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.
Photo by Metrix X from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
A short walk east of Union Station will take you to one of Toronto’s oldest neighborhoods. The intersection of Front Street East & Jarvis Street is dominated by St. Lawrence Market’s 102-year-old south building, where foodies flock every week for fresh meats, cheeses, baked goods, fruits, and vegetables, but the history of this area stretches back much further, to the very foundations of the City of Toronto. Welcome to the Old Town of York, established in 1793.
The intersection of Front Street East & Jarvis Street was central to the Old Town of York, the community that later became the City of Toronto. Established in 1793, the original city market was actually located a block north at King & Jarvis Sts., in the same building as city council. The south side of Front Street East was actually completely bare at the time, providing those on the north side with a wonderful view of the lake. In the 1830s, many Front Street East hotels, such as The Steamboat (located on the site of what is now Market Square), offered some of the best waterfront views in town.
In those days, the area’s market was so popular that local shops were instructed by the city to close on “Market Day” between 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. so that their employees could take advantage of the time to shop.
Many of the buildings that remain in the Front Street East and Jarvis Street area are old converted warehouses dating back to the 1850s. By now these buildings have mostly been converted into restaurants, shops and residences. The reason the neighbourhood is populated with so many of these large buildings is because of the number of goods that were shipped into the city by way of the nearby Cooper’s Wharf (located near the Loblaws and LCBO on Lakeshore Blvd. near Lower Jarvis). Most of the warehouses were built on the south side of Front Street East, since the land was completely open at the time. The construction of The Great Western—Toronto’s first major train station—near Church Street led to further need for these warehouses, and as a result more were built in the years that followed. Unfortunately for the hotels on the north side, this cut off the appealing lakeside view.
After an 1849 fire destroyed much of the area surrounding the original city markets and council, the market was brought to its current location near a newly constructed City Hall and given the name St. Lawrence Market. This began with the north building in 1851, where butchers traditionally would sell meats. This building has since been replaced with two buildings, the present one built in 1968.
The more popular red brick structure that is the south building is actually the result of a major renovation undertaken around the turn of the 20th century, which transformed Toronto’s first City Hall (located at that corner) into the city’s largest market yet. Completed in 1905, the south building actually incorporates some of the remnants of the original City Hall. Up until 1954, a canopy crossing Front Street connected the two buildings.
So I’m Here…Now What?
St. Lawrence Market (92 Front Street East) is what brought you to this intersection, so make sure you spend at least an hour inside the south building, where you can find everything from unique packaged goods and fresh produce to baked treats and something for lunch. Some of the more popular names you’ll find inside are St. Urbain Bagel Bakery and Future Bakery. The Carousel Bakery is legendary for its Canadian Peameal Bacon sandwiches, but if you want a delicious (and enormous!) Italian sandwich, try the eggplant sandwich at Mustachio downstairs. The breaded chicken and meatball options are also quite good, and unless you’re an eating contest champion, easily shared among two people.
For a great visual representation of what else you’ll likely see in the south building, be sure to check out Tony Makepeace’s Panoramaist on St. Lawrence Market.
If you’re visiting on a Saturday, make sure you take advantage of St. Lawrence Market’s north building. Farmers set up here each week to sell their latest crops of fresh fruits and vegetables. Show up early. Farmers are often at the market by 5:00 a.m., and the place is usually packed with customers by 7:00. Saturdays are typically very busy, all day, at both buildings, so if you’re looking to explore the south building in a more laid-back fashion, a weekday is definitely a better idea.
Readers should be advised that St. Lawrence Market’s south building is completely closed on Sundays. The north building, however, is well worth visiting at this time, as it is occupied by about 80 antique dealers.
There are plenty of other things to check out while exploring the Front Street East & Jarvis Street area. If you didn’t manage to find something to eat for lunch at St. Lawrence Market, why not opt for something a bit lighter at Lettieri Espresso Bar & Cafe (79 Front Street East)? The small Toronto chain’s panini-style sandwiches, salads and smoothies are just as good as their excellent coffees and teas. Alternatively, there’s one of the original locations of Spring Rolls (85 Front Street East), which, despite its flaws, is hard to beat for those who can’t decide between Chinese or Thai and want something quick and inexpensive.
Ready to be pampered? Buff Nail Lounge (117 Front Street East) has become the area’s best spa, not only because of its friendly staff and relaxed environment, but also because of the products they use. You won’t find formaldehyde, toluene or acrylics anywhere. The products used for manicures, pedicures and facials are all natural.
Many of the other shops along Front Street East are tailored to very specific needs and hobbies. Take Pat Dillon Antiques (100 Front Street East), for instance. For collectors of antique toy soldiers, this is the place to go in Toronto. Even those who aren’t interested in buying may be curious enough to check out their showroom, which features pieces dating back to the early 20th century. There’s also Wonderful & Whites (83 Front Street East), which specializes in Victorian style goods such as china, curtains, jewelry and even clothing.
In need of a break? Why not catch a film at Rainbow Cinemas (80 Front Street East)? A little dodgy, perhaps, but at least you get to see first-run films without paying the $13 ticket price.
Ready for dinner after your movie? The neighbourhood’s best dinner spot is definitely Romagna Mia (106 Front Street East), an Italian restaurant that specializes in risotto. Their prices are a tad higher than average, but the food is well worth it. Order up the truffle risotto and they’ll finish cooking it in a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano at your table. Plus, an extensive wine list means there are plenty of great bottles to be had at a reasonable price. Who needs a bar or club when you can slowly polish off a bottle of Chianti in a classy, but relaxed, environment?
Front Street East and Jarvis Street is definitely an intersection that lives in the shadow of its famous market, but the giant old warehouses and eclectic mix of shops and restaurants also make this historical area well worth some regular visits. For the next installment of A City Intersected, we’ll creep a little further west and pick up the story where we left off, with the nearby Front Street East and Church Street.
Photo of St. Lawrence Market – North Building (circa 1890) by F.W. Micklethwaite, courtesy of City of Toronto Archives. Photo of Future Bakery by Caroline – speakVisual from Flickr. Photo of Rainbow Cinema by tysonwilliams.com from Flickr.