A Weekend of Eating and Exploring in Toronto

The Gooderham Building in Toronto is also known as Toronto's flatiron building.
The Gooderham Building is known as Toronto's flatiron building.

The lake wasn’t visible, despite its resemblance to the ocean in its vastness, but its presence hung in the air, giving away the southeast direction. The sprawling high-rises of downtown repeated block after block, the monotony only breaking with a theater here and a stadium there, plus a few scattered cathedrals. Downtown Toronto felt so much like Chicago that I wondered if I’d dreamt our early morning flight and woke up lost in a new neighborhood in my own city.

Like Chicago, Toronto is a city of nearly 3 million people nestled on the edge of a great lake, theirs the shores of Lake Ontario. It’s a big city with a small town feel, a reputation for cold weather and good food, full of genuinely kind people who are passionate about sports.

Needless to say, I felt right at home in Toronto, despite being in a different country. In fact, I often forgot I was in Canada until something was spelled slightly off (sorry, but it’s center, not centre), described in meters, listed in liters or — this one always made us laugh — Budweiser was listed under the imported beer section.

The 3D Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square.
The 3D Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square.

The hour and a half flight from Chicago to Toronto makes it a perfect weekend escape, even when you factor in time to get through customs. The Union Pearson Express train transported us in the heart of downtown in a half hour, where we battled crowds of Blue Jays fans heading to the Rogers Centre to get to our hotel, then promptly set out in search of food.

Toronto has the most ethnically diverse population in the world, which is reflected not only in the people walking along the street but in the range of restaurants serving food from every culture. I wanted to try all of them, to taste the world via Toronto, but in only three days, that would be impossible. So we were determine to get a glimpse of Toronto’s food scene, despite several hiccups that hindered our progress.

David Chang's famous pork belly buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto.
David Chang’s famous pork belly buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto.

We started with Momofuku Noodle Bar for David Chang’s infamous ramen and pork belly buns. We bellied up to the bar, as they say, and slurped the rich, warm broth; a perfect contrast to the chilly temperatures outside.

After exploring Toronto’s Financial District, we had a quick dinner at Cactus Club Cafe, a trendy restaurant that was in no way a cafe, with waitresses and hostesses weirdly wearing matching sheath dresses and diners in pre-clubbing attire. Needless to say, we were overdressed in our opera outfits.

The CN Tower in Toronto.
The CN Tower is the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere at 1,815 feet tall.
St. Andrews Church in Toronto.
St. Andrews Church, built in 1876, surrounded by modern skyscrapers.

Next, onto the opera at the Four Seasons Centre, the first opera house to use supertitles translating the lyrics above the stage. The theater is a mixture of old and new: the foyer’s modern wood staircases contrast with the theater’s U-shaped auditorium, a nod to Europe’s oldest opera houses. The production of Carmen was the best I’ve ever seen.

The next day we set out for dim sum in Chinatown. We walked the half-hour commute through the city to Chinatown, one of Toronto’s six! The restaurant was crowded, messy and something about it just seemed off, so after sitting down we actually left. As much as I hate doing that, it’s not worth suffering through a meal we’re uncomfortable with.

Chicken and waffles at Dirty Bird in Kensington Market, Toronto.
Chicken and waffles at Dirty Bird in Kensington Market.

Our backup was Dirty Bird Chicken + Waffles in Kensington Market, a quirky neighborhood with an undeniably hipster vibe, full of little shops and restaurants. The cramped fast-casual place has limited seating, but the chicken and waffles — randomly served with a side of coleslaw or potato salad — was phenomenal.

We wandered the neighborhood, stopping at a cafe with a patio to take advantage of the almost warm temps. We ordered Irish coffees to further facilitate the warmth.

Kelli Nakagama at Templeton's in Kensington Market in Toronto.
Enjoying the sun at Templeton’s in Kensington Market.

That evening, after miles kilometers of walking and a quick wardrobe change, we stopped at the Kit Kat Bar for a drink (and watched the bartenders battle what we assumed was a mouse behind the bar — eek!) before succumbing to our tourist titles for dinner at the CN Tower.

We knew the food would only be mediocre, but justified that the view from 114 stories had to be worth it. The view was pretty, but our meal was so terrible it inspired a late-night hunt for, well, anything edible. We abandoned our half-eaten excuses for dinner at the 360 Restaurant for pizza at Pizzeria Libretto nearby. It was a good reminder that you can never, ever go wrong with pizza.

St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.
We learned the hard way that the St. Lawrence Market is closed Sundays and Mondays.
Dim sum in Toronto.
Delicious dim sum to start the day.

The next day we walked to the St. Lawrence Market, one of the best food markets in the world. Unfortunately it was closed and would be closed the rest of our stay (Sunday and Monday). Fail. So we tried for dim sum again, this time at a more touristy-friendly (read: clean) spot, Pearl King. Is it just me or is dim sum one of the ultimate comfort foods?

Poutine at Poutini's House of Poutine in Toronto.
The famous Canadian guilty pleasure: fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

Anxious to get our fill of Toronto food, we spent the afternoon wandering the city’s chilly streets on a hunt for classic Canadian poutine, chasing Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation to try Poutini’s House of Poutine. (Also, the name made me giggle.) I totally get the guilty pleasure of poutine, but I echo Anthony Bourdain’s sentiments that it’s much better suited as a late-night post-bar preemptive hangover cure than a mid-afternoon snack. (Talk about a food coma!)

Our last Toronto event was baseball at the Rogers Centre, with its (thankfully) retractable roof to shelter us from the rain. We sat in the Comfort Club Seats that have their own server (!!) and a perfect view of the field. I ordered the Financial District Burger loaded with peameal bacon, bacon jam, garlic aioli and topped with an onion ring. It was outstanding. (Unfortunately, the rest of the stadium has a different menu.) It was the first time I’d been to a baseball game to cheer on the visiting team, and I admit watching the White Sox beat the Blue Jays in their own stadium was pretty fun.

The White Sox during the Canadian national anthem at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
The White Sox during the Canadian national anthem at the Rogers Centre.

We tried to hit a Canadian whisky bar (Char5) and places known for gin and tonics (Nota Bene, BarChef); we attempted a boat tour to see the skyline from the lake, and twice went to the St. Lawrence Market — all without success. Turns out a lot of restaurants, bars and markets in Toronto are closed on Sundays and Mondays, especially in the financial district.

The Toronto sign in Nathan Phillips Square lit up at night.
The Toronto sign lit up at night.

In the end, Toronto was a much-too-quick getaway that left me anxious to return once the weather is warm (and the restaurants are open). Luckily, it’s just a short hop away. Oh and did I mention that the Canadian dollar makes for an inexpensive trip?

Stay tuned for a Canadian bowl of ramen, what to know about the Canadian Opera Company, what to eat in Toronto and more.

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