TORONTO — One of the best things about having a son in college in Toronto is visiting him.
Never mind the top-quality education he is getting or the (less than it used to be) discount on tuition. We have discovered in Toronto a bounty of wonderful food, great hotels, museums, live music, and easy public transport.
Whether it’s the long car ride around or the short plane hop over Lake Ontario, in Ezra’s two years at the University of Toronto, we have been impressed with the smart, competent people in this thriving metropolis. Torontonians are like Bostonians without the snark. Except when it comes to Mayor Rob Ford. Graffiti sneering at the “lies” of the admitted crack smoker tagged many a light pole and parking garage. Even before his substance abuse mea culpas, we saw graffiti assailing the mayor’s girth during a weight-loss challenge. (He ditched that effort after the press turned his public weigh-ins into gotcha opportunities.)
We started out a recent trip in our favorite neighborhood, Kensington, where our favorite U of T sophomore buys produce, locally grown meats, fresh bread, and ethnic delicacies. It is about a 15-minute walk, less with a tram ride for $3 Canadian, from our downtown hotel in Toronto’s equivalent of Times Square, at Dundas and Yonge, close to shopping, restaurants, museums, and theater.
In Kensington there is fabulous food to be found in unassuming storefronts if you know where to go. On a Saturday at noon, we squeezed into a crowded Seven Lives Taco, where I savored an incredible blackened mahimahi taco for $5. The tiny shop ranks on many top 10 lists of Toronto restaurants. Then we sipped coffee in a nearby bakery and shared a Canadian delicacy, the butter tart, which is similar to a pecan pie minus the pecans. We kept strolling and eating; the guys stood in a long line at another bake shop for savory meat pies. Between stops we enjoyed street drummers and a mime trying to draw patrons to a hardware store.
The striking ethnic diversity of Toronto translates to the food. We had incredible Asian-influenced barbecue at Electric Mud, another top restaurant, which thrilled my husband, a New Yorker who has spent a lot of time in Texas.
We crossed the city by tram toward the lake to the St. Lawrence Market, a sprawling building filled with endless booths of fresh fish, eye-popping delicacies including exotic meats like fresh giraffe and kangaroo, pea bacon — it’s a Canadian standard — fresh pasta, cheeses, and an array of mustards. This massive vintage building that dates to 1803 has crafts, clothes, and jewelry on other floors and yet is not as touristy as Faneuil Hall or even Pike Place Market in Seattle because it’s still a real market.
Then we explored the Distillery District, where derelict warehouses are giving way to trendy shops, like a gourmet chocolate factory and an outstanding restaurant and tequila bar called El Catrin. The inside is a visual feast of Day of the Dead-themed murals and dioramas and a massive wall filled with backlighted tequila bottles behind the bar in the place where whiskey barrels once stood.
In a cab back to downtown we caught a civics lesson from the driver. He identified the engine behind the city’s bustling growth: Quebec’s separatist bid gone wrong. Indeed, every bank and business with alert leaders bolted from Montreal to Toronto after the 1995 secession bid failed. That was the beginning of the development boom that today has more high rises under construction than in any city in North America, and culture, food, and film enlivening the weekends.
We, however, just kept eating. Sunday morning we hit Caplansky’s deli, which Ezra knew from its campus food truck. It was delicious: the smoked meat hash, the smoked salmon, the scrambled eggs with potato pancakes, all light on grease and served in manageable portions. We hope they consider becoming exporters since doggy bags aren’t allowed past customs.
The only consolation to leaving Ezra and his adoptive home was the cosseted Porter Airlines experience. The discount airline flies out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, on an island a short ferry ride from downtown and more convenient than the trek out to Air Canada’s exurban terminal.
Porter has a civilized lounge that resembles an upscale airport club. It offers Starbucks coffee served in ceramic cups, soft drinks, water, cookies, and almonds, all free and available in copious amounts. You can purchase delicious sandwiches and cold beers and hang out in comfortable seats with free Wi-Fi that actually works.
Once in the air, you get free snacks from crews that have that decidedly Canadian sensibility: competent and pleasant and no snarky remarks even for passengers who might favor the Boston Bruins.