Toronto the Fun

Toronto skyline facing south from BloorI’ve previously described my complicated feelings about my adopted hometown, and one need only take a peek at the comments to this post reporting Toronto’s Economist livability ranking to know I’m not the only one with feelings like this. For whatever reason, when you live somewhere for too long, it’s all too easy to see the negative. Hell, even our new mayor thinks the city is “uptight.” Whenever I find myself mired in complaints about city council, the TTC, or even the weather, I know it’s time to give Toronto another look. There are many reasons to visit or to live here; you just have to be willing to see them. A few weekends ago offered just such an occasion: the chance to see Toronto with fresh eyes, to play the tourist in my own city. I spent two days experiencing new-to-me delights, and the result? I feel invigorated and happier to be home.

Spirit House's extensive collection of whiskies and spirits.On Saturday, before heading to The Unplugging, my first show at The Factory Theatre, I meet a friend at Spirit House, a chic cocktail bar located somewhat off the beaten path at Adelaide and Portland. The decor is sleek and modern, with a hipster twist, and the liquor selection is impressive. A three-tiered shelving unit runs the length of the wall behind the bar, and still more bottles of bitters and gins, whiskies, amaros, and more are lined up at least three deep on an island. The whisky selection is quite good, even if some selections are overpriced (a dram of Alberta Premium shouldn’t cost more than $10 when you can buy a 200 mL bottle for $7.90), but that’s a small complaint. This is the kind of place you visit when you want to spoil yourself, and spoil myself I do!

The Jetsetter tasting flight at Toronto's Spirit HouseIn keeping with my mission for the weekend, I decide to try a few new-to-me whiskies, settling on The Jetsetter flight featuring expressions from three emerging international whisky powerhouses in India, Sweden, and Japan. I had wanted to try Amrut Fusion for a while, and my first tastes do not disappoint. It’s a rich and jammy whisky, with subtle spice and smoke — the kind of dram that unfolds with each sip and rewards repeated tastings. This single ounce didn’t last nearly as long as I’d like! The Mackmyra First Edition is drier and a little spicier than the Amrut and reminds me — in spite of its 100% barley mash bill — of a few Canadian ryes. It must be those Swedish oak casks, to which the distillery credits the spiciness. Subbing in for the menu-listed Nikka Yoichi 10 Year Old is the Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Old, an elegant, subtle whisky. I need more time with this one, but I don’t think I’ll get it. Rumour has it it’s been discontinued.

Balancing out a rather high-brow Saturday is a more populist Sunday, which starts with my first experience with Toronto ComiCon — or with any ComiCon, for that matter — and “experience” is certainly the word for it. Though I joke that I’m attending to see Shannen Doherty, I’m really going to keep my favourite fanboy company. Contrary to what you might suspect after reviewing my husband’s book and DVD collections, he’s a ComiCon neophyte himself, and nothing makes a new experience less scary than the presence of someone you love. What I quickly discover that Sunday, though, is that company doesn’t always make things less overwhelming. The south hall of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre is packed with vendors and all manner of costumed fanboys and fangirls, seemingly unaware how their wingspans and backpacks choke the narrow aisles. There is much to see, but between the weaving and dodging, we see only a small fraction of it. This isn’t to say that I had a miserable time and wouldn’t go back, but that I’ll return better prepared, having charted my route through the exhibitors in advance. Eager to leave the crowds behind, we soon decamp in search of lunch.

The bright sun of early spring is cutting through the bite of the wind, and there’s more than enough breathing room on Adelaide, which more or less empties out on weekends after the sun rises. With the popularity of brunch in Toronto, we think the better of trying to get a table at Fresh on Spadina, but I want to try our luck at Sadie’s Diner, a vegetarian place I’ve eaten at only once. It’s after 1 pm, after all. In Toronto on a Sunday, though, 1 pm is not late enough to miss the brunch crowds. The line for a table at Sadie’s stretches to the door, and a crowd of four or six bunches just outside. We can’t tell if this is coming or going. So much for lunch at Sadie’s. We walk on, weighing the options along our planned walk home, when my husband remembers a spot he’s long wanted to visit: WVRST, a German-style beer hall — or “sausage hall,” as their website asserts — specializing in sausages, fries, and, you guessed it: beer.

When we arrived, it’s quiet but inviting, the varnished blonde wood of communal tables gleaming amber in the muted light of what must be a hundred low-watt incandescent bulbs. It’s the peaceful polar opposite of Sadie’s or Fresh on a Sunday afternoon, and while I instantly find it a balm after ComicCon, I can’t help envisioning the space as it must surely be at night: lively and loud and packed with earnestly chattering Torontonians.

WVRST's vegan black bean sausage with sauerkraut, sauteed sweet onions, and a side of vegetarian dirty friesWe make our way to the counter to order, and I’m pleased to see it’s as my husband said: WVRST sells two kinds of vegan sausages and another vegetarian option. I order the black bean sausage with sauerkraut, sautéed sweet onions, and a side of vegetarian dirty fries –fries covered in tender-crisp sweet red and green peppers, sautéed sweet onions, and WVRST’s own sauce — to share. My husband orders the very non-vegan kangaroo sausage — perhaps out of mischief, perhaps out of genuine desire to taste something that seems so exotic. The beer list is extensively and we’re woefully unprepared when asked what we’d like to drink, but we spot an old standard — Brooklyn — and hastily order two before paying and claiming a table near the kitchen.

The food takes a little longer to arrive than we expect, but when it does, it’s excellent and the portions are hearty. Almost too hearty for a late lunch, but this — like the total price of the meal — is a small complaint. WVRST’s strengths — the ambiance, the variety and quality of food, the frequently cleaned draught lines — more than compensate, and I’ll be back.

Toronto is anything but boring, if you want it to be, and after weekends like this one, I’m glad to call it home.

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