Neighbourhood Watch: Toronto's Parkdale
Impervious to development, Parkdale is one of Toronto’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, where the down-and-out coexist with the upwardly mobile. Whether you want to pawn your watch or have a tiki party, this place has got it all
The relentless gentrification sweeping through Toronto’s west end has gobbled up Roncesvalles, West Queen West and Liberty Village as if they were complimentary bar snacks.
With a healthy street population of sidewalk smokers and other salty characters, Parkdale remains a stubborn outlier, shielding itself from the glare of condo glass and carrying on as usual. As a result, the area is a unique mix of grit and hipness, where you can cash a cheque at Money Mart and buy a barrel-aged Negroni without leaving the block.
Founded in the mid-1850s, Parkdale became an official village in 1879, then joined the city of Toronto a decade later. Its proximity to breezy Lake Ontario drew the city’s elite, who built large homes in the southern portion of the neighbourhood. Parkdale was a wealthy enclave until the mid-1950s, when 170 houses and the Sunnyside Amusement Park were demolished to make way for the Gardiner Expressway.
With Parkdale cut off from the lake, the rich took flight and their mansions were gradually converted into rooming houses. After an apartment building boom along Jameson Avenue in the 1960s, south Parkdale became a draw for low-income Torontonians and new immigrants to Canada, a pattern that continues to this day. These groups combined with millennial renters and middle-class families living north of Queen make Parkdale one of downtown’s most diverse neighbourhoods. For an instant, colourful snapshot of how and where a wide spectrum of Torontonians live, take the streetcar west from downtown and soak in the atmosphere.
Plan of attack
When visiting Parkdale, keep in mind it’s more of a nocturnal creature. But if you’re an early riser, catch up on email over superb coffee and warm croissants at The Tempered Room, a new French café-bakery that’s always packed. After breakfast, stroll any of the side streets running south of Queen Street West between Cowan and Beaty Avenues. Canopied by towering maple and chestnut trees, you’ll find many of Parkdale’s grand old mansions still standing, some close to their original glory, others faded with decades of neglect.
There are unique shopping opportunities in Parkdale, as Queen Street West is short on chain stores and long on vintage finds and local curiosities. Many can be found under one roof at the Toronto Design Market, which is housed in the former Parkdale Theatre. The new space is a beautifully curated designer bazar skewed towards hipster accessories: Think beard grooming kits, bow ties and “No Sleep Till Parkdale” T-shirts. If antiquing is your thing, spend an afternoon treasure hunting in the dusty shops that line Queen just east of Roncesvalles Avenue.
Even with the influx of new restaurants, dining in Parkdale has remained refreshingly affordable. The area is a hotbed for a beloved Toronto food, the roti. Historically, locals fiercely prefer either Bacchus or Ali’s, with more partisans in the former camp [and rightly so — ed.]. If you’d rather enjoy your roti in a state of Swiss-like neutrality, try Mother India, where the vegetarian options are strong. The saag kofta consists of potato and cheese dumplings in a thick spinach curry, contained inside the “roti,” or wrap. Warning: When Mother India says spicy, she means it.
For a slightly less gut-busting dumpling experience, how about some momos? The bulk of Toronto’s Tibetan community – a few thousand strong – live in Parkdale, and most of their restaurants can be found along Queen Street West. With a sizeable back patio and $6 pints, Tibet Kitchen is a great spot to learn about this mountain cuisine. Start with fat, juicy beef dumplings (known as momos) dipped in incendiary hot sauce, and don’t miss the dry chili chicken or vegetable chow mein.
For a taste of the twentysomething party side Parkdale, hit up either restaurant run by Ian McGrenaghan and Colin Tooke. Grand Electric is the spot for killer tacos, well-priced cocktails and deafeningly loud hip-hop. Electric Mud BBQ offers extraordinary ribs, ice-cold beer and deafeningly loud soul. Neither place takes reservations, so arrive early or be prepared to wait. If you’re dining solo, the long spacious bar at Parts and Labour is the perfect perch to watch the local peacocks preen and tuck into the neighbourhood’s best burger.
Parkdale is home to a disproportionate number of watering holes, from genuine dive bars patronized by the soused-and-out to faux dive bars filledwith drinkers who want to indulge their inner Bukowski without feeling like they’ll get their asses kicked. The Shameful Tiki Room, a Vancouver transplant, brings the tiki craze to Parkdale with its dark, Polynesian décor and well-made booze bombs such as the “rum barrel,” which is as intoxicating as it sounds. If you prefer libations without umbrellas in them, The Yukon pours classic cocktails and terrific local beers on tap.
How to get there
From downtown, the westbound 501 Queen and 504 King streetcars will take you to Parkdale – it’s not the shortest trip, but it’s scenic, especially on Queen. You could also walk, bike or rollerblade along the lakeside Martin Goodman trail and come up Jameson Avenue or the footbridge by the Palais Royale.