Toronto has been called a city of neighbourhoods: The Beach, Yorkville, Chinatown, Little Italy, Greektown, The Annex; all have their defining characteristics that make them appealing to locals as well as visitors. And when it comes down to it, most of these areas are well-defined by the intersection of two major streets.
People who live in the Annex are the envy of just about everyone in Toronto with a culture addiction. And why wouldn’t they be? They live in an area with the very best the city has to offer: independent cinema and theatre, plenty of used record and book stores, awesome restaurants – not to mention Honest Ed’s!
For 59 years, Honest Ed’s (581 Bloor St. W.) has dominated the southwest corner of Bathurst & Bloor with its bright lights and theatrical charm, and Ed Mirvish’s retail operation is still as popular today as ever. But the history of Bathurst & Bloor stretches back much further, to the 1790s, when the original boundaries of York Township were first established.
What is today known as the Annex was born as a subdivision called the Toronto Annex in 1886. Developer Simeon James’ vision led to the development of Victorian homes along the area’s residential stretches in the 1880s to the early 1900s, and many of these houses remain there today.
As new residents moved in, businesses and places of worship were built to cater to the neighbourhood. Churches aren’t for everyone, but for an impressive piece of architecture, make sure you visit the Bathurst United Church (427 Bloor St. W.), which was built in 1888.
A smaller landmark, though one that also dates back more than 100 years, is what is now known as Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.). Built in 1905, the venue has experienced many changes over the years but continues to be a favourite of the city’s movie lovers; even as many of Toronto’s other repertory cinemas close their doors.
By the 1950s, the Annex became a hub for many of the Hungarian immigrants who fled to Canada during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. To this day, many of the buildings along Bloor near Bathurst are owned by Hungarian-Canadians, though the area is largely populated by artists and students.
So I’m here… now what?
Why not start with Toronto’s best independent record store? Sonic Boom (512 Bloor St. W.) may not be as legendary as Los Angeles’ Amoeba Records, but it’s well on its way to becoming one of those places where you can find just about anything new or used on CD. They’re also one of the few used record stores that will take just about anything off of your hands – even if they won’t pay you more than a quarter for the real duds. Although a bulk of their stock is compact discs, Sonic Boom also carries a decent selection of used DVDs, vinyl and concert posters.
Once you’re done there, why not pop into the new BMV store at 471 Bloor St. West? Like the Yonge & Eglinton location, this used book store always stocks a great selection of fiction and non-fiction, new and old.
Of course, record and book buying often works up an appetite. Luckily two of Toronto’s best falafel restaurants are practically next door neighbours. Sarah’s Shawarma & Falafel (487 Bloor St. W.) and Ghazale Restaurant (504 Bloor St. W.) both give you plenty of bang for your buck, and have built their own loyal followings. In the 1960s, you were either a Beatles or a Rolling Stones fan. In today’s Toronto, falafel fans are often split between Sarah’s or Ghazale.
Annexers must love their sushi, because there’s at least eight sushi restaurants within close proximity to Bathurst & Bloor. The best of the bunch is probably New Generation Sushi (493 Bloor St. W.).
Another local institution is Mel’s Montreal Delicatessen (440 Bloor St. W.). Though not as authentic as Yitz’s (see A City Intersected – Avenue Road & Eglinton Avenue West) or just about anything you’d find in Montreal, Mel’s is open 24 hours, making it the perfect vice for that 3 AM smoked meat sandwich craving. And as far as local pubs go, Pauper’s Pub (539 Bloor St. W.) has a convenient location right across the street from Bloor Cinema that makes it a regular hotspot for the area’s locals. Before conversion into a three floor pub and eatery, this century old building was a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch.
Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St. W.) is one of the few smallish Toronto concert venues not to be found on the Queen St. West strip. Although the Dance Cave has added some extra noise pollution that sometimes spoils the quieter moments of performances at Lee’s, it’s still one of the best places in town to see a show. Since opening in 1985, it has played host to Blue Rodeo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cowboy Junkies, Lucinda Williams, The Lemonheads, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, Oasis and many others in their years of early development.
The great thing about Bathurst & Bloor is that despite its rich history and all the great places that have been there for years, there are always new things to discover. A good example of this the emerging Brunswick Theatre (296 Brunswick Ave.), which screens some independent films and documentaries that even Bloor won’t screen. Tickets are a flat $10 and the $20/month membership gets you in to see as many films as you want and free rentals of all of them. Read more about that here.
It’s just one of the many things that you’d only find in the Annex, which is loaded with way more hotspots than I could ever fit into one column. Any glaring omissions? Why not share them with us!
Colour photos by Aaron Licht. Vintage photo of Bloor Cinema circa 1945 is courtesty of Archives of Ontario