On the Radar: Ossington, Toronto

Nicknamed ‘The land of Oz’, the stretch of Ossington Avenue that runs between Dundas Street West in the north and Queen Street West in the south, wasn’t considered much of a destination a few years ago.

Not that Oz was particularly unsavoury - it just didn’t have much to offer the intrepid traveller. It lacked the Victorian charm of Cabbagetown, the glam of Yorkville, and the pomp and circumstance of The Distillery District. But when the financial crisis forced artists and artisans to find cheaper spaces in which to live and work, they took up residence in the old biker joints and karaoke lounges that had long defined Ossington.

“There were more auto garages than art galleries here when we moved in,” says longtime local and famed tattoo artist Ronan Gibney of Imperial Tattoo. “Oz has a laid-back vibe. It has a reputation as a place where eccentric types work and play, but it’s also one of the few places in town where you can come and hang out without having to cut through the pretence in the air with a knife.”

Stay

While Toronto’s downtown is known for fine five-star spaces, Queen Street West has cornered the market when it comes to distinctly Canadian boutique experiences.

The Drake Hotel, a microcosm of all things chic, features 19 whimsical rooms, ever-changing art exhibitions and award-winning cocktails at its rooftop Sky Yard bar. Nearby, the Gladstone Hotel, housed in an 1889 Victorian masterpiece, is the epicentre of Toronto’s indie-art scene.

Each of the hotel’s 37 rooms was designed by a different local artist and reflects the contemporary Canadian cultural scene. Chef Michael Smith ensures the Melody Bar remains one of the city’s unforgettable drink-and-dine destinations.

Eat

Coffee lovers should start their day at Crafted by Te Aro. The converted garage is bright and inviting, with plenty of space to sit with the morning paper and scarf a buttery scone. The staff preps coffee every way you can imagine - get on the waiting list for the cold-drip coffee, a drink that takes more than six hours to reach your morning mug.

For lunch, Rua Vang Golden Turtle restaurant does a brilliant interpretation of a Hanoi hawker stall (crowds and all), dishing up healthy Vietnamese pho. The satay pho and bánh xèo pancakes are local favourites. Don’t be surprised if you’re hustled out the door with a fistful of spring rolls to make room for a Canadian celeb.

For dinner, enjoy Fishbar’s tapas-style menu, executed with clever precision - have one mouthful of the rich lobster macaroni and cheese, and you will feel like a spoilt little kid.

Singaporean street-food roots and a rather upmarket application define Hawker Bar. Origami wallpaper, fish-sauce tins and menus painstakingly handwritten on cardboard add to the ambiance, while the laksa lemak and fried sea bream round out a deceptively simple menu.

Drink

A ruby-brown Trappist-style dubbel on the Bellwoods Brewery patio is the perfect sundown companion, while the wicked gals at Sweaty Betty’s down the road serve up the city’s most spirited cocktails as the jukebox spins all night long.

The Dakota Tavern does double duty as a subterranean saloon as well as the city’s best live country-music venue, and features more guns and mounted skulls than John Wayne’s smoking room.

See and Shop

Ossington is something of a Holy Grail for art collectors and treasure hunters, with numerous consignment shops, high-end galleries and clothing boutiques.

Don’t Tell Mama pays homage to Toronto’s love-hate relationship with street art (even mayor Rob Ford was the subject of a 2012 exhibition). Emporium by I Miss You is home to real vintage treasures and not just salvaged items from Value Village Thrift Stores (there’s a difference).

Angell Gallery has been an art-scene staple for almost 17 years as a platform for upcoming Canadian visual artists, while AWOL Gallery has been a force for the indie artist since 1999, having hosted more than 100 exhibitions featuring the works of Dale Thompson, Edmund Law, Sandra Tarantino and more.

Experience

A fitness club doesn’t usually make a traveller’s itinerary, but not all clubs are created equal. The Academy of Lions is home to a cross-fit dungeon, an espresso bar, and a street-facing lounge and library, making it the perfect place to work and then relax your muscles after exploring the land of Oz.

Words by Flash Parker - Published in Voyeur April 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 2.6 million
Area 630 km²
Time Zone GMT -5
Languages English, French
Currency Canadian Dollar ($CAD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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