Unique Dining and Live Music in Toronto
Toronto is fast becoming one of the world’s big culinary destinations and it’s varied music scene is undeniable. It’s now a melting pot of more than 6 million people, and while cultures have been intermingling over time, so now have their ingredients, which only goes to show what happens when so many cultures co-exist. It’s not uncommon to see Jamaican mixed with Italian flavors, alongside dim sum and French-inspired cuisine. A lot of restaurants refer to ‘comfort food,’ and it’s not just an American term, but refers to each nation’s version of what is familiar to them.
Recently, Toronto’s live music scene has taken a hit with a few more venues shutting down, which only adds to the attraction of seeking them out now. With a few days in Toronto, I had to be methodical about where to dine and live music venues to attend, but here are a few options to try the next time you are in town.
Three Hands – 1532 Dundas St West
As noted by Thrillist, Huffington Post Canada, and others as one of Toronto’s Best New Restaurants of 2016, the Three Hands serves up an eclectic mix of tasty Caribbean-infused comfort food, lite bites and wicked drinks. It’s really more of a bar with fusion dining options and live music.
Here you’ll find Jerk Octopus Salad, crunchy Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Death Mango Wings, Collard Green Poutine and my favorite, the Beet Salad, which is roasted beets, Arugula, Radish, placed on top of tangy whipped Goat’s Cheese sauce and topped with Fried Shallots and a Honey Vinaigrette. Yumminess at $9, so a steal!
The three Wilson siblings run the Three Hands and the lovely Taryn kept me company while I dined at the bar. Nibbles are available until 2a and it’s a great place for lunch, dinner and drinks with a variety of live entertainment depending on the night.
Evening Entertainment at the Three Hands – Jef Kearns – R&B/Soul Flute
That evening at the Three Hands, I had the chance to see local Toronto soul-flutist, Jef Kearns. As flute was my instrument growing up, I was quite intrigued to hear this guy play live. I was introduced to his music only six months ago and simply lucked out that he was playing when I was in town. His music is billed as a mix of R&B, Hip Hop and soul flute. Seriously? Who knew? Soul and Flute, or R&B and flute? Not likely. But once he started playing, it made me immediately want to pick up the flute again and start where I left off!
In doing some research on this guy, Kearns, as noted by Detroit Jazz Magazine, “makes the flute speak the urban language of soul” with a sound, “you normally don’t hear from flautists.” And Smooth Jazz Therapy said Kearns is, “dispelling the myth that flute players can’t do urban jazz.” In his own words, he says, “It is my mission to show people that flute can be just as soulful and down-and-dirty as sax.” And to be honest, this guy will thoroughly convince you of that when you hear him play. Be sure to go with a hot date, because as my friend Andrea said while listening to his music, ‘This is flute foreplay!’
His albums, On the Level, Soulfisticated and The Flute can all be downloaded here. His tune, “Hazy”, from The Flute, hit #1 Best Seller “Soul Jazz” and “Contemporary R&B” on Amazon with more than 100,000 downloads. Take a listen to the clips below that I shot and look out for future events. You won’t be disappointed. Ironically, I later discovered Taryn, behind the bar at the Three Hands, is the dancer in Kearns’ new video for N2U (In to You). Sweet! Entrance is free.
El Catrin Mexican Restaurant – 18 Tank House Lane
For a bit of, ‘South of the Border’, head to Toronto’s Distillery District where you will find El Catrin Mexican Restaurant. Living in Europe, I hadn’t had Mexican in years. And while this restaurant has received mixed reviews, I was quite impressed with the variety on the menu and the general atmosphere. You can enjoy small bites, big salads, Mexican eggs, house specialties, marinated fish, tacos, tortas and burritos.
This place has one of the best outdoor fire pits in town, which is out front on their enormous patio. It was a freezing day and while the fire was lit, no one dared to stand out in the elements – well, except for me. I’m a sucker for a fireplace and my Wisconsin blood could take it.
