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 sono salvo from Flickr.
Baldwin Street, a lush strip that runs between Spadina Avenue to the west and McCaul Street to the east, is unlike anything else you’ll find in Toronto. Hidden in the midst of a residential neighbourhood, just south of the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus and a few blocks north of OCAD and the Art Gallery of Ontario, is downtown Toronto’s best kept secret. It’s here, on this quiet and unassuming side street, that you’ll find some of the city’s best eateries, heritage properties and what some might even consider a small town in the heart of Toronto.
At the northwest corner of Beverley and Baldwin Streets sits George Brown House (186 Beverley Street), the former residence of one of Canada’s founding fathers. Although best known today as the namesake of George Brown College, Senator Brown was a leading Liberal politician and co-founder of the Globe newspaper (now The Globe and Mail). He moved into this Second Empire-style house with his wife and three children in 1876 and continued to reside there until his tragic death in 1880. After a disgruntled Globe employee shot Brown in the leg, a full recovery was expected. However, the seemingly minor wound led to an infection that killed Brown a short while later.
Lambton Lodge, as the property was then known, was later occupied by Duncan Coulson, president of the Bank of Toronto (1889-1916), and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (1920-1956). In its early years, the 9,000-square-foot mansion was surrounded by an expanse of land. In fact, much of the Baldwin Street area as we now know it was no more than the Lodge’s front yard. George Brown House’s current owners, the Ontario Heritage Trust, have kept the property in remarkably good shape, restoring the building and hosting visitors during the annual Doors Open Toronto event.
Several other houses and buildings along Beverley Street and Baldwin Street have been designated by the City of Toronto as heritage properties, but one of the most noteworthy is the Beverley Street Baptist Church (74 Beverley Street). Constructed in 1886 and surrounded primarily by houses, it is a modest sanctuary by downtown Toronto standards, but a striking building when compared with the rest of the area. The church, which has faithfully been restored over the years, overlooks The Grange, another historical residence that you’ll learn more about in a future installment of A City Intersected. Today, the Beverley Street Baptist Church is occupied by the Toronto Chinese Baptist Church, reflecting the changing demographics of the area.
With Chinatown, several hospitals and two academic institutions within walking distance, the people who live in the Beverley & Baldwin area are primarily students or Asian immigrants. Before then, beginning around the early 1900s, when Kensington Market reached its saturation point, the area was mostly occupied by European Jewish settlers. Some remnants of this can be seen along Baldwin Street, particularly the Hebrew text that the proprietors of John’s Italian Caffe have allowed to remain on one of their front windows (more on that later).
So I’m Here…Now What?
Beyond the aforementioned historical sites, most of the places you’ll want to see on Baldwin Street are restaurants. Despite the relatively short length of the street, there is a great deal of variety, from Chinese, Indian and Thai to Mexican, French and Italian. Most of the restaurants are reasonably priced, and since there’s very little traffic and many trees on Baldwin Street, their patios are very popular in the spring and summer months.
Although Chinatown is nearby, many Toronto residents consider Eating Garden (43 Baldwin Street) to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in town. The place is clean and reliable and offers a great deal of variety, with all of their dishes cooked fresh from quality ingredients. It’s popular, so reservations are suggested.
Another Chinese restaurant worth recommending, especially to those who love seafood, is Wah Sing Seafood Restaurant (47 Baldwin Street). Here you’ll find a menu that skews more towards shellfish and other oceanic delights, not to mention a great lunch buffet and popular 2-for-1 lobster special.
There are two Indian restaurants on Baldwin Street, both with their own reputation and following. Jodhpore Club (33 Baldwin Street) stands out as the more popular spot, but Gateways of India (19 Baldwin Street) is just as good. Both restaurants are small and modest, letting the quality of the food speak for itself.
If you’re trying to impress someone new with a great atmosphere and award-winning food, Bodega Restaurant (30 Baldwin Street) is probably your best bet. Vogue Magazine recently selected Bodega as one of their “Top 10 Restaurants in Canada,” and this classy French restaurant lives up to the title. It’s a little pricier than many of its Baldwin Street neighbours, but well worth it.
John’s Italian Caffe (27 Baldwin Street) not only offers a great assortment of paninis, bruschettas, pizzas and other no-nonsense menu items, but also a history lesson. Back when the area was heavily populated by Jewish immigrants, this building housed Mandel’s, a kosher creamery. Still remaining is the Hebrew lettering on a prominent front window. “Fresh eggs, milk and cheese every day,” it reads. Note that John’s interior is kind of grungy, albeit in a charming sort of way. The patio, on the other hand, is a summertime favourite.
The last food-related spot we’ll mention is something of a local legend. Since the 1970s, Yung Sing Pastry Shop (22 Baldwin Street) (which, incidentally, used to be Berlin’s Kosher Butcher) has offered traditional Chinese baked goods, both sweet and savory, to their loyal customers. Prices aren’t as cheap as they once were, but you can still get various meat, vegetable or tofu-filled buns for around a dollar. Yung Sing also has a selection of dim sum favourites.
Baldwin Street may seem like an odd location for a used record store, but even more surprising are the rarities you’ll find at Around Again Records (18 Baldwin Street). Small as it may be, this place is highly recommended for fans of jazz, classical and rock music who still buy vinyl. The hours are hard to pin down, so be sure to call ahead.
Patios are abundant in the Beverley & Baldwin Street area, and during the spring and summer months they’re extremely popular with Toronto residents. But no matter what time of year you’re visiting, this locale offers a unique perspective of this city and its history. You’ll find remnants of 19th century Toronto, the influx of European Jews and, later, Chinese immigrants. Today, it’s simply a great example of our city’s multiculturalism, all squashed together on a pleasant, low-key street.
Photo of George Brown House taken from Wikipedia. Photo of Yung Sing Pastry Shop from chelseagirl‘s Flickr page