Photo by ~EvidencE~ from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
It’s not the closing of the main neighbourhood thoroughfare, the lack of parking, the crowds, the noise, or the piles of garbage that upsets people. Nor is it the idea of street festivals in the neighbourhood; indeed, more would be welcome. As a celebration of food along one of the best restaurant strips in the city, the Taste of the Danforth deserves its position as one of the city’s most popular summer destinations. So why does it continue to disappoint?
This year’s edition, which wrapped up Sunday night, continued the recent tradition of becoming less about the local community and more about generic mass merchandising. Examples? Many. One of the busiest spots on the strip was the Gillette Fusion trailer. You could play a video game for a few minutes inside this glorified truck trailer, receiving a free razor for your effort. We’re not entirely sure what free razors have to do with Greektown unless it’s a gentle hint to the local hirsute citizenry that they could stand to shave a bit more often. For the curious, the Fusion trailer is only slightly less juvenile than the web site.
On Saturday afternoon, we watched a lineup—never fewer than a dozen people deep—as it snaked toward the Dr. Oetker booth with its free samples of Ristorante pizza. That’s right, people lined up for pieces of supermarket frozen pizza heated in a toaster oven right before their eyes. It must have seemed like magic.
We’re not even talking about full slices here, but little toonie-sized tidbits you’d see at a sample table in a grocery store. Would you line up for one of those at the local Loblaws? Of course not. You’d curse the dozen people in line for getting in your way as you tried to push your cart past them. Yet hundreds, probably thousands, of people joined the never-ending queue for frozen pizza on Saturday. The booth workers pulled the magically-heated pies out of the toaster ovens and cut it up into tiny little pieces. The people in line snapped up their little morsels of cardboard and walked away triumphantly, believing that standing in line for five minutes to receive nineteen calories of sustenance stuck on the end of a toothpick was a good use of time. Surely every last one of those people went home and told their loved ones about the wonderful cuisine of the Danforth. Just like Dad serves at home!
Much of the middle of the street along its entire length was given over to the so-called beer gardens, this year run by the Pickle Barrel (which is an odd sight at the Taste of the Danforth, since the Pickle Barrel’s nearest location is a brisk 45-minute walk away at Yonge & Dundas). The menu was expansive: you could choose from about 10 different kinds of beer to wash down your hot dog or burger, the only food available. Yet the plastic lawn chairs here were always full of people apparently enjoying their intake of frozen patties while surrounded by some of the best food the city has to offer.
Lawn chairs and all, a visit to the beer garden is basically the equivalent of spending a Saturday afternoon in your own backyard with a table full of your friends, except that the beer is five times the price, the burgers are limp, the radio is stuck on a station you can’t stand, and a bazillion sweaty people are constantly streaming past your table. Other crowd pleasers included funnel cakes, roasted corn on the cob, and soft-serve ice cream—all things that you’d be hard-pressed to find on the Danforth any other day. Good thing you came halfway across the city to experience the wonderful local culture.
There are signs that the Taste of the Danforth is beginning to suffer from its past successes and current disappointments. One of the concessionaires told us that organizers had warned him this year’s Taste would be scaled back from previous editions. Sure enough, the kids’ midway of rides and games was conspicuously absent, replaced by a pitiful stretch that looked like it had been slapped together at the last minute. Two activities in particular stood out: Build the Acropolis, a fenced-in holding pen that featured a sad assortment of building blocks and rubber cushions set out on the street for youngsters to play with; and Dress Like an Ancient Greek, which somehow translated to jumping around on a flexible pogo stick. The former midway area did have one thing going for it: a small outdoor skating rink in the middle of August.
Things were looking a little more positive for kids at the other end of the street, where they could play Leafs™ hockey, Raptors™ basketball, Jays™ baseball, Rock™ lacrosse, and Toronto FC™ soccer. The lone unbranded children’s activities that we saw this year were the beach volleyball court and the rock-climbing wall.
What about the famous cheap eats? Sure, many people remember the Taste of the Danforth from the early years, when the tastes really were bargains. Such is frequently not the case any more. These days, even the dollar stores are selling two bottles of water for $1.50, a 50% markup from the usual two for a buck. Then there was the restaurant that was selling stuffed pitas for $5, right in front of the sandwich board that advertised the very same thing for a mere $3.95 any other day of the year. While this is hardly gouging on the level of most concert or sports venues, it’s no bargain either. You can easily spend $30 or more on enough samples to satisfy your stomach for an afternoon. Be sure to come back next weekend, when you can spend half that in many of the excellent restaurants along the street and be just as satisfied.
So the question remains, why do people come to the Taste of the Danforth? It’s absolutely the worst way to experience the neighbourhood because much of what is imported for the event is so generic that it could be called the Taste Of Some Random Place Where We Happen To Be Holding The Corporate Branding Festival This Week. The restaurants are too crowded for all but a lucky few to get tables, the stores are too packed to enjoy shopping, and it’s impossible to walk anywhere along the street without merely flowing with the crowd. It can’t be for the live shows, which you can get any Friday or Saturday night at more than a dozen venues along the strip, running the gamut from bouzouki and blues to flamenco and belly dancing, with a dash of comedy for your enjoyment. It can’t be for the bargains, which are harder to find this weekend than any other. And it can’t be for the atmosphere, which is best described as, “walking down the street with 100,000 of your most disappointed friends.”
Local residents really don’t object to people coming to see the neighbourhood, they just wish the visitors would spread out over the other 51 weeks every year. It’s not as if the subway only rumbles across the viaduct for these three short days in August every year. The Danforth isn’t like the Ex, rolling up its tent on Sunday night and disappearing for another year. It’s always here. If you come see the Danny on any other weekend, you can enjoy the restaurants, the shops, and the sights of the street at your own pace. One of the locals would be happy to show you around. But don’t expect them to do it during the Taste; many of them flee the neighbourhood that weekend. Coincidentally, of course.
There is hope for the future. What the Taste of the Danforth really requires is a return to its roots. Not that it has to go all the way back to welcoming just 5000 visitors like it did during its first year. Its roots are currently confined to the sidewalks, in the booths set up by the local merchants in front of their stores and restaurants. All of the prime real estate in the middle of the street festival is given over to the Proctor & Gambles, Pickle Barrels, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainments of the world. These do not represent the Danforth by any stretch of the imagination. Nor do interminable Soviet Union-style food lines.
The Taste needs to bring the food and the Danforth back into the middle of the street and to celebrate the people and cultures of the neighbourhood. The imported generic corporate fluff should be sent packing. Will it make the Taste of the Danforth smaller? Almost certainly. But it would also turn the celebration back over to one of the city’s most colourful and diverse neighbourhoods. And how could that possibly be a bad thing?
Top photo by ~EvidencE~. Middle right photo by AtillaSoylu. Middle left photo by gerrychu. Bottom photo by photoderek. All from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.