakes? First, don’t feel like you have to finish everything you try, and take it with you if you can so you can fully enjoy everything along the route. (I have three-quarters of a doughnut in my kitchen right now.) And second, have a light (or no) breakfast and don’t make serious dinner reservations on the day of your tour. You will not be hungry. Finally, book ahead. These tours sell out fast and if you leave it too late, you’re likely to be left hungry, forced to choose your own places to eat.