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 gbalogh from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Previously on A City Intersected, we visited Front Street East & Jarvis Street, one of Toronto’s most historic intersections and home to the great St. Lawrence Market. This week Torontoist creeps a little further west to Church Street, a spot that shares a lot of the same history, but has its own fair share of gems.
As with Front Street East & Jarvis Street, the intersection of Front Street East & Church Street was a central part of the Old Town of York, the settlement that ultimately became the City of Toronto. The south side of Front Street lay completely bare to provide those staying at hotels on the north with a view of the lake. What we failed to mention last time was that the lake was actually a lot closer to Front Street than it is now. In fact, some of the first buildings erected on the south side of Front Street East were wood constructions built on stilts. Erosion usually led these buildings to fall apart and sink, so an embankment was built to allow for more permanent construction.
Given the direction Toronto has taken, it may come as a surprise that few developers were interested in building west of Church Street before the mid-19th century. At the time, the centre of the Old Town of York was at King & Frederick Streets, and residents couldn’t envision traveling beyond Church Street on a regular basis. Once the City of Toronto was established in 1834, however, development started occurring at a faster rate.
Vendors in the area in the mid-19th century included Mr. J.W. Lang, who specialized in tea imports from Japan, India and Ceylon. Reportedly an eccentric, Lang was so invested in the quality of his goods that he staffed a full-time tea-taster. The building where he sold his tea still exists, through numerous exterior changes that have cheapened its historical significance, on the southwest corner of Front and Church Streets.
The Dixon Building (45-49 Front Street East) was built in 1872 and serves as Toronto’s only remaining structure with a cast-iron facade. At the time, this was considered to be a cutting -dge trend of development. Originally home to the Canada Vinegrowers, today this building’s tenants include The Sultan’s Tent and Nicholas Hoare (see below).
Another unique aspect of this intersection is that it actually has a third street, Wellington, as a part of it. Wellington Street runs parallel to Front Street to the west of Church Street. Very close to the northwest corner, on Wellington Street, is the Gooderham Building (49 Wellington Street East). Often called the Flatiron Building due to its unusual shape, this red-brick structure was erected by architect David Roberts, Jr. in 1892. The fifth floor housed the offices of George Gooderham, co-owner of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery (at that time the largest whisky distillery in the world) and president of the Bank of Toronto. Today its tenants include Gilbert’s LLP, a law firm, and Perseis Partners Inc., a company that specializes in private equity investments.
Though flatiron buildings would be built in other North American cities, most popularly in New York, Toronto’s has the distinction of being the first. The significance of the building mostly lies in its unusual shape and colour, starkly different from anything else you’d find in the area. Also of interest is the mural on its rear wall, which was painted by Canadian artist Derek Besant in 1980. Those interested in seeing how the inside of this fascinating building looks can visit between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.
So I’m Here…Now What?
Bookstores are rarely described as “elegant” or “fancy,” but somehow Nicholas Hoare (45 Front Street East) manages to fit the description. Beyond the nice wooden bookshelves and meticulous displays, the store definitely captures the feel of the sort of urban bookstore you might find in London or Dublin. If you’re the breed of book lover who shies away from mainstream titles, this is the place for you. Even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for, the knowledgeable staff will gladly recommend their favourites to anyone who will listen.
If you’re one of those people, like our old friend Zanta, who wants a constant, year-round reminder of Christmas, Flatiron’s Christmas Market (51 Front Street East) is not to be missed. It’s Toronto’s first year-round Christmas store, selling everything from ornaments and Santa hats to $1000 nativity scenes. Those wanting something on the unique side will appreciate their selection of imported and locally-made goods.
Hungry? If you’re willing to spend a little extra on some live entertainment with your dinner, why not try The Sultan’s Tent (49 Front Street East)? This Moroccan restaurant is great for groups, as the tables are located in draped, tent-like surroundings with a lot of space to move around. Eventually, the drapes are opened to provide a full view of skilled belly dancers who are happy to teach patrons a few steps as they move around the restaurant.
Is there a better way to cap off your trip to Front Street East & Church Street than with a drink at C’est What (67 Front Street East), one of Toronto’s best bars? Probably not. Since 1988, this bar/lounge has offered a unique blend of simple-but-delicious food and great ambience, but part of what makes it such a delight for beer, wine and spirits connoisseurs lies in their selections. Take beer, for instance. Instead of the usual Coors Light, Molson Canadian and Stella Artois, C’est What features craft beers from Ontario breweries such as Mill Street, Neustdat and Black Oak, not to mention a few of its own creations, like Al’s Cask Ale and Homegrown Help Ale. Once known for their separate live music room, the place still manages to accommodate local talent while also finding the time to host events such as next week’s World Whisky Face-off (click here for tickets).
Of course, some people would rather end their evening on a familiar note, with standard pub fare and the types of beer they’ve already developed a taste for. Luckily The Jersey Giant (71 Front Street East) is located just a few doors down. This English pub is great year-round, but is especially accommodating in the winter, when you can cozy up to a pint of Guinness and chow down on shepherd’s pie while feeling a world away from the ice and snow. They also have some of the best burgers and fries in the downtown core.
We hope you’ll picture those wooden buildings on stilts from the 19th century the next time you climb down the steps of C’est What or The Jersey Giant. The area around Front Street East & Church Street has changed drastically over the past few centuries, but still manages to exude a sense of history that is particularly unique to that part of the city. Soak it in and be proud of your city’s heritage.
Photo of the Gooderham Building by Bill Smith1. Photo of Derek Besant’s mural by alfred ng. Photo of singer-songwriter David Porteous at C’est What by John Pee. All from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.