insider tips and tricks that make life easier, cheaper, faster, slower, tastier, smarter and way more fun




There’s nothing quite like the rush of being in the know. Having a line on a hidden beach, a late-night dim sum spot, a phenomenal shoe-repair shop or a members-only speakeasy (and debating whether to share it) can be an exhilarating kind of currency. For our inaugural roundup of the city’s secret treasures, we canvassed prominent Torontonians for intel on the hush-hush venues, one-of-a-kind treats and insider tricks they leverage to get the most out of life in the GTA—and we’re divulging dozens of our own, too.

Michelin-worthy döners

David Schwartz, chef

“FOOD WRITER Suresh Doss brought me to Anatolian Fine Foods, a Turkish grocery store on Finch Avenue West, a year ago, and now I stop in whenever I can. If you head to the back, you’ll find a shop that makes fresh döners and charcoal-grilled kebabs. There are usually a bunch of construction workers on their lunch break—eating food that’s better than that of many Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to. Important disclaimer: they don’t do döners on Tuesdays. In the grocery store itself, you can find freshly squeezed juices like pomegranate (in winter) and watermelon (in summer) to wash everything down.”

All-night ice skating

Mohamed lachemi, TMU president

“THE RINK at Nathan Phillips Square gets a lot of glory, but TMU has a tucked-away version that’s open 24 hours: the frozen-over Lake Devo, behind the university’s Image Centre on Gould Street.”

Skip the crowds at the Budweiser Stage, part 1

A membership at the backstage bar and restaurant Lake House gets you access to a VIP boat shuttle that travels to and from the parking lot all night, bypassing the sweaty hordes.

Skip the crowds at the Budweiser Stage, part 2

Catch concerts for free while lounging on a grassy hill on Ontario Place’s East Island―you’ll get a side view of the stage―or by paddling up to the venue in a kayak or canoe.

Korean grandma–approved

cold noodles

The menu at Cho Sun Ok, in a plaza on Yonge Street in Thornhill, has lots of great options (pork bone soup, homemade sausages), but the mool naengmyun—chewy arrowroot noodles in icy beef broth—is our personal favourite.

Private parties in a bank vault

Alex Josephson, architect

Siamese Connection is a members-only speakeasy downtown that can be accessed through a laneway or via a secret door off Yonge Street. It’s located in an old bank vault, is filled with a vintage furniture collection like no other and hosts private dinners by an acclaimed chef. If I’m being vague, it’s deliberate: I don’t want the place to get overrun. If people can figure out where it is, they can request a membership or be invited, but there’s already a long wait list.”

Mind benders and brain teasers

The little-known Museum of Illusions at Front and Frederick crams a whackload of visual trickery into a small space: 70-odd installations, including the upside-down and tilted rooms, a vortex tunnel, and a display that makes it look like your head is being served up on a platter.

Vintage threads

Fans of vintage dresses, purses and coats may think to head to Gadabout in Leslieville, but they don’t necessarily know to ask about the basement, where doubles, multiple sizes and older or more fragile offerings are kept.

Plane-spotting with snacks

Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases expert

“ON SUMMER evenings, my family likes to grab some burgers and fries at Fresh Burger on Airport Road and watch in awe as planes pass mere feet above our heads coming in for a landing at Pearson. BYO earplugs.”

an otherworldly

breakfast sandwich

Susur Lee, chef

“ONE OF MY FAVOURITE items at La Boulangerie, a hidden gem on Dundas West at Ossington, is the breakfast sandwich: it’s made with organic eggs from Murray’s Farm Butcher Shoppe, double-smoked Ontario bacon, ham and balsamic on a house-made English muffin. I also love the jambon-beurre—it’s the most popular item on the menu, and it’s inspired by the iconic French sandwich (a fresh sourdough baguette loaded with the best-quality ham and butter). It’s a taste of France without having to leave Toronto.” 

A thrifting mecca

Thrift shopping may be kind to your wallet and the planet, but unearthing a genuine find can be a grubby time suck. One corner in Mississauga has the answer: within a few hundred metres of each other, there’s Talize (pictured here), Mission Thrift, Value Village, Salvation Army and one of the few remaining Goodwills in the GTA. 

