Neighbourhood Watch: Toronto’s Yorkville
From a sleepy Upper Canada hamlet to one of Canada’s ritziest neighbourhoods, Yorkville offers luxury shopping, five-star accommodations, and the best celeb-spotting in town.
Stand in front of Fire Station 312 at 34 Yorkville Avenue and experience a striking dichotomy of past and present. Built in 1878, the handsome Victorian building is one of the oldest active fire halls in the city. Above the front door is the coat of arms salvaged from Yorkville’s original Town Hall, which served the village before it was annexed by Toronto in 1883. Now turn your head to the left and take in the glass and steel of the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences, where the 9,038-square-foot, 55th-floor penthouse suite sold in 2011 for $28 million. Welcome to Yorkville, baby!
Founded in 1830 by Joseph Bloore and William Botsford Jarvis, Yorkville started out as a residential suburb. Its two main employers were Bloore’s brewery and a bustling brickyard (where Ramsden Park is today), which supplied yellow bricks used to build a number of city landmarks including St. James Cathedral.
Not much happened in the area until the '60s, when, like New York’s Greenwich Village, it became the epicentre for the city’s bohemian culture and hippie movement. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot all performed regularly at venues like The Purple Onion and the Riverboat, and numerous coffee houses drew local literary figures including Margaret Attwood and Dennis Lee.
By the '70s, the Bloor-Danforth subway drove up land prices and slowly attracted high-end retailers. Once the city’s first condo boom happened here in the '80s, Yorkville was well on its way to becoming the elite enclave of today.
Located at the intersection of Toronto’s two biggest thoroughfares – one of them named after the terrifying Mr. Bloore – Yorkville is primarily a shopping district. The stretch of Bloor Street West from Yonge Street to Avenue Road is known as the Mink Mile, and it’s one of the most expensive retail strips in North America. It does, however, have options for every budget, from Winners all the way up to Prada, though more are in the latter camp. For a local shopping experience, take in the dazzling window displays Holt Renfrew, Canada’s premier high-end retailer, and for men, check out the flagship location of Harry Rosen, who’s been outfitting dapper gents since 1954. If art is on your shopping list, the area is home to numerous small, independent galleries, which can easily be browsed one big crawl.
Despite its wealthy denizens, Yorkville has never been a major dining destination. That’s quickly changing with some delicious additions to the 'hood. Located on the second floor of the Four Seasons, Café Boulud serves upmarket French fare backed by a razor-sharp wine program and first-class service. (Its grapefruit givré is arguably the best dessert in town.) On the ground floor of the neighbouring condominium tower is the equally excellent Buca Yorkville, an innovative Italian seafood restaurant that is currently ranked number two on Canada’s 100 Best.
Slightly easier on the wallet is Chabrol, a new bistro from chef Doug Penfold, who also co-owns Cava, a terrific midtown tapas joint. Saddle up to the bar, order the cured trout tartine, and linger with a glass of Sancerre. The Lilliputian space will be soon be supplemented by a svelte patio. One of the best lunch options is dim sum at Dynasty. Round up a posse and make sure to get the mushroom and snow pea leaf dumplings and pan-fried turnip cakes in XO sauce. It’s a madhouse on weekends, so book ahead.
The area is home to a number of notable watering holes. The Roof Lounge at the top of the Park Hyatt hotel is famous for its veteran barmen and stunning views. The cocktails don’t quite live up to their egregious price tags, though they do come with “gratis” salty snacks. At the Four Seasons, chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group also runs the swanky d bar, where on Monday nights, $35 gets you glass of wine and a trip to a buffet of extraordinary Gallic charcuterie made in-house by Thomas Margerie. If beer is your drink of choice, head to The Oxley for a smart selection of local craft brews and cask-conditioned ales.
In addition to the fire station, there are many architectural attractions in the neighbourhood. Constructed in 1907 from a Carnegie grant, the Yorkville branch is the oldest building of the Toronto Public Library. On the other side of Yonge Street is the Raymond Moriyama-designed Toronto Reference Library. Built in 1977 and renovated in 2008, it may not look like much from the outside, but the curvy five-story atrium is breathtaking. For a taste of olde Yorkville, stroll up Hazelton Avenue, a mostly residential stretch of well preserved Victorian homes.
Due to Toronto’s increasingly chaotic traffic, the best way to get to Yorkville is by subway, which has three stations in the area: Yonge, Bay and Museum. If you find yourself laden with shopping bags, the streets are swarming with cabs.
While Yorkville caters more to the one percent, there is something for everyone in here. Whether you’re an architecture buff looking for Instagram material or a Russian oligarch running low on $1,000 t-shirts, it’s must-stop for any visitor to Toronto.