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Neighbourhood Watch: Toronto's Kensington Market

Even during a wave of mild gentrification, a stroll through Kensington remains a journey through the colourful, bohemian side of Toronto's history (and a bargain shopper's playground)

Kensington Market has gone through many changes in its 130-year history, but for as long as anyone can remember it has been a place where people come to eat, drink, shop and mingle. Its resistance to chain stores and multi-cultural spirit make it one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Toronto (see more in the photo gallery above).

During the first half of the 20th century it was known as the Jewish Market, but as its residents began to migrate north in the ’40s, the kosher butchers, creameries and delicatessens soon followed. While there are almost no Jewish businesses left, two active synagogues remain. Completed in 1927 by Ukrainian immigrants, the Kiever Shul stands proud across from Bellevue Square Park, and on St. Andrew Street, the Anshei Minsk, built in 1930, is a modest example of Byzantine Revival architecture.

The next wave of immigrants came from the Azores in the ’50s, and their influence can still be felt along Baldwin Street, where the salty fishmongers are out in force on Pedestrian Sundays grilling sardines over charcoal. You can find hearty Portuguese cooking at Amadeu’s, which excels at classics like pork and clams, and salt cod hash. Its prime corner terrace and cheap wine list also make it a popular spot with thirsty shoppers on warm (and even not so warm) days.

Speaking of day drinking, there are few notable watering holes with coveted patios. For pints and teeth-rattling rock n’ roll there’s the legendary Ronnie’s Local 069. And hidden down a hallway is Cold Tea Bar,where on Sundays starting at 3pm, some of the city’s best chefs hold pop-ups serving extraordinary bar food. Check out @coldteabar for details.

If caffeine is your drug of choice, the Market has the densest congregation of coffee shops in the city, and most of them are quite good. The latest is Fika, a Swedish-themed café, where you can nibble on a gingersnap with an excellent espresso in a room that smells like Christmas.

Two of the most popular lunch spots are right next to each other on Kensington Avenue. The SoCal tacos and ceviches at Seven Lives Tacos draw huge line-ups, and at the bifurcated take-out joint Rasta Pasta, hit up the door on the right for spicy, smoky jerk chicken served with red beans and rice, and creamy slaw. At $6, it’s the best lunch deal in town. For a less harried dining experience, walk around the corner to King’s Café, an uncommonly spacious restaurant for the ’hood that specializes in Asian vegetarian – get the C78 combination with nori-crusted fried tofu, a house specialty.

While the majority of shops cater to people replenishing their fridges and cupboards, there are many points of interest for travelers. Arguably the best bread in the city can be found at Simon Blackwell’s Blackbird Baking Co.,a relative newcomer to the block. These are serious loaves: crackling of crust, sturdy of crumb and made from organic flour that was milled only days ago. House of Spice is a local landmark with great prices on a staggering array of dry goods including hard-to-find items like exotic dried chilies and rosewater. The aptly named Emporium Latino stocks everything from the Latin American pantry, and in the back, women cheerfully pat out delicious pupusas, the beloved stuffed tortillas from El Salvador.

Beautifully curated by owner Mika Bareket, Good Egg is a first-class cookbook store, which also carries all manner of kitchen curiosities and those irresistible culinary journals like Fool and Lucky Peach.The recently opened ½ oz. Cocktail Emporium has everything for the budding mixologist including most of the strange new bitters and stunning barware from Japan.

The Market is not only about food and drink. Its close proximity to the Fashion District (which is very fashionable, but has little to do with textiles anymore) has made it popular with clothiers. You can get outfitted in work wear, army surplus and business attire all within a minute’s walk, and vintage clothing junkies can spend days panning for gold at the shops on lower Kensington Avenue.

Kensington Market is just a short cab ride from the downtown core, and it’s bordered on all sides by streetcar routes – 506 on College Street, 505 on Dundas Street West, 511 on Bathurst Street, and the right-of-way 510 on Spadina Avenue, which features the sleek, next generation of streetcars.

Since most of the businesses are shuttered after dark, the area has little pull at night, especially since its less savoury denizens, both two-legged and four-, are often seen skittering about. But during the day, the sights, smells and hustle of Kensington Market are irresistible.

Published Monday, November 23rd 2015

Header image credit: Adam McDowell/Billy

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