Mike MacEacheran | Good Times in Toronto, South China Morning Post
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Good Times in Toronto, South China Morning Post

Toronto the Good: that’s what the Victorians used to call Canada’s largest city. Back in the 19th century, it was a bastion of morality, where keeping up appearances was crucial and boarding houses were strictly shut at ten o’clock to prevent any untoward behavior on the streets. How times change.

The city is no longer the strait-laced goody-goody it once was. It has developed a seductive cultural underbelly of cutting-edge shops, galleries, restaurants and bars, and with a growing creative community hell bent on having as much fun as possible, that’s a rule that applies 24 hours a day. Today, it’s not so much good, as good times.

I have come to the city to put this theory to the test. It is early October, a season that seems best suited to Canada, and the colours and autumnal hues on the tree-lined streets of Yorkville are vibrant. The streets too are buzzing with life – the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has just finished, George Clooney has left Bloor Street West and The Hazelton Hotel behind, and the weekend is within touching distance. Joining the Friday crowds, my plans are to spend 24 hours in the company of those who know the city best.

My first appointment is with local celebrity and director of Insider Shopping Toronto, Barbara Captijn, the city’s premiere personal shopper. Like a cross between Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker and a more sophisticated, leather-trouser wrapped Martha Stewart, she knows Toronto’s boutiques better than anyone with a new credit card.

“We have such a great diversity of local clothing and jewellery designers and so many different pockets of shopping,” she purrs. “There’s chic Yorkville, funky Queen West, then the financial district.” She list off Hugo Nicholson’s boutique for red-carpet cocktail and evening wear; David’s for the best selection of up-market shoes, bags and boots; and George C. a small cozy boutique for hot fashions.” It is a world away from what Canada is more famous for – red and black checked lumberjack shirts and goose-down winter jackets.

With a relatively weak Canadian dollar, Toronto’s boutiques are literally dripping with dresses, bag and heels that shoppers won’t find anywhere else outside North America. It’s also rich pickings for those seeking to unearth new designers before they become mass market. In each boutique, Barbara introduces me to a young crowd of hip designers, red-beret wearing models and creative fashion graduates. Each one has more style in their pinkie finger than I could muster from my entire wardrobe.

My next stop is to meet Toronto-based art critic and founder of Art InSite tours, Betty Ann Jordan. “Toronto is a magnet for art of all kinds,” she says. “The gallery and museum district in the Yorkville area is a concentrated, highly walkable destination of considerable cultural as well as artistic importance.” Following recent improvements to the city’s cultural infrastructure – including the opening of the Historic Distillery District, the US$260 million renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) by local native Frank Gehry, and the addition of the city’s first purpose built opera house – Toronto has hit critical mass. It’s definitely a change from when Toronto used to be called Hogtown – an in joke about the days when there used to be more pigs than people.

Perhaps the most interesting district for hedonists, however, is the Queen Street West area. Beyond the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), even the restaurants and hotels dabble in a subversive cultural scene. Dominated by the boutique Drake Hotel, which boasts its own on-call cultural concierge, in-house art collection and a full-time art curator, the area is a focal point for a number of festivals. In particular, The Drake is a satellite venue for the film festival and the Toronto International Art Fair, held annually in November.

There’s clearly a lot going on, but as I find out from local historian Richard Fiennes-Clinton, it’s only a relatively recent change. “Montreal used to be the centre of business and finance – but at the end of the 1960s and 1970s, the French separatist movement sparked a wave of immigration to Toronto from eastern Canada,” says Fiennes-Clinton. “The city has attracted immigrants ever since, with a huge knock-on cultural effect.” Add to this, an influx of people from across western Canada, Asia and Europe – in particular Portuguese, Indian and Chinese communities – and it has led to a creative surge that runs through the different ethnic suburban pockets of the city.

As a famous party town, Toronto really comes into its own after dark, when light after neon light flickers on across the city. From the heights of Canoe, a high octane, award-winning restaurant and cocktail stop on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower, the view is mesmerising. The locals say that Toronto is like New York but only run by the Swiss – and it’s this refreshing perspective that’s brought to the table at Canoe. Here, head chef Anthony Walsh specialises in native produce and shows off the country’s growing sense of culinary identity; on the menu there’s maple cured British Columbian salmon, Yarmouth lobster and roasted Alberta lamb sirloin.

Much later, I find myself surrounded by locals at The Dakota Tavern listening to house band The Beauties. Following a whistle-stop tour of some of the city’s best bars – including Wayne Gretsky’s (owned by the all-star ice hockey player) and Scotland Yard on the Esplanade – the good times are flowing and beer caps are being flipped. The time has gone way past ten o’clock but I get the feeling that the real party is only just beginning. The after dark motto is “turn up your downtime”. It feels entirely appropriate.