Neighbourhood Watch: Toronto's Leslieville
Hop on the 501 streetcar, get off at Carlaw, and experience the jewel of Toronto’s east end. With an Indian bazaar, numerous vintage shops, and one of best pizzas in town, Leslieville demands an all-day excursion.
From the number of fit moms pushing $1,000 strollers, it’s hard to believe Leslieville was a gritty working-class neighbourhood for most of its 160-odd-year existence. The east end enclave is named after one of its earliest employers, George Leslie, who ran Toronto Nurseries in the mid-19th century. The area was home to a number of industries over the years, from Dickensian brickyards and tanneries on Eastern Avenue, to an 11,892-square-metre Wrigley’s gum factory on Carlaw Avenue.
Once the smokestacks stopped spewing in the late nineties, Torontonians from all points began snapping up houses in the area at prices that would make today’s homebuyer weep with envy. Over the next decade and a half, gentrification converted factories to lofts, garages to cafés, and dive bars to gastro-pubs. While Leslieville still has a little dirt under its fingernails – most notably along Gerrard Street East – it’s primarily a middle-class neighbourhood of leafy streets, old houses and nuclear families.
The best way to experience the ’hood is at The Leslieville Farmers’ Market, which runs on Sundays from late May to the end of October at Jonathan Ashbridge Park. Live music, dozens of food stalls and a riotous splash pad create the vibe of a giant family picnic. It’s also a good starting point before heading to The Beaches for the afternoon. Another excellent weekend activity is the Leslieville Flea, which falls on the third Sunday of each month from June to October. Held on the grounds of the historic Ashbridge Estate, it offers a smart selection of vintage, up-cycled and handcrafted goods.
Speaking of weekends, brunch is a favourite Toronto pastime, and in Leslieville it’s practically a contact sport. A little off the beaten path, Maha’s is a ridiculously popular, family-run Egyptian restaurant and the most interesting brunch option in the east end. For a revelatory primer on Egyptian cuisine, you would do well to order the appetizer platter, and their “mind-blowing” chicken sandwich lives up to its name.
After brunch, head east and visit Little India, a bustling retail strip of South Asian businesses including paan vendors, sari shops and jewelers. If the wait at Maha’s is prohibitively long – as it often is – a masala dosa at Udupi Palace, a South Indian vegetarian joint, is a worthy consolation prize. And in July, tens of thousands of people descend on Little India for the Festival of South Asia, one of the city’s livelier summer events.
Queen Street East has always been the retail heart of Leslieville, and you could easily spend the day doing a long, lazy loop from Carlaw to Coxwell and back. Start with coffee at Te Aro, either on the patio with the moms and terriers, or inside with the freelancers. The strip is a paradise for all things previously owned, from a scruffy pawnshop to high-end boutiques. You could spend hours picking through the vinyl at Discovery Records and In the Groove, and if you’re into mid-century modern furnishings, make sure to visit Machine Age Modern and Zig Zag Collectables.
For lunch, Descendant Detroit Style Pizza is the new kid on the block knocking out pies so uniquely delicious that even the most parochial west-ender will wade through the Don River for a slice. The crust is focaccia-esque with a crispy bottom and an original line up of topping combinations – the spicy sausage and peppers with Tabasco ranch is killer. Think Pizza Hut only a million times better.
Rest your feet with a cold beverage at The Ceili Cottage, an Irish pub and oyster bar with a coveted sunny terrace. Or if you prefer boozier pre- or postprandial libations, saddle up to the bar at Hitch, a cosy watering hole named after legendary polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who was known to enjoy a stiff drink or 10.
Your best bet for dinner is at Ascari Enoteca, John Sinopoli and Erik Joyal’s corner trattoria, and a local favourite since 2011. Start with Tuscan-style chicken liver crostini, tuck into any of the pastas, and make sure to drink wine by the glass from an exceptional list. If you’re dining solo, the bar is a prime perch especially for thirsty oenophiles.
Leslieville is accessible from many points on the TTC. Any of the southbound busses from Pape, Donlands, Greenwood or Coxwell subway stations will get you there, as will an eastbound Carlton 506 streetcar from College station. The most scenic route is on the 501 car from Queen station, which rolls through some of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods.
Since it doesn’t have any major attractions on the Toronto checklist, Leslieville is not exactly a tourist magnet. However, to experience a unique slice of this diverse city, go east, my friend. Go east.