After 150 years of boom and bust, Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood is being redefined. Mary Novakovich takes to its bars and restaurants to discover what’s hot about the city’s hippest neighbourhood.
Things weren’t looking too promising when the taxi dropped us off on a dusty road with a railway on one side and grim-looking industrial units on the other. “We’ll take you out to the Junction,” my Toronto friends said. “It’s a cool place. Lots going on. Full of craft breweries. You’ll love it.” Possibly, but the initial signs weren’t good.
I lived in Toronto in the mid-1980s, when my flat was a good 5km east of the Junction yet still felt like the Wild West in the days when Queen Street West was the hub of the hip universe. Thirty years later, Toronto’s twentysomethings have been priced out of the centre and are discovering a new Wild West where the rents are much cheaper.
Only the Junction isn’t so new. And you could argue that it’s less wild now than it was in the nineteenth century. The Junction – named for the four railways that crossed into the neighbourhood – was a hive of industry back then, with a large number of taverns to keep the many railway and factory workers well watered.
Unfortunately, the taverns did too good a job: by 1904, residents had had enough of the debauchery on their doorstep and voted for a ban on the sale of alcohol. The district stayed dry until 2000. They’ve been making up for lost time ever since.
While the Junction has had its periods of boom and bust over the past century and a half – some really quite bleak – this is clearly boom time. Shops and small warehouses that had gone bust in low periods have now been taken over by juice bars, restaurants and cool cafés.
The industrial shock we faced on arrival was all forgiven within a few minutes of walking through the door of Junction Craft Brewing – part tap room, part shop and total brewery. It had all the hipster hallmarks you would expect from a small-scale yet busy craft brewery: industrial chic interior, chunky wooden tables, artfully arranged barrels and some really good beer in an agreeably laid-back atmosphere. If you can’t decide on which beer to choose, you can have a flight of four small glasses of whatever’s on tap. The Tracklayer’s Krolsch was particularly refreshing.
It was tempting to stay for a third round (the first two went down far too easily), or even pop next door to the Toronto Distillery Co for a taste of organic gins and whiskies. But the promise of Toronto’s best southern fried chicken was waiting for us. And more craft beer.
Within a few minutes we escaped the nondescript railway sidings and wandered down Keele Street to Dundas Street West, which was one long line of bars and restaurants – all of them buzzing. A Canadian friend told me how he grew up in this neighbourhood and still couldn’t quite believe how it became so trendy. It was such an ordinary-looking district, he said, and I couldn’t help but agree. Architecturally, its appeal wasn’t obvious, but the answer wasn’t long in coming.
On Dundas Street West we entered our second craft brewery of the evening, Indie Ale House. It was less rough and ready than Junction Craft Brewing, with warm exposed brick walls and a beer shop at the entrance. And the best southern fried chicken in Toronto? It really was, even if I couldn’t do justice to the gargantuan portion on my plate. And the accompanying glass of Iron Lady was considerably more palatable than its steely namesake.
Our next stop on the Junction line was 3030, a cavernous space that combines a bar with a restaurant and a music venue. A row of vintage pinball machines made one wall glow and flash and ping, and at the far back was a stage where a bearded DJ was setting up his computer.
The bar was championing Ontario craft beers, with offerings from Mill Street Brewery, Hogtown Brewers, Beau’s and, of course, its near neighbour Junction Craft Brewing. A pint of Beau’s Lug-Tread slipped down pleasantly, though I discovered later that Beau’s makes an ale that has possibly Canada’s best beer name: Beaver River IPEh?.
The menu carried the two words that usually make my heart sink: small plates. But from what I could see, 3030 was sensibly subverting the rip-off European version of this insidious trend by offering relatively big plates of food for small prices – about $5 (£2.60) a pop. That was more like it.
The whole area was shabby-chic central. Some of the interiors probably came from a shop like Smash (smash.to), a local showroom where salvaged furniture has been given a new lease of life in fun and innovative ways. Rather like the Junction itself, which has finally found itself on the right side of the tracks.
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