A Montrealer’s Guide to Toronto
After two years in Toronto, one Montrealer shares the haunts that make his new city feel like home.
As a kid, my parents took our family on regular road trips to Toronto. They’d pack me and my two siblings in the car and head to Greektown to visit relatives – back when the Danforth was still a vibrant immigrant cultural destination. Little did I know at the time, those treks from Montreal to Toronto laid the foundation for my move from La Belle Province to Canada’s largest metropolis.
Upon arriving in Toronto as a university student in late 2013, my first stop was Greektown. Having my own ethnic enclave, however watered down, was a source of much-needed comfort during my transition. If not for this familiarity, moving to Toronto would have some with quite the culture shock.
Those first few months were filled with longing for my hometown hangouts; entire Sundays spent watching football and quietly laughing at self-proclaimed meathead masters of the universe at Cafe Olimpico, or reading a novel over one too many 6.5% stouts at a dimly lit Dieu du Ciel. Despite growing up in an ethnic, mostly English speaking household, the absence of French-speakers in my new home, while expected, took some getting used to.
But it wasn’t just the language, nor the nostalgia; it was the fundamental cultural differences between the two cities: the lack of urgency in the denizens of this supposed metropolis; the 2am last calls; the dearth of decades-old, septuagenarian-Italian-man-behind-the-counter pizzerias. I quickly learned a night out is enough to send a student/part-time waiter to the poorhouse. And then there was the common experience of being labeled a “Frenchie,” which quickly led to resentment.
Luckily enough, after two-plus years, I’ve found a Toronto equivalent for most of my old haunts, and being signalled out for my proficiency in French has become a source of pride. The metropolis has grown on me and while bohemian Montreal will always be home, I can’t spend more than two days in my hometown without itching to run back to the Dot. So, what’s won me over? Here are some of the key places I’ve found that feel most like home, and some of the new experiences that have made my adopted city feel like my own.
Courtesy Bar Volo
About Beer: How to Get Your Brew On Like a Montrealer
Let’s start with beer, a key ingredient to Montreal life. We can nitpick all we want about who did it first, but – apologies to Toronto – can’t nobody mess with Montreal’s craft brew game. Call it nostalgic bias, but Dieu du Ciel’s and Dunham’s oat sodas remain a cut above the Beau’s and the Muskokas. Unfortunately, aside from bottled Dieu du Ciel at Kensington Market’s Cafe Pamenar or the occasional guest tap at Bar Volo downtown, Quebec transplants may be saddened by the lack of micro-brews they’re used to. That being said, even the staunchest of purists can drown their sorrows in Toronto’s bevy of craft beers in just about every bar in town. Word to the wise, Quebecers: Toronto’s nightlife packs it in an hour earlier than we do. Plan your debauchery accordingly.
About My New Hobby: Vinyl is Back, and it’s Here to Stay
Few, if any cities serve as a stronger indicator of vinyl’s second coming than Toronto. In the last couple of years, after over 35 of them on Queen Street, Kops Records launched a second and third location in The Annex and Danforth East, respectively. Collectors can now spend a whole afternoon digging at Loon, Soundscapes and June Records without ever having to leave College Street. Voracious readers can get a book and a record at Circus on the east side and Zoinks! on the west. Spadina Avenue’s Play De Record even offers DJing classes. In other words, as painful as it may be at first (yes, the rivalry is alive and well, and transcends the game of hockey), Montreal ex-pats will rejoice in a revived vinyl culture that’s steadily outgrown the hometown’s in the last handful of years.
Courtesy Electric Mud
About Eating: Narrowing Down a Defining Food
Whether justly or not, most major “food cities” are defined by a handful of munchies at most. Montreal conjures smoked meat, bagels and poutine, New York pizza, deli fare and doughy, overhyped bagels (St.-Viateur sesame with cream cheese forever!). Toronto, on the other hand, has yet to narrow down its own culinary identity, but living here while it does is undeniably rewarding. For years, relatives visiting from Toronto would marvel at Montreal’s gastronomy. Toronto is now making up for lost time, with standard Italian, Greek and Portuguese cuisines taking a backseat to tapas (Bar Raval), BBQ (Electric Mud) and most anything else on the spectrum. While Montreal boasts mainstays like Joe Beef, Garde-Manger and Toqué!, Toronto’s newest “hypebeast” additions are hit or miss, which is to be expected until it works out its culinary kinks. Long story short, the hometown has the Dot beat...for now.
Courtesy The Rex
About Culture: Metropolitan Bohemia
A huge part of Montreal’s charm is that it wears its bohemia on its sleeve. In Toronto, a walk past Dundas Square may prompt you to think of it as little more than an American wannabe, but rest assured, the city has plenty of bohemian pockets. Beyond the litany of condos and cranes lies a cultural underbelly sure to provide some much needed relief for newcomers, art snobs and homesick hipsters alike. Whatever your thing is, be it fashion, art or live music, Queen West alone has enough spots to make for a smooth transition to the 416. Head to The Horseshoe Tavern or The Rex for live jazz any day of the week. Venture a little further west for art galleries and boutiques. College Street boasts some solid music venues of its own, including The MOD Club and Revival. If you’re the dinner-and-a-play type, stick to the downtown core, especially King West’s Theatre District. Montreal may be known as the artsy capital of the nation, but Toronto has plenty of equivalents to hipster live music meccas like Casa del Popolo and Le Divan Orange.
About the View
This one’s a tossup. Every Montrealer has been to the top of Mont-Royal and taken in the citywide view at least a couple of times, but Toronto locals tend to take their landmarks for granted. Of course, there is always the sweeping vista from the CN tower, but a great view need not come with an admission charge. Head to Broadview just north of Gerrard, get a cup of joe at Rooster Coffee House and have a seat at Riverdale Park across the street. The Don Valley dips before you, making the skyline look like it belongs to another city altogether, striking a visual balance between urbanity and greenery, whereas the view from Mont-Royal summit, oddly enough, conjures a covert metropolis.