Running after dark

Night Terrors Run Crew, a free women-founded running club, gets together four times a week to explore different neighbourhoods on foot after sunset. The rationale: there’s strength in numbers, fewer pedestrians, and lots of public art and pubs to discover. 

Downhill ski lessons within city limits

Future ski bunnies can save time and money by staying local until they get their bearings. The two hills at Earl Bales Park, at Bathurst and Sheppard, may be small, but they’re big enough for a tow and a four-­person chairlift.

Paddle-up screenings,
covert movie

and dirt-cheap shows

Movies on the River, hosted by the paddling club Toronto Adventures, loves a theme: watch water-related flicks such as Jaws, Anaconda and Finding Nemo from the (relative) comfort of your kayak, canoe or paddleboard while floating on the Humber.

The price of admission at Carlton Cinema, near Yonge and College, tops out at a hard-to-beat $10, with new releases set at $7 on Tuesdays and cool classics at $5.

Fox Theatre in the Beaches is one of the rare spots to still show double bills— you can get into one for $16 if you have an annual $14.99 membership (which will give you access to members-only screenings and other perks).

Film buffs swear by TIFF’s Secret Movie Club, a monthly event that screens films not yet out in theatres and only reveals titles the night of. Post-film discussions are included in the ticket price: $38 per event, $250 for an annual membership.

Held monthly at Paradise Theatre, Queer Cinema Club is the brainchild of CBC writer and producer Peter Knegt, who hosts screenings of classic queer films for $15. A cool add-on: original posters created for each film are available for purchase.

Sushi with your 

dry cleaning

Gustavo gimeno, TSO music director 

JC Mart on Simcoe Street is mainly a place to pick up groceries and bring your dry cleaning, but there’s also a sushi and poke-bowl counter inside—the red dragon roll is a sleeper hit, and there’s hardly ever any wait.” 

Righteous scones

The sourdough loaves are good, but the scones
St. John’s Bakery are good enough to be British. Part of St. John the Compassionate Mission on Broadview, the bakery provides job training and experience to workers who are unhoused or struggling with addiction.

high fashion for power forwards

Precious Achiuwa, basketball player

“FOR ME, fashion is an expression—like Serge Ibaka once said, it’s art. I’m into quality fabrics and tailoring; my mom was a seamstress, so I have an idea of what’s good. In Toronto, I go to CNTRBND (pictured here) and The Serpentine in Yorkville to find designers I like—Marni, Dries van Noten, Raf Simons—in the sizes I need.”

Bookish havens for introverts, amateur sleuths and cocktail lovers

The 94-seat Gerstein Reading Room in U of T’s Gerstein Science Information Centre is remarkably quiet and cozy for its size. Lean back in one of the library’s club chairs to admire the dramatic skylight and ceiling, which were uncovered in 2008 during a Diamond Schmitt renovation.

Designed to look like Sherlock Holmes’s apartment at 221B Baker Street, the Arthur Conan Doyle Room at the Toronto Reference Library houses rare archival pieces tied to the fictional detective and his creator. Head through the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre on the fifth floor for a peek. 

The Great Library at Osgoode Hall lives up to its name: the ornate ceilings, soaring Corinthian-style columns and First World War memorial by sculptor Frances Loring alone are worth the visit. Certain areas are reserved for legal professionals, but (discreet) members of the public are welcome to pop in to admire the space or consult the library’s documents.

Bringing a book to a bar is the whole point at Famous Last Words in the Junction. The unabashedly literary spot hosts book clubs, book trivia nights, book exchanges and book-themed cocktail classes. 

fresh dim sum

Andrew Phung, actor

“DIM SUM is a staple in my life. It’s what I eat when I see my parents and what I order when I’m sick. Finding my spot when I moved to Toronto was so important to me. Once I stumbled upon Dine and Dim on Gerrard Street East, I never left—it’s become my go-to for lunch meetings, but it’s also the only place in the east end that has late-night dim sum. The siu mai, beef balls, tripe and barbecue pork buns are ridiculously fresh and tasty, plus East Chinatown is way less busy than West Chinatown (no parking anxiety!).”

Zero-contact cobbler

The Parkdale shoe and leather repair shop Sole Survivor makes fixing your favourite jacket or boots as chill as possible: book an appointment online to drop off your item in a curbside box, then pick it up from the same spot once repairs are completed. Courier and mail-in services are also available. 