The interior is double height and the huge murals on the walls of smiling skulls and flowers are quite bizarre, but very colorful. The atmosphere is very airy with enormous Edison-lit chandeliers. The bar extends from floor to ceiling and they have a mezzanine upstairs for overflow. They serve up a healthy salted-rim margarita and I opted for a spicy veggie burrito with spinach, lettuce peppers, asparagus, plantain, rice and lime juice, and came with a tangy chili vinaigrette for dipping. It’s a great place to explore the shops, events and entertainment of the old Historic Distillery District.
The Drake Hotel – 1150 Queen St West
Dinner at The Drake appears to be THEE place to see and be seen. It’s set inside a modern, boutique hotel originally from the late 1800s, and it took the concierge 30 minutes to get a reservation. This place is always hopping. Always! In fact, I tried to book the hotel and there were no rooms for a 2-week period! And no wonder, it’s been listed numerous times in Fodor’s Top 100 Hotels Worldwide!
I invited a friend to come with and we scored a cushy booth where we could see everything going on around us. We started with Edamame with tea salt and lime for $8 ($6USD), and then dug into a large-portioned Mac + Cheese served with artichokes, mushrooms, hazelnuts, sage, nutmeg and cheddar cheese, for $24 ($18USD), then pigged-out on a Cauli Burger – Cauliflower with spicy cashew aioli, beets, radish and coriander. It was simply too much and there was more than enough for a doggy bag. You won’t go home hungry. Cauli was $19 ($14USD)
Evening Entertainment at the Drake Hotel
The Drake offers entertainment whether it be in the Lounge, the Sky Yard with a typical DJ or a live performance in the Underground. That evening in the Underground they had a mix of classic R&B, hip-hop/rap by three prominent Canadian performers called THE HUSTLE:EDITION 24 featuring TOBi, CHARMIE DELLER and RAMSAY ALMIGHTY. According to HipHopCanada, Tobi showed up #1 on the top 40 for up and coming Canadian rappers of 2016. Rap is not my usual genre unless is has a cool beat I can move to, and I selected this specifically because of TOBi’s rhythm. And according to The Record, “Ramsay Almighty has quickly made a name for himself as one of Canada’s most intriguing young hip hop talents.” It was quite a cool evening and well worth the wait for the act to start. The atmosphere is quite young, but don’t let that deter you. It’s best to book tickets for this online at £10, otherwise it’s $15 at the door.
C’est What – 67 Front St E
C’est What Brewpub & Restaurant: Come for the craft beer and stay for the fireplace and brilliant staff! What a fab locale, and if you weren’t paying attention you’d walk right by. This underground sprawl is best know for hosting Toronto’s Beer Week for more than 25 years, and offers 42 craft beers on tap. It boasts some of the best comfort food, wine and original music.
But it was the Poutine that got me. I had only heard of Poutine a few days earlier at the Three Hands and was a bit skeptical. But who knew the Canadians could take, what, for me, was a Wisconsin staple, cheese curds, and turn it into a dirty-sounding French word that you eat!
Cheese curds are actually very popular in Quebec, and what a treat this was. Poutine was born in Quebec in the 50’s and is considered national fast food. French fries are the base with a meat or vegetable gravy poured on top, then topped with cheese curds that get all melty, with a sprinkle of shallots or fried onions on top. Some add bacon, as if it isn’t calorific enough. Go on an empty stomach. This is heavy and was really glad I tried it. It was excellent and reasonably priced at $10CAD (USD?).
I arrived for lunch, and it was quiet. By the time I left there wasn’t a seat available. This is a great after-work hangout for downtown folks, and since the Canadians are so friendly, it was easy to make several new friends by the time I left.
The super-friendly bar staff seemed to know just when my glass needed refilling. Jovial ambiance and staff are A++ attentive. They have a pool room and offer live entertainment most night either free or on a ‘pay-what-you-can’ basis. Check out their lineup.
While I didn’t have enough evenings, there were a few other venues I wanted to check for more live music. They are: The Orbit Room – 580A College St with Rock, Jazz, Funk and Soul; The Handlebar – 159 Augusta Ave offering a wide variety almost every night; and The Piston – 937 Bloor St W offering a variety of Indie, Electronic, Disco and karaoke.
I will be sure to get to these next time.