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Neighbourhood Watch: Toronto’s Roncesvalles

Despite relentless gentrification and skyrocketing housing prices, Roncevalles – better known as Roncy – hasn’t been completely scrubbed of its old-school appeal. Among the new restaurants, boutiques and dog groomers on its namesake avenue and retail heart, you can still find dusty travel agents, sun-bleached beauty parlours, and a classic greasy spoon with a (barely) flashing sign.

The neighbourhood became the home to Toronto’s Polish community following the Second World War, and while that influence has waned over the years, it still hosts the annual Roncesvalles Polish Festival (Sept. 19 and 20), which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to its vodka gardens and polka parties. You can dine well at Café Polonez, one of three remaining Polish restaurants, where you should order the clear borscht with mushroom pierogies and, if you haven’t eaten in a week, the Frisbee-size potato pancake stuffed with goulash. Benna’s Bakery & Deli is the best of the Eastern European delicatessens, and close by is Super Kolbasa for smoked meats, babcia-style salads and pączki, killer doughnuts that are yeast-raised, sugar-glazed and stuffed with prune jam. It’s a great place to pack an impromptu picnic and traverse one of the leafy side streets over to Sorauren Park, a relatively new space built on the former grounds of a TTC bus garage.

Roncevalles Avenue is a well-caffeinated strip with a multitude of cafés catering to stay-at-home parents and underemployed freelancers. If you’re looking for precise barista coffee and a quiet spot to work, hit up Lit Espresso Bar. If you’re into homey baked goods and hanging with the locals, Cherry Bomb Coffee is the place to be.

For shopping, there are a few small, independent stores worth checking out. For more than 50 years, the Old Country Shop has been selling a wide range of European knickknacks and treats including hand-painted Matryoshka stacking dolls, ornate beer steins and hard-to-find confections. For bibliophiles and vinyl junkies, She Said Boom! offers a concise selection of used books – it’s strong on literature, pop culture and music – and its stacks of new and used LPs always yield a few gems. If you head south to Queen Street West and hang a left, there are a number of excellent antique shops on both sides of the street.

Since most residents have 2.4 kids and Grecian mortgages, there isn’t much nightlife here. There are, however, a few nocturnal points of interest. For film buffs, the Revue Cinema, which opened in 1912 and has operated almost continually since, is currently managed as a not-for-profit by the Revue Film Society and screens everything from Hollywood blockbusters on their last runs, to silent films, to kids classics like E.T.

Next door to the theatre is The Local, a real neighbourhood joint with a solid selection of suds on tap and live music bellowing from its Lilliputian stage. For dinner, heed the call of Hopgood’s Foodliner’s red neon sign. Run by a Nova Scotian transplant, it’s one of the best seafood restaurants in the city. Tuck into freshly shucked oysters, chilled snow crab and some damn fine fried chicken, if fish isn’t your jam.

Roncy is a just short stroll south from Dundas West subway station, and it’s on the no. 504 streetcar route that runs along King Street West. From the downtown core, it’s about 15 minutes in a cab. But hurry, while the neighbourhood still has the last vestiges of its Old World charm.

Published Friday, August 21st 2015

Header image credit: Adam McDowell/Billy

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