Expert cut and colour

Ivy Lam, hair and makeup artist

“TUCKED IN the back of the boutique optical shop L’Atelier, which is itself beautifully curated and has great service, Salon August is one of the best places in the city for a cut and colour. Aliza Esmail, the director of the salon, trained at Vidal Sassoon in London and gives classes around the world.”

DIY ramen

On the second floor of the H Mart at Yonge and Sheppard, you can make your own ramen: pick a pack of noodles (Shin Ramyun is best), cook them using a little robot that’s part water dispenser and part hot plate, and mix in toppings that include eggs, cheese, Chinese sausage and dumplings. The experience—not unlike a make-your-own waffle station at a hotel breakfast buffet—falls somewhere between cooking ramen at home and eating it in
a restaurant. 

Egyptian brunch with a side
of Egyptian cotton

Earlier this year, Maha’s opened a second location—a café in the back of the apparel store Kotn on Queen East. Now you don’t have to spend an hour in line for Maha’s legendary food, plus there’s a lovely patio tucked in behind the shop.

Collage workshops 

Issues Magazine Shop on Dundas West carries gorgeous indie publications from all over, making it a destination for magazine fans and industry types alike (the owner, Nicola Hamilton, is an art director). Artists and crafters in the know come for the two-hour collage workshops, held in the evening multiple times a month.

Peanut-free dan dan noodles

Eva Chin, chef

“THE TERRIFIC Mississauga restaurant Szechuan Noodle Bowl recently opened a spot at Bloor and Bathurst that I am so excited about. The name is deceiving: you think it’s just a noodle joint (which is what the non-Chinese customers order), but it’s the best place in downtown Toronto for Szechuan food. My favourite item on the menu is the dry-rubbed lettuce stem salad, but if you are going to get the noodles, it’s one of the very rare places where you can request peanut-free dan dan noodles.”

Off-hours BMXing

Get the thrill of riding a bike in traffic with none of the risk at Sunnyside Bike Park. Wedged between the Gardiner and Lake Shore at the foot of High Park, this place has enough pump tracks, jump lines and log rides to entertain all skill levels and ages. City hours are from dawn to dusk, but devotees take advantage of the surrounding lights to bike into the night.

Where to go for big bargains on Lulus,
AirPods and all
the cookies

For wildly marked-down athleisure, head to the Lululemon at Toronto Premium Outlets in Halton Hills (at the 401 and 407). Long lines are common, so get there before opening.

If filling giant bags with discounted Chips Ahoy!, Oreos, Crispers and Premium Plus crackers is your dream, the Peak Freans Cookie Outlet in East York can make it a reality.

The Dimpflmeier Bakery factory outlet in Etobicoke is the place to go for bargains on four-pound loaves of rye bread, German baked goods—and, oddly, amazing pizza and cheesy jalapeno buns. (Cash only.)

MiniSo, the affordable-household-brands chain from China, is even more affordable at its “$2-plus” concept stores in places such as Vaughan Mills, Scarborough Town Centre and CF Markville, in Markham.

Krazy Binz in Mississauga sells overstock or returns—kitchen appliances, toys, tools, tech—from companies like Amazon at a major discount. Pricing on all items starts at $25 on Friday, dropping to $10 over the weekend and down again to $1 by the following Wednesday and Thursday. Saturdays and Sundays are the best days to go—still cheap but not entirely picked over.

Rigorously edited fashion 

Claudia Dey, writer and designer 

“WHEN YOU FIRST walk into Soop Soop Fashion Store on Dundas West, there’s a 1990s office feel to the space—but like in Being John Malkovich, it’s not so much an office as a play on the idea of an office. There is a wall of magazines (System, Marfa, Editorial), chairs for customers who want to linger and read (the invitation is genuine), and a selection of clothing and accessories so edited and deliberate that they appear to be put on display just for your touch and private experience. I especially love the Soop Soop Fashion Basics, the Eckhaus Latta denim and taking in all of the sultry yet disciplined details as one would in a shrine or a confessional.” 

Weeknight shinny

Many of the rinks across Toronto have time slots for pick-up hockey, but the games at Christie Pits are among the best (the ice is smooth and the players are fast). There’s also one weeknight that’s women-only (usually Mondays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., but be sure to check the city’s site first). 

