Best of the City 2015: this year’s guide to all things excellent

Best of the City 2015: this year's guide to all things excellent

Toronto’s appetite for material delights has never been so voracious. Suddenly, we’re snacking on $35 tins of Spanish cockles, checking our pets into four-star resorts and hiring TSO superstars to serenade us in our sitting rooms. We’ve got a million ways to spend our time and cash—which is great, but also stressful for those of us susceptible to FOMO. Our team of expert testers spent weeks plumbing the city’s nichiest of niches, unearthing new options for dining, drinking, shopping and other hedonistic pursuits. Here, your indispensable guide to the best of absolutely everything in 2015.

Midtown Curry Fix

2038 Yonge St., 416-487-7684

The first thing you need to know about doubles is that they are called doubles, even if you’re eating just one. It’s not “a double.” Ever. In Trinidad, the spicy sandwich with chickpea filling between fried buns (a.k.a. “bara”) is a street food enjoyed on the way to work in the morning. In Toronto, the breakfast thing isn’t strictly enforced, but what matters is that you get your doubles from Drupatis, the Etobicoke-based mini-chain with a new location at Yonge and Davisville. They also sell paper-thin roti studded with split peas and wrapped around saucy meats or herbaceous vegetables. And if you’re lucky, macaroni pie will be on special—the dense West Indian take on mac and cheese uses pimento cheese and is intensely creamy.

House-Made Cheese

1221 Bay St., 416-920-2323

Chef Martin Kouprie can now add “urban cheesemaker” to his CV: his restaurant makes 20 small-batch varieties in-house with cow, sheep and goat milk sourced from southern Ontario farms. Each one is cheekily named after a Toronto neighbourhood, like the wax-sealed Bathurst aged cheddar; the runny, ripe, ash-covered Portlands; the stilton-style Moss Park; and the extra rich, blue-veined cambozola-style Rosedale. On Tuesday nights, turophiles unite at Pangaea’s bar for a tutored wine and cheese tasting.

Coco and Cowe ice pops
(Image: courtesy of Coco and Cowe)
Frozen Treats

Coco and Cowe Confectionery

The online lifestyle shop fronted by Catriona Smart (wife of real estate mogul Brad Lamb) now has a pink cargo bike loaded with made-from-scratch ice cream bars and fresh-fruit treats, which staff pedal between parks and farmers’ markets. The Birthday Cake—Greg’s vanilla ice cream wedged between two freshly baked blondies, all coated with confetti sprinkles—is effective Instagram bait. Dairy-free options include fruit-filled ice pops in pineapple-mango-lemonade, mixed berry, fruit salad or peach-watermelon flavours.

Far-flung Pops

Soda Pop Central

Dave Repol, a wine wholesaler and vintage car collector, is a sucker for soda. He started a side business importing pop and selling it online after a trip to Detroit, where his son fell for Vernors ginger ale (then unavailable in Canada). Now he stocks over a thousand varieties of international sodas (including more than 130 types of root beer) at a warehouse in Whitby. Most of the products are bottled—Repol insists you can taste the tin—and sweetened using cane sugar. Some of the rare delights include salted caramel root beer from Chicago’s Cicero, blood orange ginger beer from Australia’s Bundaberg, and Harry Potter’s Flying Cauldron Butterbeer, which tastes like butterscotch.

Patois burger
(Image: Erin Leydon)
Late-night snack

794 Dundas St. W.

One of our favourite fusion fads is Asian-Caribbean, courtesy of chef Craig Wong. His jerk chow mein is always good, but look to the specials, where other staples are constantly tweaked. Take the burger built on a Chinese pineapple bun: lately, Wong has been swapping out the patties for his house-made jerk Spam, which turns out to be a perfect bite of sweet bun, spicy, salty pork and pickled onion—a pre-emptive strike against tomorrow’s hangover.

Bar Raval seafood tins
(Image: Thomas van der Zaag)
Gourmet Tinned Seafood

Bar Raval
505 College St., no phone

The Spanish conservas at College Street’s Basque pintxos spot Bar Raval changed the way we think about canned seafood. The marinated white anchovies, or boquerones ($9), are slightly sweet, firm and tart—nothing like the salt bombs scattered on takeout pizza. A tin of house-smoked mackerel ($11) or mussels ($14) comes with salty Neal Brothers kettle chips, the perfect crunchy foil to the soft and mild fish. And if you feel extra indulgent, you can splash out with tins of thick, pleasantly chewy razor clams ($26) or plump, minerally cockles ($35 for a half-portion) imported from Spain.

