Best of the City 2012: the top 10 places to go and things to do for a good time in Toronto

Best of the City 2012: the top 10 places to go and things to do for a good time in Toronto

Best of the City: fun

Pinball Café
1662 Queen St. W., 416-402-7932
In an era where almost every amusement has been shrunk to fit on a smart phone, this family-friendly retro arcade is a welcome anachronism. Husband-and-wife owners Rachel and Jason Hazzard carefully maintain the nine regularly rotating machines (including a brand new Iron Man and vintage classics like a 1978 Mata Hari) when they’re not whipping up root beer floats and gluten-free brownies. The sunny vibe is much more Arnold’s, Happy Days’ famed soda shop, than any grotty Yonge Street arcade, and the appeal is multi-generational: on an average Saturday, you’ll find birthday-celebrating tweens and Parkdale 30-somethings reliving past suburban basement glories.

Bar Plus Karaoke Lounge
360 Yonge St., 416-340-7154
When you’re slightly tipsy and itching to perform an ear-shattering rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” a private space with a dozen of your closest friends is the least humiliating option. The recently renovated rooms at Bar Plus—which seat up to 25—are the city’s classiest, decked out with faux-leather banquettes, granite-topped tables and flat-screen displays, and there’s a full bar and bottle service for liquid courage. The real selling point, though, is that the bar offers its catalogue of tunes on a free, no-fuss, searchable smart phone app. It’s a user-friendly alternative to the usual sticky, cumbersome laminated binder sheets, and the extensive song list is tailored to optimal belting—it includes both the Meat Loaf and Celine Dion versions of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” $25–$50 an hour.

Mavrik Wine Bar
676 Queen St. W., 416-214-9429
Queen West’s unassuming wine bar Mavrik is the joint creation of two childhood friends who turned their backs on the corporate world to bring reasonably priced, out-of-the-ordinary vino and snacks to the masses. The mood is pointedly unstuffy (stem-free glassware, a soft soundtrack of indie hits and a notable absence of intolerable oenophiles), but the staff know their stuff, so feel free to ask for samples and food and wine pairing suggestions. We recommend the tasting flights (three two-ounce glasses from $19). The house poutine—with quail gravy and Ontario curds—is perfect for soaking up the hooch.

Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
6 Garamond Ct., 416-441-2345
Ikenobo, the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging, is as blissfully serene as a meditation session—just replace the New Age jargon with stunning, sculptural works of floristry. It’s driven by principles of minimalism and geometry, deriving as much beauty from the lines of the flowers and the shapes formed by the negative space as from the blossoms themselves. Betty Lou Arai, the JCCC’s dulcet-voiced instructor, studied at Kyoto’s Rokkaku-do temple and has led classes here for 30 years. She teaches florists-in-training how to select and display the blooms—she’s partial to liatris, alstroemerias, irises and branches like dogwood and pussy willow—and how to match the arrangement to the room. A bargain at $75 for 10 sessions.

Fish City Tours
In the three years Taro Murato has run his private tours, he has earned a reputation as the guy who knows where the big fish bite. The 34-year-old, who has the deep tan of a full-time fisherman, spent 200 days on the water last year: he leads expeditions on private Muskoka lakes (he’ll drive up to two and a half hours away from the city, and promises a free follow-up trip if the pike and perch aren’t biting), though he just as often drops anchor in Ashbridge’s Bay, where he once caught a record-setting five-and-a-half-pound white bass. “It’s the sewage plant, the fish love it,” he says with a hooting laugh. His 18-foot boat isn’t fancy, but his clients are—mainly bank execs and other Bay Street types, though he also lands the occasional semi-celeb. (The Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith once caught a walleye and a bucket of bass.) For winter expeditions, he chops through the ice and stocks fishing huts with hot drinks. Murata does have one rule: photos of trophy fish can’t go online until the scenery is scrambled, in order to protect his secret spots. From $350 a day.

