Past meets present at Toronto’s Distillery District


At Balzac’s, enjoy a Parisian-style cafe experience in the main square at the Distillery District. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Story by Waheeda Harris
Vacay.ca Writer

TORONTO — Modern and multicultural are two of the monikers to describe Toronto, but to find the historic side of this urban centre, The Distillery Historic District offers a view into the city’s past.

Connected by cobblestone streets and Victorian industrial-style brick buildings, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, which opened in 1837, became the largest distillery in the world by 1877.

Closed in 1990, and thankfully a part of the city that escaped demolition, the site became popular with Hollywood location scouts, and has been a silent star in many films, including “Cinderella Man,” The “X-Men” series, “The Hurricane” and “Chicago.”

Reopened in 2003 as a pedestrian-only neighbourhood, the district has kept its 19th-century feel alive with many cafes, galleries and artist studios housed in the original brick buildings. A unique compliment to the industrial brick is installations of sculpture such as “Koilos” by Michael Christian and “Still Dancing” by Dennis Oppenheim.


I always start at Balzac’s, housed in the 1895-era Pump House. Inspired by turn-of-the-century Parisian cafes, this coffee house offers generous jolts of caffeine and, with its two-storey interior, many cozy spots to contemplate. 

My next stop takes me to Pikto Gallery, which features exhibits by emerging and international photographers, as well as a selection of international art and photography magazines, photography accessories and gift items. The New York Times Magazine recently featured images by Pikto’s Top Pick competition winner for 2011, Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Another favourite to feed my artistic side is the Thompson Landry Gallery, found in the Stone Building adjacent to the Fermenting Cellar. Showcasing contemporary artists from Quebec, the gallery this summer will be featuring GAIA, 60 photographs of space by Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil.

“I know I’m going to find some interesting art at the Distillery, whether it’s in one of the galleries or from one of the studios,” says Shannon Eckstein, a photographer who spends a lot of time at the site.

For home décor inspiration, I look through the industrial-influenced items at recent addition Blackbird Vintage Finds — the oversized black-and-white subway signs or the Brit-styled accent pieces for a Downton Abbey-inspired décor are lures to my pocketbook.

If I’m looking for a quick bite, I head to the Mill Street Brewpub, the first brewery to open in East Toronto in 100 years, and located in the original distillery Tankhouse. There’s always a selection of locally made pints on tap, including Tankhouse Pale Ale and Balzac’s Coffee Porter. If available, sample the limited-edition Royal Stinger Beer, a partnership between the brewery and the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, which has its own beehives.

The Boiler House, in a building that was once the heart of the Distillery, is known for its contemporary Canadian fare under chef Andre Walker. It’s where laid-back dining is found amidst the unique décor. Have a drink while sitting at the 115-year-old recycled fir bar. It’s one of my favourite spots for Sunday brunch buffet, especially because of the live jazz featuring some of the city’s best known musicians.

And to end a visit on a sweet note — go for a mug of the addictive Mayan hot chocolate ($4.19) at Soma Chocolatemaker or choose from the selection of handmade mini-bars — my favourite is the dark Peruvian chocolate with Australian ginger ($4.50), but there’s also a mini-bar infused with Gooderham & Worts Whisky ($2)

“I always make time for Soma, it’s an addiction worth having,” says Meaghan Clark, who picks this neighbourhood to find unique gifts for family and friends.

Contact information: Telephone: 416-364-1177; Website: www.thedistillerydistrict.com
Main address: 55 Mill Street, Building #58 Suite 200 Toronto, Ontario
General inquiries: Email here for general inquiries
Full business directory: Click here to see the full list
Directions: From downtown, visitors can take the King Street streetcar east to Parliament Street (connections to this streetcar from the Yonge or University subway line) and walk two blocks south to the corner of Parliament Street and Mill Street, or from Castle Frank subway station, take the Parliament No. 65 bus to Parliament and Front Streets or from Pape subway station, take the Pape No. 72A southbound to the 55 Mill Street entrance of the district. Cost is $3, or between $10-$15 via taxi from most spots in the downtown core.

Winter hours in effect until April 30, 2012:

  • Monday-Wednesday: 11 am-6 pm
  • Thursday-Friday: 11 am-7 pm
  • Saturday: 10 am-7 pm
  • Sunday: 11 am-5 pm

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A Toronto-based freelance journalist since the beginning of the millennium, Waheeda has been lucky enough to visit every continent. She's always happy to travel, especially when she can swim in the sea, taste locally-made cuisine and spend an afternoon in an art gallery.

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