Martinis and a trim

Patrick Kriss, chef

Oldtown Bodega on King East doesn’t have any signage—just a barber’s pole to indicate that Hastings Barbershop has a couple of chairs in the basement. Drinks are served on the main floor—it’s an excellent spot for a late-night martini, and non-drinkers can order mocktails, which are bartender’s choice.”

Lookout (or make out) spot

At the end of Chester Hill Road, in a hidden pocket off Broadview, you’ll find the Chester Hill Lookout, a small observation deck and car park with unbeatable views of the city.

A Parisian-style speakeasy

Claudette McGowan, cybersecurity expert  

“I HAD BEEN a member of Verity, the women’s club on Queen East, for months before I realized that Secrette existed. One day, someone walked me into what I thought was going to be a meeting room on an upper floor, but when the door opened, it was a French-inspired speakeasy. (I’ve since learned that there’s another entrance through George, the restaurant downstairs.) You would never expect it. It’s a great private place to have a conversation and a cocktail. Non-members can come too—they just need to know it’s there.” 

The best $4 banh mi

Located in an adorable little trailer on Jane north of the 401, Banh Mi Trung Son sells delicious sandwiches (including pork, chicken and tuna) via a takeout window for $4 each. (Cash only.)

Laneway art

The converted horse stable that houses Gagné Contemporary is in a laneway across from a playground slash dog run aptly named Hideaway Park, near Pape and Dundas. The gallery’s owner, John Gagné, specializes in emerging and mid-career artists, showcasing their work in small-but-mighty solo and group shows.

Vegan charcuterie 


Good Rebel near Dundas and Dufferin has the city’s largest selection of vegan cheese (including harder-to-find blue and curds) and meatless meat (bacon, jerky and even steak), with more than 100 kinds of each on display.

Convenience store pho

UFO Restaurant at Adelaide and Niagara is a Vietnamese food gem masquerading as a convenience store. Once inside, you’ll find pho, rice dishes, spring rolls and a selection of diner food (bacon and eggs, turkey club sandwiches) for absurdly reasonable prices.

Flattering passport photos

At A1 Photo Studio in Chinatown, headshot photographer Lucy Wang leverages lighting and angles to make this oxymoron possible: flattering passport photos. They look more like glamour shots than mugshots (even if you still aren’t allowed to smile).

Everything-bagel croissants

Molly Johnson, singer-songwriter

“ALL THE BAKED GOODS at 84 Nassau Street Cafe are made in-house, including an amazing twice-baked almond croissant and a savoury croissant that’s seasoned like an everything bagel. Beware, late risers: they’re usually sold out by 11 a.m.”

The most private
green spaces
(and one cool kid attraction)

GECo Park, in a new development off Warden, has a kid-coveted gravity rail, best described as a zipline swing. But there’s only one, so come early in the morning to avoid a lineup.

Most Av-and-Dav types flock to Sir Winston Churchill and Ramsden parks, but those in the know opt for the quaint solitude of Pump Park, hidden from view and buffered from traffic by the brick façade of the High Level Pumping Station.

Rosetta McClain Gardens is the most zen place in Toronto you’ve never heard of. Perched high on the Scarborough Bluffs, it’s a paradise for contemplative types who want to watch birds or take in the sweeping view of Lake Ontario. 

At either end of Toronto’s main beachy stretch, there are idyllic pebble beaches: one is over the stone wall to the east of the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant and down the embankment; the other is accessed through a narrow footpath south of the Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club.

To be transported into an enchanted forest within shouting distance of the beach, park for free on Glen Manor Drive, then head into the Glen Stewart Ravine. Nirvana for dog walkers, nature lovers and fort-building schoolkids.

Andrew Phung BONUS PICK is my secret parenting weapon. It rates playgrounds in Toronto based on location, equipment, and extras like splash pads and bathrooms.”

Fluffy, puffy 

choux buns

Mary Berg, TV host and cook

“MOST PEOPLE make the trek out to Royal York Road in Etobicoke for SanRemo Bakery (obviously amazing), but I head to Choux Lab. It makes the best choux buns I’ve ever had: the standout for me is the pistachio, and the staff favourite is vanilla, but all 14 flavours are delicious.” 