Centre of Gravity
1300 Gerrard St. E., 213 Sterling Rd., Unit 1000, 416-938-6030
This five-year-old performer-owned-and-operated circus school at Gerrard and Greenwood is housed in a converted 1914 vaudeville theatre that still smells of greasepaint. Professional performers practise here for just $5 a day during the week, while amateurs, both children and adults, take classes in clowning, juggling and aerial acrobatics (usually $20 for two hours). Intense circus conditioning workouts, designed to improve strength, flexibility and coordination, will persuade you to abandon your spin classes forever. The popularity of shows like Cirque du Soleil have boosted the school’s attendance: they’ve just opened a west end location on Sterling Road (its 40-foot ceilings are perfect for trapeze training) and, this fall, they’ll open another at St. Clair and Bathurst and yet another in Guelph. Soon you won’t have to go very far to run away and join the circus.

Bellwoods Brewery
124 Ossington Ave., 416-535-4586
After years of watching enotecas open across the city, beer snobs now have their own hangout. In April, Luke Pestl and Mike Clark—they met while working as beermakers at the Amsterdam Brewing Company—opened Bellwoods Brewery. They serve a rotating list of 11 house-made draughts (among them, the hoppy, citrusy double IPA Witchshark and the dark, malty Toil and Trouble Dubbel, a Belgian beer) in 12-, 16- and 20-ounce pours, alongside a short menu of nibbles from Lucien chef Guy Rawlings. (Cautious sippers can sample the drafts in four-ounce tasting pours for $3.) The room is rustic and romantic, filled with candlelit picnic tables, wildflowers in Mason jars and the hum of happy tipplers—nothing like the Molson-soaked keg parties of your youth.

Wild Wetland Splash Pad
10818 Heart Lake Rd., Brampton, 905-846-2494
If David Suzuki’s grandkids lived in Brampton, you know they’d be having their birthday parties here. Unlike other such spots in downtown parks, this enormous, year-old splash pad isn’t fenced off in some neglected corner, but situated right next to the spring-fed lake that gives Heart Lake Conservation Area its name. The idyllic landscape (encompassing both wetland and a forest of ash, maple and poplar) is itself a natural playground, and the pad’s a cartoonish reflection of this splendour: water squirts out of giant sunflowers, flamingoes and bullfrogs, or upwards from 14 separate ground geysers. More adventurous kids can hit the slides and water tunnel. Water is recycled and filtered and purified through a UV system, with waste irrigating the surrounding soil. It’s the closest thing the GTA has to a water park fashioned by Mother Nature.

iYellow Wine Club
Don’t let the ungainly name—a nod to founder Angela Aiello’s surname—put you off. This is the city’s coolest place to learn about wine, and a far cry from the formal, career-focused classes at George Brown. Membership is free and gives you access to a range of social events, tours and exclusive classes. The latter are taught weekly by Aiello’s boyfriend, the Ritz-Carlton wine director Taylor Thompson, and held at downtown restaurants (last winter, Marben). Classes start at $40 and include at least six different tastings (usually themed to a particular region), as well as food, live DJs and instruction tailored to both wine newbies and geeks. The crowd tends to be 30-something professionals, many of them single, giving the classes the atmosphere of a scholarly cocktail party.


The County General
936 Queen St. W., 416-531-4447
After horse racing and before bluegrass, bourbon is the pride and joy of Kentucky. This is important to remember when it’s 30 degrees and your first thought is to boringly ask for gin and tonic. Southerners know a thing or two about drinking in the heat, and they drink bourbon just fine. Here in the north, no place does brown cocktails better than the County General, where bartender Aja Sax’s menu is delicious and summery. Case in point: the County Drive-in, a sweet and sticky mix of Maker’s Mark, Aperol, fresh lime and a kick of Jones Cream Soda. The drink comes served on a heaping mound of ice in a beer stein, and on a hot summer evening it’s highly refreshing—and dangerously drinkable. So pace yourself. $12.

By Denise Balkissoon, Ariel Brewster, Andrew D’Cruz, Bronwen Jervis, Emily Landau, Signe Langford, Jason McBride, Mark Pupo, Peter Saltsman and Courtney Shea | Photographs: pinball machine by Daniel Neuhaus; circus training and County General by Jess Baumung