Photo by neuroticjose from Flickr.
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.
Every summer, a 2.5 kilometre stretch of Danforth Avenue is packed with people for Krinos’ annual Taste of the Danforth street festival. It’s a wonderful celebration of Greek food and culture, but this east-end area offers so much more. Your time is better spent visiting on a quiet weekday afternoon, when you can freely browse the local shops, dine at the wonderful restaurants, and experience the area in its natural state.
Danforth & Chester is a central intersection of Toronto’s GreekTown, North America’s largest Greek neighbourhood. It has held this distinction since the 1970s and 1980s, when many Greeks first settled in the area. Before then, the area was mostly known for its architecture, much of which dates back to the period around the First World War.
Danforth Avenue was quite an undertaking when it was first proposed by the government of Upper Canada in the late 18th century. More than a road, the extension was intended to be a highway that would connect the City of York to the east. Asa Danforth, an American contractor who began construction in the summer of 1799, had been told to build a highway that would stretch from the Don River to the Bay of Quinte, but the province of Upper Canada quickly grew frustrated with delays, many of which came from harsh winters that forced work to be stopped. Danforth abandoned the uncompleted project and returned to the U.S. the following year. Eventually, the work—albeit at a much smaller scale—was completed without him.
One area that benefited from Danforth’s development early on was the Village of Chester, which lay on the western end of the highway where Danforth & Chester Ave. now sits. Development slowly began, with small businesses, taverns and shops opening up into the late 1880s. By the First World War, the area had quickly shifted from rural to commercial. Not surprisingly, the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct in 1918 made travel between York and this region a lot easier.
Today, Danforth & Chester is mostly defined by the influx of Greek settlers in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1994, Krinos Foods launched the first annual Taste of the Danforth Festival. Originally modeled after Chicago’s infamous Taste of Chicago festival, the event quickly became one of Toronto’s most popular summer festivals. Although the fare served up is mostly Greek, other ethnicities—such as Indian, Chinese, Thai and Japanese—are well represented. According to the festival’s official website, more than one million people attend the event each year.
So I’m here… now what?
An obvious place to start would be with one of the area’s many Greek restaurants. While you’ll quickly recognize names like Mr. Greek and The Friendly Greek, you are advised to avoid the chains and go with the independently-run establishments. Omonia (426 Danforth Ave.) and Kalyvia (420 Danforth Ave.) are both affordable and comfortable, with delicious spanakopita, homemade dips, fresh pita, and excellent meat and seafood dishes.
If Greek food just isn’t your thing, why not head over to the Detroit Eatery (389 Danforth Ave.) across the street? With its retro signage and some of the best burgers in town, Detroit’s offers a truly unique dining experience. They also do a great homestyle breakfast.
Something a bit lighter, you say? The Big Carrot is definitely a place you won’t want to miss. Located in Carrot Common (348 Danforth Ave.), just west of Chester Avenue, this co-operative was serving up organic, all-natural food products long before Whole Foods ever expanded into the city. It is part grocery store, part juice bar and thoroughly awesome. Whether you’re looking for fair trade coffee or chocolate, a healthy snack or a delicious juice or smoothie, this is definitely your place.
Also located in Carrot Common is Book City, the excellent Toronto chain of bookstores that manages to retain an independent feel while building up a higher profile across the city.
Once you’re done at Carrot Common, hop across the street and check out the huge assortment of hot sauces at Taste the 4th Sense (375 Danforth Ave.). Part collector’s haven and part foodie paradise, this small shop offers hundreds of products and a friendly atmosphere where the focus is squarely placed on taste. If your tastes are timid, don’t worry, the store has plenty of vinegars and oils for sale alongside the extra hot sauces.
Enough food? Your next stop should definitely be Grassroots (372 Danforth Ave.). Like The Big Carrot, the focus here is on products made with a small environmental footprint in mind. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the goods unique. They’ve got everything from natural cleaning products to baby goods and bed and bathroom products. They also carry a selection of books about “green” causes.
The activist in you will also appreciate Ten Thousand Villages (362 Danforth Ave.), which carries all sorts of household décor, jewelry and other products from around the world and ensures that the people who make these products are paid fairly.
While music stores are a bit scarce in this area, you won’t want to miss the cozy Johnny Rockomet (360 Danforth Ave.), which always has some great deals on used CDs.
Whether you’re an appreciator of Greek food and culture, an environmentalist into organic food and social causes, or just someone who likes quiet neighborhoods with a lot to see and do, Danforth & Chester is an intersection you won’t want to miss this summer. Opa!
Photo of Carrot Common by metrix_feet from Flickr. Photo of Danforth Ave. fruit market circa 1930 courtesy of The City of Toronto Archives.