When it comes to eating and drinking in Leslieville, it’s Queen Street East that gets most of the attention. But further north along Gerrard Street East is a short stretch from Marjory to Jones Avenues with a concentration of decades-old institutions and newer players hoping to become neighbourhood staples.
It’s an area that has seen big changes in recent years.
New bars and restaurants have moved in. There’s a condo proposal across from Gerrard Square mall. A few long-standing businesses have left. The big question is what this area will look like in the next five years.
For now, during the day it’s where a $5 banh mi can be had, the sidewalks are filled with students on lunch breaks, and Gerrard Square is bustling with people running errands. Student specials are found at Great Burger Kitchen (1056 Gerrard St. E.), and bookworms can be found on the side patio at café Dineen Outpost (1042 Gerrard St. E.).
All day menus at Pho Com Tam 168 Vietnamese Cuisine (1018 Gerrard St. E.) and GB Hand-Pulled Noodles (1024 Gerrard St. E.) satisfy noodle cravings while Chula Taberna Mexicana (1058 Gerrard Ave. St. E.) is where you can grab tacos on the patio.
By the evening, a different set of food and drink spots open, including one catering to LGBTQ+ communities, a fish and chips spot that also makes a hoisin shrimp burger, and a trio of snack bars owned by a Queen West restaurant veteran. Euro-Latin date spot Gardel (1020 Gerrard St. E.) is where to go for wine while a short walk east is surf-themed bar The Dive Shop (1036 Gerrard St. E.), with a dreamy, beachy back patio.
Since not everything is open at the same time, it’s why this little strip is worth coming back more than once to truly get a taste and feel of everything.
Where to visit in the day
Philippine Oriental Food Market (1033 Gerrard St E.)
On the south side is one of the oldest businesses on the strip. Rosita Dela Cruz bought the building in 1973 and opened her shop a year later, originally catering to the Filipino community that lived further north in St. James Town.
Philippine Oriental Food Market is a place for imported Filipino snacks like instant noodles, roasted nuts, cookies and bags of pork crackling and chips. Sometimes there will also be treats from local bakers, like the giant Ube ensaymada — a fluffy coconut sweetbread that could feed two.
The family-operated shop has gone through many incarnations over the decades, as Dela Cruz is always thinking of new business ideas. It started off selling imported clothing and handicrafts, then renting out Filipino movies before it became a snack emporium.
“My mind doesn’t stop, my mind doesn’t want to rest, even if my body says so,” she said.
Banh Mi Huy-Ky (1046 Gerrard St E.)
Ben Phuong, second generation owner of Banh Mi Huy-Ky, has seen the neighbourhood change a lot since his parents started the Vietnamese bakery in 2010.
“It was a quiet area, and then in 2017, 2018, people jumped in with bars. Right now this area is coming up,” said Phuong.
For most customers, the banh mis are the draw here. The shop gets a revolving door of construction workers, teachers, residents and the occasional student looking for a $5 lunch. While the standard cold cut is a go-to, it’s the shredded barbecue pork and chicken sandwiches that are the stars (always say yes to hot sauce).
Also, don’t skip the steamed buns, all made by hand by Phuong’s family.
In the back kitchen, his mother Huong Nguyen, wife Linh Nguyen, brother Huy Phuong and sister-in-law Thuy Dinh can be found rolling out dough, stuffing it with a filling of round pork, onions, mushroom and cabbage, and pinching it closed before placing in the giant steamer.
At the front counter is bánh giò, a Northern Vietnamese specialty of steamed rice flour stuffed with ground pork, wood ear mushroom and quail eggs wrapped in a banana leaf that’s best eaten warmed up.
Closer to major holidays such as Tết Trung Thu or the Mid-Autumn Festival, Phuong said his family’s bakery churns out specialty mooncakes and other celebratory treats.
“I learned it from my grandparents, everything is handmade,” said Phuong, noting the absence of a scale in the kitchen and that things are measured out by feel. “My soul is in this business. It’s hard and you don’t make a lot of money, but I can handle it.”
Tropical Joe’s (Inside Gerrard Square)
Another second generation owner in the neighbourhood is Chris Boodhoo, whose father Joseph founded Tropical Joe’s under the name Caribbean Cuisine Delight in the ’90s. After all these years, people still line up for jerk chicken on rice and peas, oxtail stew, curry goat and channa with potatoes.
Everything on the menu tastes like it has been cooking low and slow for hours, with a myriad of spices that come at you in waves as you dig into morsels of channa bathed in a thick gravy. The curry chicken is one of the most popular dishes here — tender chunks of meat that pull off the bone easily, soaked in spices and a rich sauce.
After the first location opened, others followed, with the last opening at Gerrard Square in 2006. The Gerrard Square location is the only one still associated with the Tropical Joe’s brand, which the younger Boodhoo took over in 2011. The stall gained attention beyond the mall’s shoppers in recent years through word-of-mouth (the popular Descendant Pizza on Queen East used Tropical Joe’s jerk chicken in a special pie), but at its core it’s a neighbourhood mainstay.
“We’re in a community mall where the draws are the Home Depot, Service Canada and Wal-Mart,” Boodhoo said. “A lot of our customers come early for lunch because they start their day at 5 a.m. We have contractors, TTC employees, police officers, fire departments, EMTs, (and) people from nursing homes.”
Where to visit in the evening
Anglr (1054 Gerrard St E.)
A recent addition to the block, established in September 2020, is seafood restaurant Anglr (1054 Gerrard St. E.). It’s owned by brothers Chad and Tate Welton, who previously worked at Broadview fish and chips shop Off The Hook before venturing on their own.
