Eat and Drink Your Way Through Toronto’s Riverside and Leslieville Neighborhoods
When you think of Toronto, your mind might run to Drake sitting solemnly atop the CN Tower or city councilman and Twitter whiz Norm “6 Dad” Kelly. But lesser-known treasures exist throughout up and coming neighborhoods east of the Don River at the epicenter of Ontario’s film industry.
Although Riverside and Leslieville are close in proximity to Toronto’s vibrant downtown, visitors can experience the intimacy of small-town life through Culinary Adventure Co.’s sweet and savory walking food tour. For a full three hours, consumers curious about the culinary scene are led on an excursion to sample the area’s most delectable dishes.
During a recent visit to Ontario at the invitation of Tourism Toronto, The Daily Meal was able to partake in the tasting of Canada’s best shortbread, organic artisan sourdough, a light Mediterranean lunch, small-batch ice cream, and other hidden delights. If there’s one thing you need to know before embarking on this king-sized quest, it’s to listen to tour company owner and “Big Cheese” Kevin Durkee when he says, “Come hungry.”
Mary Macleod’s Shortbread
Our tour began at the southeast corner of Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue. From here, we walked a few blocks, stopping along the way to gawk at the original Canadian Tire garage and memorial of Hanlan Point Stadium, where Babe Ruth hit his first out of the park homerun in 1914. The ball landed in Lake Ontario and was never seen again.
At Mary Macleod’s, the intoxicating smell of butter rushed from the entrance to embrace me like a warm hug. The shop’s interior was reminiscent of Grandma’s house — I was surrounded by sweets. But what’s better for breakfast than not one, but two freshly baked cookies? I settled on Chocolate Crunch and Maple Crunch. After a bite of each, I felt closer than ever to Mick Jagger. This gourmet shortbread is reportedly the rock star’s favorite.
Luckily for me but unfortunately for everyone else, the 35-year-old flagship store closed down on Valentine’s Day. It will eventually be replaced on the tour by another local business, but for now, cookie monsters can order these treats online and through other retailers throughout the country. Starbucks shops in Canada offered Mary Macleod’s goodies over this past holiday season, but a spokesperson for the coffee brand says it does not have a further partnership planned at this time.
Merchants of Green Coffee
Merchants of Green Coffee lives in a historic brick jam factory with a fantastic view of the Toronto skyline. Its “Solar Café” and roastery feels more like a dear friend’s home than like a retailer. Mismatched bohemian couches scattered among metal stools, janky chairs, monotonous tables, and overgrown coffee plants mingle with an all-encompassing smell of coffee that begs you to stay a while rather than grab a cup and jet.
And the coffee here is a little more distinguished than your commercial cup of joe. Every bean is roasted in-house and shop co-founder Derek Zavislake says each mug has the same amount of antioxidants as three oranges. Curious cats can take two-hour courses to study fair trade green beans, the art of roasting, the alchemy of brewing, and cupping and tasting. Or you can just grab an espresso and pastry from the barista and kick back.
After an extensive lecture on sustainable sourcing and the roasting process, a cup of coffee black as night was placed before me. My initial thought was, “Where is the milk and sugar?” I take my caffeine light and sweet, but I braced myself and threw it down the hatch. I can’t say I hated it, but I’ll probably stick with my usual syrup-laden latte moving forward.
St. John’s Bakery
St. John’s Bakery is more than just about baking bread. While the nonprofit does provide unique artisan breads to a variety of clientele, it also heals the community by employing social service clients, refugees, single parents, and people struggling with addictions, mental illness, and poverty.
The shop — owned and operated by its sister-church next door — specializes in organic sourdough made with all-natural ingredients. St. John’s Bakery supplies bread to three dozen grocers, 14 restaurants, three caterers, and seven farmers markets.
Upon our arrival, we were met with enough white bread and cilantro-olive sourdough to feed a small village, and it was the moistest bread I’ve ever had in my life. Fair warning: Don’t come here if you’re on a low-carb diet, because you’ll be tempted to eat an entire loaf. Even if you resist the first wave of the onslaught, good luck escaping banana bread, cinnamon brioche rolls, cranberry-pumpkin scones, and gingerbread cookies.
Butchers of Distinction
Butchers of Distinction is the first meat specialty shop to offer only Ontario-grown, raised, or made produce. Each item sold here is offered without hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. In addition to meat and poultry, the shop sells ready-to-serve salads, sandwiches, breads, pies, stocks, and soups.
On our stop here, journalists were able to nibble on French bread, pork terrine with pistachio and brandy, and a Monforte fontina with fenugreek. The cheese was good, although I wasn’t sure whether or not I should eat the rind, so I stuffed it in a napkin and carried onward. I’m not much of a carnivore, but I’d say just based upon observation that the vast meat selection would entice any backyard griller as if he were a kid in a candy store.
Tabule was by far my favorite stop on the tour. The sit-down Mediterranean restaurant was vibrant with happy colors, and the food was a total knockout from start to finish. Even when the waiter came and poured our drinks it was a spectacle. Water spouted from a vase-looking pitcher from great heights like a royal fountain. That’s one way to persuade me to hydrate more.
The first showstopper was one of three dips on a platter. Alongside hummus and tabbouleh was labneh, a homemade cow’s milk yogurt-like cheese mixed with garlic and za’atar (a Lebanese spice blend). If we hadn’t halted the refills on pita — white and wheat — I would’ve filled up on this alone because it was the definition of addicting.
Next came a decent gluten-free falafel, amazing arnabeet (flash-fried cauliflower) drizzled in tahini, and the most scrumptious lemon-garlic fried eggplant you could ever dream of. With a single bite, the vegetable melted like butter in my mouth, making the experience both delicious and enjoyable to the touch. I could’ve lived in that moment forever.
Ed’s Real Scoop
On the way over to Ed’s Real Scoop, we crossed over from Riverside into Leslieville, bumping into a familiar street sign along the way: De Grassi. Millennials might remember the name from hit Canadian teen drama Degrassi, in which the fictional cast lived on or near the street.
Now at Ed’s, I was overwhelmed by a plethora of gelato, ice cream, and sorbet. Thankfully, the clerk let me sample a few dozen before I landed on a winner. Feeling a little risky, I combined sweet vanilla cream with pumpkin, which tasted like fall-time favorite pumpkin pie dolloped with Cool Whip. As far as dessert vessels go, the shop offered cups as well as waffle, sugar, plain, and pine cones. Yes, pine cones. Canada is funny.
Explorers interested in discovering why Culinary Adventure Co. is one of Toronto’s best food tours can do so Saturdays at 11 a.m. rain or shine. Admission costs $79 per adult and $59 per child aged 6 through 14. Not planning a trip to Toronto any time soon? The brand also offers VIP, private, and group tours in Winnipeg, Kingston, Ottawa, Charlottetown, and Halifax.
My initial takeaway from this fabulous experience is that Toronto has an immaculate food scene. And unlike in the U.S., in the off chance you aren’t enjoying a dish, it isn’t rude to pass it off to someone else. On the other hand, it is considered wasteful to take something you won’t eat. Find all this and more in these 12 etiquette lessons Americans should learn from Canada.
Travel expenses, food, and drink samples for review were provided by Tourism Toronto at no cost to the writer.