After my boyfriend and I visited Chicago for my birthday, we flew directly to Toronto for a couple more days of exploring. He has been there previously to visit his business partner, but it was my first time. Funny how two years in a row I went to Canada for my birthday? It is an amazing country! Banff or Vancouver next year? We'll see!
We flew via Porter Airlines, a regional airline headquartered at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Although our flight got canceled suddenly the morning we were supposed to take off due to poor weather conditions, they rebooked us automatically on the next flight, allowing us enough time to enjoy a sit-down breakfast at our Chicago hotel. It is a smaller plane with rows of 2 on each side and therefore no middle seats – yay! The rules were more strict that I've ever experienced – no headphones in during take off, landing or turbulence, and no laptops out during turbulence. However, they do have free beer & wine served in actual glasses!
Once we arrived to Toronto, it took us 30-45 minutes to land, circling in the air, because of continued poor weather conditions. The flight attendant even told us, "if you can't see a glimpse of the runway from your window, neither can the pilots." All I could see was the tip of the CN Tower! Once we did land, we exited into the little yet modern city airport. We hopped into an Uber outside and within 5 minutes were at our Airbnb. Because of the city airport's ease and convenience, I would recommend Porter Airlines for flights into Toronto, but perhaps shorter flights if the small space/strict rules bother you.
We stayed in a luxury high-rise building in the heart of Downtown Toronto, which was the perfect location for us given such a short trip. The view from the modern balcony had an unobstructed, beautiful view of the CN Tower and the apartment was very clean and comfortable.
Hungry upon arrival, our first stop was this modern yet cozy Eastern Mediterranean restaurant with a progressively designed space and convivial atmosphere. We ordered a few staters to share, which is one of my favorite ways of trying a more expensive restaurant without blowing my budget, especially when the portions were as properly generous as these. Plus, the American dollar was stronger than the Canadian dollar!
The lamb ribs are among their most popular dishes and were easily our favorite (and messiest to eat) with dukkah, buttermilk sauce, carob molasses and red chili schug. We also really enjoyed the fig salad with orange blossom dressing, ackawi cheese, kohlrabi and pistachio, and the tuna tartare with jalapeño dressing, radish, green schug, avocado and squid ink chips. Everything tasted very fresh and well-seasoned with interesting flavors and authentic spices.
Bar Hop Brewco
After dinner, we went to this craft beer bar that also has a full bar, specialty cocktails, food and live music. If I lived in Toronto or frequented the city, I'm sure it would be once of those places to fall back on time and time again for it's reliability, comfort and all around appeal.
Colette Grand Cafe
The next rainy morning, we made our way to the chicest and most delightful French bistro for what seemed like the most epic and too-good-to-be-true lunch buffet, or as they call it, salad bar. I fell in love the moment I walked in, staring at the most beautifully designed bar, only to turn the corner to see a luxurious buffet amidst tufted grey velvet couches, dark wood furnishings and blue & white accents. I may just design my future home after this restaurant. A charming French server greeted our table, "Mademoiselle and monsieur, please enjoy our wonderful buffet." SWOON. Now rid your mind of any previous buffet or "salad bar" you have been to. This one offers fresh seafood, fine cheeses, charcuterie, tartines, omelettes, pastries, fresh market salads, soups and more. Some examples of specific items I chose were the mini lobster roll, smoked salmon on Belgian endive, king crab legs, cheeses, prosciutto and olives. I wish I had more of an appetite, but I didn't mind because it cost only $25/person! Crazy to me considering most of the regular lunch entrees you could order a la carte were about the same amount for one plate. Before you book your trip to Toronto to dine here, I would like to note that we went at 11:30am on a weekday, and their Sunday brunch buffet is more than double the price. It was also just being put out as we arrived, so everything was fresh and not sitting out.
Historic Distillery District
This pedestrian-only district in the city is set in quaint 19th century buildings that once housed a large whiskey distillery. It's a nice place for locals and tourists to walk around, with plenty of boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. It was very quiet when we visited on a cold, gray day, but we enjoyed the stroll on the cobblestone streets before heading to the market. In December, the annual Christmas Market takes over the district, which I can only imagine would be beautiful!
St. Lawrence Market
This massive public market has over 100 vendors including bakers, butchers and artisans, as well as produce and antiques on the weekends. If we were staying in Toronto for longer, I would have loved to buy some fun groceries here to cook in the Airbnb. For example, they had a huge case of rare butchered meat (VEGETARIANS SCROLL FAST!)
After browsing the market, we walked towards a different neighborhood and stumbled upon the Gooderham building, also known as the Flatiron Building of Toronto.
After a lot of walking, we decided to take a break at this pub with a great list of Canadian craft beers.
It's a cozy yet spacious basement with two bars, pool tables, board games, a fireplace and plenty of seating. We sat at the bar and talked to the bartender, a true authentic Canadian, who was absolutely hilarious. You could tell she had been working there for years and years! She made great recommendations and gave us background on some of the craft beers we chose. They also serve comfort food, so it seemed like the appropriate time to try poutine for the first time! It was definitely not something I could eat a whole plate of and not get sick from, but as a snack it hit the spot. I'd recommend this spot to someone of any age and for any occasion, from an after work happy hour to a group celebration to a date. Like Bar Hop Brewco, it's somewhere you can always count on.
We were so comfortable hanging out at C'est What? but I had one more place on my must visit list. On our way to this final spot, we walked through Graffiti Alley.
This world renowned cocktail bar is one that would come up on Thrillist articles of the 10 craziest drinks, and I have since seen it mentioned multiple times. The name alone suggests this! While they have a full bar with over 5,000 house made bitters, syrups and infusions and regular cocktail menus, they are most known for their Modernist Menu, which aims to challenge all conventional notions of what a cocktail can be.
The whopping $25-$45 price tag per drink is insane to think about and definitely the most expensive drink I've ever ordered, but 100% worth it in my opinion. Two nice but more common cocktails anywhere else wouldn't provide nearly the same memorable experience that this does. The drinks are designed to provide you with a sensory one-of-a-kind experience and an epic picture (if you can get a good one in the dim lighting). The drinks do take time once ordered, as there is as much care put into them as a Michelin-star chef would for a dish.
I ordered the Spring Thaw ($30) – an effervescent, long style cocktail with candied floral notes that transition from sweet to try. It's ingredients were gin, chamomile syrup, sparkling wine, Campari, vanilla granita, basil, orange blossom, aromatics of winter thaw and spring lilac. The presentation was nothing short of incredible, with fresh flowers and moss surrounding the glass, and a smoke effect for added drama. Note, the Modernist menu changes each season.
I would save this place for special occasions and intimate groups. I would go early because it's not a big place. If I went back to Toronto, I would go here again. If I visited the city frequently, probably not realistic!
Rodney Oyster House
After discovering some amazing places throughout the day, we decided to be spontaneous with our last meal in the city. We ended up at this longtime, casual seafood eatery specializing in oysters and seasonal seafood dishes. We started with a delicious Bahamian chowder and welcomed it's warmth on a cold night. We also ordered a dozen assorted Canadian oysters recommended to us by our server, and loved them all! What they offered that I've never seen before is a rotating plate of their own toppings from mild to hot. There were interesting vinegars, cocktail sauces and spices that really enhanced the oysters. Overall, we were very happy with this choice from the friendly service to great seafood.
Like Chicago, I think we would have a completely different experience visiting Toronto in the warmer, sunny months. I wish we would have had more time to explore, but we were so excited by the spectacular places we did find. Until next time!