Story by Janine MacLean, Vacay.ca Food Columnist
TORONTO — The Beach: at this time of year, it’s number one on most Canadians’ destination lists. Escape from the cold, the snow, the lack of vitamin D. To get through our long, arduous winter a beach vacation is often just what the doctor ordered — unless you happen to live on Toronto’s East End. For many residents in this neighbourhood, the vacation is happening year round.
I recently spent a Sunday afternoon in The Beach. At the far eastern end of Queen Street, as far as the streetcar will take you, The Beach (sometimes called The Beaches) is a neighbourhood renowned for its 3.5-kilometre beachside boardwalk, its kid-and-pet-friendly attitude and its strong sense of community. The beaches (known separately as Kew Beach, Scarboro Beach, Woodbine Beach and Balmy Beach) stretch along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, and their “blue flag” status mean they’re a prime spot for sunbathers and swimmers during summer.
On this unusually mild Janurary afternoon, however, The Beach was packed with runners, dog walkers, and kids heading for the outdoor skating rink. I started to feel as though I was no longer in Toronto. I mean, no one was wearing black. People were smiling as they walked leisurely through the park and they were more than willing to stop and chat about why they love their little beach community.
On the west end of the beach I was on was a dog park where owners can take their pups off leash and let them run free and socialize. I spotted more than one dog jumping in the lake, while others were content playing fetch with their people or digging happily in the sand. I met a flat coat retriever named Troon who treated me to a game of Frisbee.
Troon’s owner, a long-time Beach resident, schooled me on some local history and explained that during winter, a fence is put around the entire perimeter of the beaches and dogs are allowed to run freely on the full stretch of sand as opposed to just the dog park. The Beach is also home to a few historic buildings such at the Balmy Beach Club House (circa 1903) and the Leuty Lifeguard Station (circa 1920).
Strolling farther along the boardwalk I met Matt Stern and Lise Varrette, originally from Ottawa, also taking their dogs for a walk.
“You have to go to The Remarkable Bean,” Varrette informed. “When I moved here nine years ago, Susan (the owner) introduced me to everyone and made me feel so welcome in the community.”
Varrette, a photographer, and Stern have lived in several cities and both agree that nothing beats The Beach in Toronto.
“Where in any other city — you know — ten minutes away from the CN Tower, you have this quiet neighbourhood on the lake with a gorgeous beach. There are houses literally on the beach, and you’re still in a big city. It’s just hard to imagine a city anywhere else that has this kind of place.”
Taking their advice I went in search of The Remarkable Bean and Susan Fowler, the owner, who locals have nothing but amazing things to say about. And the same goes for her muffins.
I found it on Queen and Beech Avenue. It wasn’t hard to find. Both two- and four-legged locals were milling outside the door, mingling and enjoying the sunny afternoon on the café benches. Stepping inside I was surprised at its spacious interior, with seating in every usable space, the espresso machine in the forefront and a lone convection oven in the far corner. Quiche, gluten free cakes, pies and muffins take up most of the counter space, and I found it hard to choose what I wanted to eat. It all looked … disappointingly similar.
In the end, with the help of a very friendly barista, I ordered two of the Bean’s famous savoury muffins: walnut, pear and blue cheese, and Thai Sweet Chili with Cream Cheese. Along with a big cup of coffee, I made my way to the back of the café where Fowler was enjoying her afternoon with a few friends. They graciously invited me to join them.
Along with Fowler was local musician Frank Wilks and his wife, Heilke Heinze. They were discussing the possibility of a Beaches Folk Festival which could take place sometime in March. A self-proclaimed “Son of a Beacher,” Wilks has been performing in the area for a long time and has been coming to The Remarkable Bean ever since it opened 18 years ago. Fowler is startled when she considers how long the café has been around. She continues to be very active within the community and for Heinze, who immigrated to Canada years ago, she has been like an adoptive mother.
“She gave me a job at the café, found me a cheap apartment and rallied the community to donate any household item they no longer needed for me. When I married (Wilks) she helped organize the wedding. She has been a mother to me.”
Fowler enjoys focusing attention on others and continued to send me in the direction of other local business owners around the community, but not before I tried her famous muffins and told her what I thought. Although they were a bit disappointing to look at, as soon as I bit into the Thai Chili muffin I was completely hooked. She coaxed me to put down that one and try the Walnut and Blue Cheese. I grudgingly did. It was even better than the first muffin. Maybe they didn’t look like much, but these were hands down the best muffins I have ever eaten.
Happily full and with the sun getting low in the sky, I found one of the businesses Fowler had mentioned. Just across from The Remarkable Bean, Chocolate By Wickerhead is a relatively new shop owned by artisanal chocolatier Sharon Shoot. Using the best of Belgian chocolate and other really cool ingredients (think bergamot, fleur de sel and limoncello), Shoot is making some of the most tantalizing chocolate creations I have ever tasted. With a tiny but well-furnished shop, the sweet demeanor of the chocolatier adds to the cozy ambience of Chocolate By Wickerhead. This is definitely a chocolate shop you’ll want to visit while in Toronto.
As I left Chocolate By Wickerhead with a hefty bag of truffles for the road, I felt refreshed and ready for whatever my work week might have in store for me. Let’s face it, we all need a little beach getaway this winter, even if that getaway is ten minutes down the road.
Planning a visit to The Beach? Vacay.ca recommends:
• Chocolate by Wickerhead: http://www.wickerhead.com/
• The Remarkable Bean: http://www.yelp.ca/biz/remarkable-bean-toronto
• Ed’s Real Scoop: http://edsrealscoop.com/default.aspx
• Lion On The Beach: http://www.yelp.ca/biz/lion-on-the-beach-toronto
• Murphy’s Law Irish Pub: http://www.murphyslaw.ca/
• Vivetha Bistro: http://www.vivethabistro.com/
• Fox Theatre: http://www.foxtheatre.ca/
• Beaches International Jazz Festival 2012: http://www.beachesjazz.com/visitors.html
• Accommodating the Soul B&B: http://www.accommodatingthesoul.com/
• Beaches Bed and Breakfast: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g155019-d184511-Reviews-Beaches_Bed_and_Breakfast-Toronto_Ontario.html