Hitting the Hip Dining and Music Scene in Toronto
Toronto is fast becoming one of the world’s biggest 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.
Toronto’s live music scene has taken a hit with many music venues shutting down, which is sad. I only had a few days in Toronto, so I needed to be methodical about where to dine and where to catch live music. The venues below are where I started, but it’s not just the unique food, there are some of the most amazing desserts in Toronto to try as well.
1532 Dundas St West
Thrillist, Huffington Post Canada, and others tagged this 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.
They serve Jerk Octopus Salad, crunchy Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Death Mango Wings and Collard Green Poutine. My favorite is the Beet Salad. It has roasted beets, Arugula, Radish, a 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 sister Taryn kept me company while I dined at the bar. Nibbles are available until 2a. It’s a great place for lunch, dinner and drinks with a variety of live entertainment depending on the night.
Music at the Three Hands – Jef Kearns – R&B/Soul Flute
That evening, 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.
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. I later discovered Taryn is the dancer in Kearns’ new video for N2U (In to You). Sweet! Entrance is free.
18 Tank House Lane
For a bit of, ‘South of the Border’, head to Toronto’s Distillery District. El Catrin Mexican Restaurant is there with great Mexican fare. I hadn’t had Mexican in years and this wasn’t too bad. 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. It was freezing that 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. 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. Plus, they serve up a healthy salted-rim margarita. I opted for a spicy veggie burrito with spinach, lettuce peppers, asparagus, plantain, rice and lime juice. It came with a tangy chili vinaigrette for dipping. Very tasty. While you are there, explore the shops, events and entertainment of the old Historic Distillery District.
1150 Queen St West
Dinner at The Drake appears to be THEE place to see and be seen. It’s set inside a quaint, boutique hotel originally from the late 1800s. 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). Then dug into a large-portioned Mac + Cheese served with artichokes, mushrooms, hazelnuts, sage, nutmeg and cheddar cheese, for $24 ($18USD). We went on to have 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. 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. I selected this specifically because of TOBi’s rhythm.
The Record said, “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.
67 Front St E
C’est What is a 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. It’s been going on for more than 25 years, and they have 42 craft beers on tap. They have some of the best comfort food, wine and original music in town.
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 cheese curds and turn it into a dirty-sounding French word that you eat!
Cheese curds are actually very popular in Quebec, and this was a treat. Poutine began in Quebec in the 50’s and is their national fast food. French fries are the base and a meat or vegetable gravy is poured on top. The cheese curds go on top and they get all melty. Top it off with a sprinkle of shallots or fried onions. 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 only $7.50.
I came 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 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.
There is always next time.