Story by Lynn Burshtein
TORONTO, ONTARIO — The 1970’s hit CBC series “King of Kensington,” starring the late Al Waxman, cemented Kensington Market’s reputation as a locale that celebrates its ethnic diversity. The neighbourhood, located within a few square blocks west of Spadina Avenue and south of College Street, first developed in the early 1900s. Originally called “The Jewish Market,” Kensington has seen waves of other immigrant settlers – Italians, Portuguese, Chinese and Jamaicans. The result is a multicultural community that attracts travellers and Toronto residents alike.
Indeed, the legendary neighbourhood is an emblem of Canada’s cultural mosaic. It is also a designated by Parks Canada as a National Historic Site. So while the rest of Toronto’s heritage is virtually under siege by condo development, Kensington Market retains its charm and authenticity. Largely due to fiercely protective local lobby groups, protests against big-box retailers have staved off any plans for corporate expansion into the neighbourhood. As a result, Kensington Market boasts an eclectic mix of independently owned restaurants and merchants.
You could sample the gastronomic delights from any one of the notable restaurants or cafes or order some take-out from the food shops. But with so many choices, it is difficult to know where to begin. Enter the Kensington Krawl tour by Savour Toronto, an independently operated tour company that allows both locals and tourists to spend a leisurely afternoon learning about the area’s history, while eating their way through numerous restaurants, cafes and delicatessens.
With the guidance of culinary expert Suzanne Urpecz (Savour Toronto’s co-founder who also grew up in the neighbourhood), participants come away from the tour with insight into the neighbourhood’s origins, some great photo-ops and, of course, a memorable culinary experience.
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The group meets late morning on a Saturday at Jimmy’s Coffee, a suitable and pleasant meeting place. But the first official stop on the tour is Cheese Magic on Baldwin Street, where a sampling of a tangy four-year-old Quebec cheddar and an Oxford Harvest cheese called “Tipsy” (so-named because it is soaked in red wine) awakens our palate. Next stop is Thomas Lavers Cannery & Deli, a relatively new shop that is making a name for itself with its preserves, chutneys and condiments. Among other choices, we try the Vegan Banh Mi (filled with tofu and kimchi jam and a wasabi mayo) washed down with homemade root beer. Next up is a visit to Sanagan’s Meat Locker, an old-fashioned charcuterie. Vegetarians beware; this is a mecca for meat-lovers.
We take a short break from noshing to learn about some of the more notable buildings on Baldwin Street. We turn down Kensington Avenue to see some of the neighbourhood’s older homes and graffiti in the alleyways and stop by Courage My Love, one of Toronto’s first vintage clothing stores. We then take a load off at the outdoor patio at Kensington Lodge Restaurant & Bar (it doubles as a live music venue at night), where we are served raspberry mojitos and local beer.
Our girth has undoubtedly expanded by now, but that doesn’t stop us from tasting the Middle-Eastern Turkish Delight and Halva at Akram’s Shoppe back on Baldwin Street or sampling some dried fruits and bulk spices at House of Spice on Augusta Street.
We also visit the life-sized bronze statue of the neighbourhood’s most famous ambassador, the aforementioned Waxman, in nearby Bellevue Square Park. Finally, we amble our way toward College Street, passing a historic synagogue and fire house along the way to the Krawl’s last stop, Jelly Modern Doughnuts. While the selection of gourmet doughnuts includes innovative flavours like Maple Bacon, we settle on the s’mores flavour. Just like after any Bar Mitzvah or Italian Wedding, we vow never to eat that much again. But we know that is a promise we won’t keep.