Hard-to-find Caribbean spices

The family-run shop BlessedLove Caribbean Grocery and Takeout, which proudly labels itself Riverside’s “community market,” has a wide range of Caribbean staples. It carries oxtail seasoning and spice brands that can be hard to find in Toronto, like Spur Tree and Irie, and the hot sauce used in-house, Tun Up, is made locally. On Fridays and Saturdays, jerk chicken fans can get their fix fresh from the smoking drum outside

Deeply discounted groceries

Too Good to Go is an anti-food-waste app that also fights soaring prices by connecting users with restaurants and grocery stores offering unsold stock at a discount. Figure out when in the day popular businesses (Eataly or Metro, say) post their deals or sign up for push notifications and you’ll up your chances of reserving a haul.

People-watching at the roller rink

Many of the GTA’s best skaters flaunt their skills (and their flashy ’fits) on Friday and Saturday nights at Scooter’s Roller Palace. The countdown is on, however: the rink is slated to be torn down by a developer within the next year.

Champagne and caviar with a twist

Anwar Mekhayech, designer

“IF YOU’RE LOOKING for a heady indulgence that’s not totally over the top, the new Mediterranean restaurant on King West, Abrielleoffers a $60 caviar bump: you’re served a dollop of premium sturgeon caviar on your hand, which you chase with Taittinger rosé champagne.” 

Spice kits

Kohinoor Foods on Gerrard Street East has a truly mind-blowing selection of spices as well as incense and hard-to-find beauty products imported from India.

Rare panes

In addition to, well, doors, The Door Store has a staggering selection of vintage and salvaged hardware, lighting and decor pieces. Sourced-from-Egypt shutters and windows are among the shop’s best and rarest items.

Super speedy,
surprisingly bucolic and very underrated bus routes

The 94 Wellesley can get nighttime riders and partiers from the Village to the Ossington strip in 10 minutes flat (and for far less than an Uber) by bypassing always-busy College and Bloor and zipping across Harbord instead.

The 28 Bayview South runs from Davisville station to the Evergreen Brick Works along one of the city’s most bucolic routes—especially during fall.

Connecting Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital to Union Station, the 121 Esplanade-­River bus speeds through the city’s southeast, from Riverdale, Riverside and Corktown to the Distillery District, the St. Lawrence Market and the Financial District—a vastly more civilized experience than the 501.

Distance travelled is beside the point with the 82 Rosedale, a brief route that connects Summerhill and Rosedale subway stations and is ideal for lookie-loos who want to do some mansion-spotting. 

Off-leash dog paradise

Nuit Regular, chef 

“MY HUSBAND, Jeff, and I love taking our bordoodle, Ziggy, to Sherwood Park in midtown for walks. There’s a great off-leash section in the ravine where he can run around and make new friends, and he especially loves to swim in Burke Brook. Personally, I love how peaceful the park is—it’s a great place to reflect before starting a busy day.”

Doughnuts from a health-food shop 

Carlaw avenue, a street with so many gyms that a stroll down it can feel both invigorating and insulting, harbours some of the city’s best doughnuts. The Donuterie and its artisanal offerings (like Dulce Boston Cream, Mango Lassi, and Earl Grey and Biscuits) are concealed within the Fruitful Market, a health-food shop. Flavours change monthly, and you’ll find the biggest assortment on Saturday mornings between 9 a.m. and noon.

A mid-century-mod treasure trove

Squeezed between a Domino’s and a souvlaki spot in a Junction strip mall isn’t where you’d usually expect to find mid-century couches, lighting and storage. Stay Home Furnishings is impeccably curated and just this side of quirky: visitors are asked to remove their shoes to better capture how an item would feel in their home (and to reduce the wear and tear on the Moroccan rugs underfoot).

Buttons, ribbons and bows

Tiffany Pratt, TV host and designer

Fabric Town on Danforth has strange and wonderful fabric finds and a wide selection of notions, trims and ribbons. It’s also where I score the very best, very fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton prints to make dresses.”

Estate-sale browsing

The online auction site Maxsold lets you bid on local items and then pick them up in  person. What’s on offer is fancier and much, much cheaper than the stuff available on Kijiji, eBay and the like.

Photography of 84 Nassau Street Cafe, Chester Hill Lookout, CNTRBND, La Boulangerie, Maha’s, Scooter’s Roller Palace and Stay Home Furnishings by Carmen Cheung

This story appears in the January 2024 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here