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 David Urbonas from Flickr.
Since the inaugural Yonge & Bloor installment of A City Intersected, Torontoist has made every attempt at covering a wide range of Toronto intersections. We’ve gone east with Danforth & Chester, west with Queen & Crawford, and north with Bayview & Eglinton, but despite a conscious effort to stay away from the overtly obvious, one major intersection kept coming back to us again and again, even as we kept brushing it aside.
Bay Street & Bloor Street West may be known for its hulking corporate buildings, like the TD Canada Trust branch on the southwest corner, the Gap on the northeast corner and, of course, the Manulife Centre on the southeast corner, but to many the area is an entry point to the downtown Toronto experience. After all, the University of Toronto lies just to the west, and for every local Torontonian who shudders as they pass through this intersection, there are dozens of newcomers in awe of the urban environment that’s virtually in their own backyard.
Shops lined Bay Street & Bloor Street West well before the 1930s, but the introduction of Toronto’s subway system in 1954 had a profound effect on the area, making it even more popular with residents of other parts of the city. This would be further solidified in 1966, when the Bloor-Danforth line opened with Bay as one of its stops. Lower Bay, an experimental platform that was briefly tested by the TTC, has become one of Toronto’s most mystifying spaces, one that is regularly used in film production and was featured in last year’s Nuit Blanche event (be sure to check out Tony Makepeace’s Panoramist if you missed it).
The defining point of Bay Street & Bloor Street West’s recent history was the construction of the Manulife Centre (55 Bloor Street West) in 1972. The upscale mall opened in 1974, and its early tenants included Creed’s, a women’s specialty store, and Bretton’s, a 60,000-square-foot department store. The Manulife Centre is also historically significant for having one of Toronto’s first active green roofs, constructed in the 1980s. Some trees located atop the Manulife Centre now reach a staggering three storeys in height!
So I’m Here…Now What?
Don’t let the upscale stores and corporate nametags distract you upon your arrival at Bay Street & Bloor Street West. There’s actually plenty here for everyone. Take Bay Street Video (1172 Bay Street), for instance. Although Queen Video and Suspect Video are more popular among Toronto’s film geeks, Bay Street boasts Toronto’s largest DVD collection, including many Criterion and foreign titles. Much of its staff has worked there for years, and while they’re not exactly a chatty bunch, they certainly know their stuff. Film lovers should also be familiar with the Toronto Film Festival Group’s year-round box office, located on the main floor of the Manulife Centre near the north entrance. Lineups are out the door come September, when the Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, but during the rest of the year the focus tends to be on Cinematheque Ontario, which screens cutting edge international cinema at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Of course, there’s always plenty going on with the TIFFG, and what better place to keep up with the goings on than its official website? Most visitors to the Bay & Bloor area will already know all about the Varsity Cinema, which is a fixture of TIFF with dozens of screenings every year.
Although most people may find the Manulife Centre to be full of soulless, overpriced goods, there are actually a number of great shops and eateries within. The most popular of these is Bay Bloor Radio, which has been a Bay & Bloor institution since Sol Mandlsohn set up a small radio repair shop in the area in 1946. In the six decades since, Bay Bloor Radio has grown into a much more profitable company and has become the city’s most well-respected dealer of audio and video systems. It remains a family business, under the watch of Mark Mandlsohn, Sol’s son.
Another well-known fixture of the Manulife Centre is William Ashley China. If you’re looking for formal dinnerware, this is your place. If not, it’s time to head down the escalators to the lower level, where you’ll find a small-but-wonderful chocolate shop in Eitelbach. Located next to Alex Farm Products, Eitelbach offers an excellent selection of European chocolates. They’re also known for Baumkuchen, a chocolate German pastry that roughly translates as “Treecake.”
Also located on the lower level of the Manulife Centre are two great spots for a quick lunch. Quasi Quasi is good, but Scaccia is even better, serving up simple Italian food like penne arrabiata and made-to-order sandwiches. If you want to keep it cheap, make sure you order from the counter, as the prices found in the actual restaurant are considerably higher.
We’d be remiss not to mention Panorama, the cocktail lounge located on the Manulife Centre’s 51st floor. If you want a great view of the city, this is definitely the place to be. But there’s a lot more to see of Bay Street & Bloor Street West than this one building, so if you’d like a change of scenery why not grab lunch at the New Yorker Deli (1140 Bay Street) across the street? It may not offer the quality of North Toronto delis like Yitz’s or Thornhill’s Centre Street Deli, but it’s likely among the best you’ll find in the downtown core.
For something a bit more upscale, try Pangaea (1221 Bay St.), which is located north of Bloor Street West on the east side of Bay Street. The name of this restaurant is fitting, as it takes a wide range of regional influences and mashes them all together in a unique take on high-class dining. A bit further north is the relative newcomer Eggstasy (1255 Bay Street), which has quickly become a great spot for brunch.
Across the street you’ll find Pusateri’s (57 Yorkville Avenue), a foodie’s paradise. If you turn up at the right time, you’ll be able to sample some expensive olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and whether you’re looking for obscure ingredients for that ambitious recipe or want something prepared from behind the glass counter, this is high-end grocery at its best. The nearby Cumberland Terrace (2 Bloor Street West) also has a few hidden gems, including a new location of Song & Script, a vendor of sheet music and showtune CDs that was formerly located across the street.
Visitors to Bay Street & Bloor Street West are encouraged to look beyond Holt Renfrew and Indigo and take the time to discover the hidden gems that are sometimes found literally underground. However, even Torontoist “villains” like Indigo Books & Music have their merit. In 2006, the Manulife location closed off a section of Bay Street for a special event that led to an impromptu performance by Leonard Cohen (you can read Torontoist’s take on it here). Wowing locals with an impromptu performance of “So Long, Marianne” with Ron Sexsmith and Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies, Cohen somehow managed to turn one of Toronto’s most popular intersections to an outdoor oasis, even if just for a few minutes.
Photo of Bay & Bloor circa 1931 courtesy of Webshots. Photo of Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinemas from DimsumDarren‘s Flickr page. Photo of Pangaea courtesy of the Pangaea website.