“Having worked at the Broadview and Danforth area for nine years, the east-end is where we were comfortable,” said Chad. “Our landlord is also a restaurateur, so he’s been a bit more forgiving during the pandemic. At the time we opened, dine-in seemed so far away and this place has a back patio, so it just checked all the boxes for us when finding a place.”
In addition to the regular fish and chips, there’s also a gluten free version (and they have a separate fryer to reduce risks of cross contamination) where haddock is dredged in a mix of chickpea, tapioca and rice flours, resulting in a crisp, golden brown crust served on a bed of fries and slaw.
Hints of the brothers’ Asian heritage can be found in the shrimp burger (a nice alternative to the more ubiquitous fish sandwich) that comes with a hint of hoisin and is topped with pickled daikon and aged cheddar, as well as the pan-fried shrimp dumplings with sesame-soy dipping sauce — a recipe they learned from their grandfather, who himself used to own a Chinese restaurant in Kirkland Lake.
Lavender Menace (1062 Gerrard Street E.)
People trickle into Lavender Menace for Chatty Thursdays, where once a week the bar hosts a social gathering for anyone hoping to make new friends. The bar’s owners, married couple Vivian Lynch and chef Agnes Lee, rebranded the place from its pervious incarnation, The Yard Sale, last year.
Lee originally wanted a space with a bigger focus on catering to the LGBTQ+ community and when the pandemic hit, the two decided to go with the original vision, naming the space after a group of lesbians who revolted against being excluded from the ’70s feminist movement in America.
“I still remember one woman from the neighbourhood in tears explaining to me how much our bar meant to her, how isolated and alienated she feels everywhere else in the east end, even if they are (LGBTQ+) friendly enough,” said Lynch. “That was what finally convinced me that Aggie was right all along, and we should have just gone with her gut! Plus, it was COVID and we’ve been barely hanging on by our fingertips so if we were going to fail, we may as well fail doing something we actually care about for a community we care about.”
The bar’s namesake cocktail starts with butterfly pea-flower infused gin to give it a blue hue, followed by creme de violette, elderflower syrup, lemon juice to turn the blue gin a purple colour, and then it’s finished with egg white, sage, dried lavender and cherries. It’s a strong, slightly tart floral drink that matches the flowers hanging over the bar where Lynch can be found making drinks.
She whips up a newer cocktail for the warmer weather: a sunset-coloured concoction called the Chana Com Chana, named after a Brazilian lesbian zine in the ’80s. Cachaça, Italian and Creole bitters, pineapple and jackfruit juice and falernum bring together a tropical treat best enjoyed on the rooftop patio this summer.
Like the owner of Philippine Oriental Food Market, Lynch also lived a large part of her life in Leslieville and saw the neighbourhood change (her bar was once a Starbucks, then a bakery). She’s not sure what the neighbourhood will look like in the upcoming years, especially with a proposed condo across from Gerrard Square, but believes the old and new spots can coexist.
“I don’t think we’ll be quite at the level of (Queen West or Ossington) because this is a more family-oriented neighbourhood. I love Leslieville and east-enders are very proud of their communities.”
Pinkerton’s Snack Bar, Poor Romeo, and Vatican Gift Shop (1026 Gerrard St. E., 1029 Gerrard St. E., and 1047 Gerrard St. E.)
As the sun sets, the menus and mood shift on Gerrard Street. Six years ago, Marc Baglio (of West Queen West’s Czehoski fame) along with business partners Adam Graham, Adam Kelly and former Czehoski chef Andy Wilson set roots here with Pinkerton’s Snack Bar.
Pinkerton’s mood is grunge with a soundtrack that relies heavily on ’90s alt rock. In the kitchen, bowls of duck-fried rice are plated next to Sous-vide fried chicken doused in a generous amount of piri piri sauce. The baos have become so popular, there’s an entire menu of them with fillings such as marinated sirloin bulgogi-style with a spicy mayo sauce, Korean fried chicken bao with gochuchang hot sauce and slow-cooked jackfruit.
Bartender João Machado’s cocktails rotate regularly, and recently a canned cocktail line under the Dynamite Kid brand was introduced with Pinkerton’s bottle shop. The Aperol Spritz is a popular drink as the weather warms, another favourite is the sherry and tonic, which Machado makes with champagne vinegar and dry vermouth.
A year after Pinkerton’s, the team opened Poor Romeo, a take on the American dive bar with whisky and mezcal on the cocktail menu, and smash burgers and fried chicken on the food menu.
The playlist strides from disco and synth pop to ’80s hair metal.
“It felt like a natural extension to Pinkerton’s. We were so overwhelmed with the support we received in year one, we wanted to keep our second project in the neighbourhood,” said Baglio.
Vatican Gift Shop is the third place. Originally intended as a speakeasy, the bar evolved into an all-out dance party and live venue that stays loud well into the night. Oh, and there’s pizza.
“All our restaurants are odes to our favourite styles of eating in Toronto, and pizza is something we wanted to be a part of the Vatican’s core identity,” said Baglio.
A crowd favourite is the Augustine, a vegetarian pie with roasted squash and crunchy kale, layered with mozzarella and sweetened with caramelized onions. The Bianco di prosciutto has a formidable garlicky sauce, pops of black olives and thin slices of prosciutto and Parmesan. There’s a finishing lick of sweetness from the balsamic glaze that wraps it nicely together.
Watch out for the occasional specials like pies topped with shishito peppers and flank steak, or the pancetta pie with roasted pineapple and pickled jalapenos.
“When people think of the east side, I think Danforth and Queen East immediately come to mind because they have their own scene,” Baglio said. “Gerrard doesn’t get the attention it deserves.”
Correction – April 28, 2022: This article was updated from a previous version that incorrectly spelled St. James Town and placed its location as south of Gerrard Street East.
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