There’s been much hype about Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood since it was voted by Vogue as the second coolest neighbourhood in the world, behind Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district. But what I want to present to you is my favourite neighbourhood in Toronto — the Annex. Technically, the Annex is a neighbourhood between Bathurst Street in the west, Avenue Road in the east, Bloor Street in the south and Dupont Street in the north. However, the key section is the stretch on Bloor between Bathurst and Spadina. The Annex is home to many of my favourite Toronto hangouts and these are just a few of them.
Honest Ed’s (pictured above) is an Annex institution. It’s a 66 year old multi-level bargain department store that sells everything from housewares, groceries, 10 packs of tube socks for pennies, colourful busts of Elvis, plastic CN towers and other Canadian souvenir crap. Okay, I’m not actually endorsing Honest Ed’s as a place to shop, unless you are low on cash, then by all means, it’s great. The draw of Honest Ed’s is its kitschy interior and exterior. Honest Ed’s is like something out of Vegas… the old rundown Vegas off of the strip. Its iconic red and yellow sign has 22,000 blinking bulbs that light up the Annex’s night sky. Sadly, it’s the end of an era for Honest Ed’s as the building was recently sold to a real estate developer. The store is set to close in 2016 to make way likely for another condo.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
The Annex is home to the century old Bloor Cinema (renovated and rebranded a few years ago becoming the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema). This cinema is dedicated to showing documentaries (almost) exclusively, and is the home cinema of the Hot Docs Film Festival in May. With its cheap membership, you get 2 free admissions the month of your birthday, 4 free large popcorns, discounts at various restaurants and stores in the area, occasional free screenings for members, and discounts/extra passes to the Hot Docs Film Festival. These benefits exceed the value of the actual year pass! On top of that, you can sit back, be entertained and snack with a conscience since the cinema is powered by green energy and serves refreshments in biodegradable materials. Still not convinced? It serves beer. ‘Nuff said.
Being an atheist, you wouldn’t expect me to sing the praises of a church, but Trinity-St.Paul’s United Church deserves a few kudos. Aside from being a church, it serves as a music venue from time to time. I’ve had the privilege of seeing Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel perform after ending a 10 year hiatus. The venue seats about 800 people, 300 on wooden pews on the main floor and the rest on the second floor U-shaped balcony that look down onto the altar/stage. The atmosphere is intimate but the music reverberates wonderfully up the high ceilings creating a truly unique experience.
Besides being one of the best places to worship (music), Thursdays and Saturdays for the past decade at Trinity-St. Paul’s have been a haven for salsa enthusiasts of all levels to practice their skills and socialize with other dancers. It’s not uncommon for many pairings on the dance floor to carry over into “unholy” pairings off the dance floor, if you catch my drift…
Snakes and Lattes Board Game Cafe
Although technically a block west of the Annex, Snakes and Lattes Board Game Café is a café dedicated to board games. For a cover charge of $5 per person, you can play one (or several) of thousands of board games, new and classics (including an obscure one from my youth, Pac-Man: the board game) for however long you want. A personal fave is Apples to Apples, a game that friends can attest to my domination. Among the many snack options at the café is a “bowl of candy”, which offers up an assortment of sweets scooped from a large jar, including such childhood favourites as gummy bears and sour keys. S&L is arguably one of the best places to chill out with friends, spend a lazy evening, escape the winter cold or take a date out in Toronto.
Lee’s Palace is one of my favorite Toronto music venues due to its small cozy size, great accoustics and great site lines. Get there early enough and you can get a stool along an elevated level skirting the dance floor. The venue is for music fans who keep a good pulse on up-and-coming music before they graduate to some of Toronto’s bigger venues like the Phoenix or Sound Academy. The exterior of Lee’s is a site to see as well, as it is adorned with graffiti along the alleyways and with a colorful mural on its streetside.
BMV is a huge bookstore open long hours (until 11 pm to midnight most nights), so you can kill the time between 40 minute set breaks at Lee’s Palace. It has 3 levels of brand new, used and discounted books, with the basement stocked with DVDs, records and used CDs. You may not always be able to find that specific book you’re looking for, but with a little browsing you will find something you didn’t know you wanted at 75% off the regular price, like any Ayn Rand books for a bonfire on your upcoming camping trip. The store is particularly good for stocking your shelves with classic novels or grabbing a travel book for your next trip.
Futures Bakery and Café
“Futures” is a great place to take a date with a sweet tooth. There’s a huge selection of tasty cakes, cookies and pastries, and a big sidewalk patio where your eyes can wander to watch passers-by if the date is going bad. The café offers plenty of seating and is open late, until 1 am, which makes it a popular spot with the university crowd during late-night study sessions or when the craving for munchies strikes.
The Great Eats
If you still don’t buy into what a great neighbourhood the Annex is, maybe the selection of tasty and easy-on-the-wallet meals will convince you. For those craving Italian food, Famoso offers authentic Neopolitan pizza and a tomato bisque soup that’s so good, I would go back if it’s the only thing on the menu. For Asian food lovers, some of the best sushi places in the city line the major artery of the Annex. If you’re looking for something a little different, but want to stick with the Japanese theme, Guu Izakaya is the place to go. The Japanese version of a pub, izakayas combine cheap booze, delectable food served tapas-style (the deep-fried squid and garlic short ribs are a must try) and lively servers who greet everyone who walks in with enthusiastic shouts.
Probably one of the most popular restaurants in the Annex right now is El Furniture Warehouse, attracting hour-long line-ups of hipsters, suits and families alike. What compels all these seemingly normal people to endure the long wait is the menu, where everything is priced at $4.95. Even more surprising, the menu contains pub standards like wings, hamburgers, mac and cheese, poutine and wraps, all decently portioned. For the health conscious, lighter choices are available like soups and five types of salads. Truth be told, the taste of the food is probably just slightly above average, but the price can’t be beat and that’s reason enough to go.
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