The creation of a cool new area often follows the same pattern: property prices rise, immigrant-industrial enclave in a big city suddenly looks like a good option, arty types adopt the area, gentrification kicks in and voilà, a hip neighborhood is born.
With the rent in surrounding areas going up in the 1990s, that's exactly what happened to Toronto’s West Queen West, a two-kilometre strip that runs along Queen West between Bathurst St and Gladstone Ave. Since the creative types moved in, it has reinvented itself as the city’s art and design district. Over 300 galleries, design houses, shops, restaurants and boutique hotels now make up Toronto’s creative heart.
Get to know the neighbourhood with this one-day trip:
10am: Chow down on clafoutis
Snag one of a handful of tables at Clafouti, a hole-in-the-wall patisserie cafe (915 Queen St West; clafouti.ca), to start the day with a roast beef and Emmental mini-baguette or a curried chicken salad sandwich on a petard. Don’t miss their clafoutis (custard tarts with seasonal fruit); wildberry, fig-grappa and strawberry-rhubarb are favorites. Grab a bag of lavender or saffron-ginger shortbread cookies to munch on until lunch, or a trademark ‘crookie’ – an Oreo cookie baked into a plain croissant.
11am: Tune into Toronto’s art beat
To see what’s cooking on Toronto’s art circuit, head just steps away to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (952 Queen St West; closed Mon), better known as MOCCA. This large and lively art space owned by the City of Toronto features up-to-the minute shows of contemporary art in an unstuffy environment. Best of all, it’s free (or pay what you can) – a rare treat in Toronto.
Noon: Peek at a photo show
Ogle the frequently changing exhibits of Canadian and international photography at Stephen Bulger Gallery (1026 Queen St West; bulgergallery.com; closed Sun and Mon). Don't miss the free film screenings at 3pm on Saturdays in the mini-theatre on site. Spend some quiet time in the private viewing room browsing through the bric-a-brac of historic, vintage and contemporary images.
1pm: Pause for coffee and quesadillas
Be kind to your belly and grab lunch at the Beaver (1192 Queen St West; beavertoronto.ca). This one-time gallery now serves up ideal coffee, great baked goods, no-mess paninis and rockin' signature dishes like the smoked chicken and apple quesadilla.
3pm: Art attack at The Drake Hotel
Check out the plugged-in contemporary art exhibits in the public areas of this cutting-edge venue that doubles as a boutique hotel and triples as a live music space. Then browse the smart playful goodies, both vintage and new, at the Drake General Store (drakegeneralstore.ca), designed with reclaimed wood cabinetry, recycled fixtures (for sale too!) and found midcentury modern furniture. Check out the store’s art wall with monthly shows featuring up-and-coming Toronto artists.
4pm: Gallery-hop at an art hotel
Take a look at the on-site galleries at the art-themed Gladstone Hotel housed in a historic Victorian building. Or better still, stay the night. A different artist designed each of the 37 rooms of this edgy hideaway, revealing Toronto’s many faces. The annual Come Up to My Room (comeuptomyroom.com), a four-day event each January, allows local artists and designers to create site-specific design installations in the hotel's rooms and public spaces.
6pm: Gorge on gourmet comfort food
This newest addition to the area’s hip dining scene, Smoque N’ Bones (869 Queen St West; smoquenbones.com) marries the latest crazes of creative cocktails and smokehouse BBQ. The menu at this haute hipster haven focuses on southern favorites like fall-off-the-bone-good ribs that have been smoked for four hours, combined with sides of sweet-potato waffles and cornbread with apple butter. To wash it down, go for a Maple Bacon Old Fashioned or Spicy Smoquin Caesar, or play it safe with a pint of local craft beer.
For insider tips, book a walking tour
If you want to get to know local lore, have encounters with artists and learn insider tidbits about West Queen West, book a walking tour with the clued-in Betty Ann Jordan of Art InSite (artinsite.com). There are scheduled departures every Saturday at noon from the Gladstone Hotel (CA$15 per person).
This article was originally published in June 2012. It was updated in October 2014 by Sarah Richards.