Food Trend revival

Broncos Slider Bar
127 Strachan Ave., 647-748-4800

The new sliders-and-sides restaurant near Trinity Bellwoods Park evokes the mid-oughties, when Apple unleashed its “small is beautiful” ethos and tiny burgers were a novelty hors d’oeuvre. The menu uses the term “slider” liberally to refer to miniature banh mi, beef dip, fillet o’ fish and oyster po’ boy, among others. They’re all $3 or $4, which means you can sample several without going broke. Best of the two-bite bunch: the peanut butter, banana and crispy bacon Elvis on white bread, which tastes like childhood (only better, because bacon), and the classic cheeseburger, which looks plucked from a Happy Meal with its tangy pickle slices and pillowy bun but tastes even better.

Scoop Shop ice cream sandwiches
(Image: Renée Suen)
Ice cream sandwiches

Scoop Shop
808 Dundas St. W., 416-854-2949

Sanober Motiwala completed the University of Guelph’s ice cream technology course (you read that right) and started a farmers’ market ice cream stand called Sweet Sammies in 2013. Now she has a permanent home near Trinity Bellwoods to sling scoops, sundaes, milkshakes, malts, affogatos, floats and even baked Alaskas. The signature treat is her made-to-order sandwiches, which smush house-churned ice cream between two freshly baked cookies or macaron halves ($5.95). Flavours rotate but may include vanilla bean, Maldon-salted caramel, Propeller coffee–injected espresso, or Mexican caramel, plus coconut- and fruit-based sorbets.

Sea Witch deep-fried fish sandwich
(Image: Erin Leydon)
Deep-fried fish

Sea Witch
636 St. Clair Ave. W., 647-349-4824

The ciabatta sandwiches at Sea Witch are impossible to eat gracefully—each one’s about the size of a sneaker, and the slippery condiments (like pickled onions and tartar sauce) inevitably slop out the bottom on first bite. But they’re worth the indignity of a few grease stains. The owner, Kevin Kowalczyk, spent a decade overseeing the deep-fryer at the now sadly defunct Penrose, Toronto’s most venerable British chippy, so he’s well versed in the fundamentals of a great fry: fresh fish (we recommend the pickerel, $12) coated in a perfectly seasoned batter then plunged in a boiling vat of beef drippings, trapping each fillet in an irresistibly crunchy golden shell. One sandwich easily feeds two.

Viking Bakery kleinur
(Image: Erin Leydon)
Icelandic Sweets

Viking Bakery
2207 Danforth Ave., 647-972-1401

Birgir Robertsson preps about 15 types of goodies through the week at his Danforth shop, including kleinur (lightly sweetened fritters), extra-clovey gingersnaps, crisp cheddar biscuits that pack a sharp bite, and fruit pies with a crunchy oatmeal crust. Best of all are the vinarterta: five thin shortbread cookies, each about the size of a salad plate, stacked and layered with plum or raspberry jam and sliced into wedges.

Barque Butcher Bar
(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)
Barbecue base camp

Barque Butcher Bar
287 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-532-7700

The aproned experts at Barque Butcher Bar, the new adjunct to Roncey’s favourite meatery, will teach you how to barbecue like a pro. Sip a draft beer or cocktail—like the smoked bourbon Smoke ’n’ Choke ($12)—while you get schooled on home-grill smoking techniques. And if all the talk makes you hungry, you can order something from the short snack menu. (The black cod, served on crispy rice cakes, yields two perfect bites for $10 but is only available after 6 p.m.) They also sell everything for a last-minute cookout: the meat, the veggies and even the spices, which they’ll help you turn into a custom rub at their DIY station.

Dessert Worth Waiting (and Waiting) For

Uncle Tetsu
598 Bay St., 647-941-1806

Even baffled onlookers are now joining the snaking queues outside Uncle Tetsu’s North American flagship on Bay Street, hungry for a taste of the elusive Japanese cheesecake. Unlike the dense New York style, these crustless wonders taste like a hybrid of sponge cake and soufflé, lusciously laced with cream cheese. Made on-site in 15-minute cycles, each cake gets hot-branded with owner Tetsushi Mizokami’s caricatured seal before being packaged—still warm—into a cute little vented box. Uncle Tetsu Japanese Matcha Café is now open next door.


Rowan Homespun
2196 Queen St. E., 416-694-8888

Dominique Del Col’s sunny wellness boutique in the Beach is a destination for antique curios, handcrafted housewares and plant-powered apothecary products (Wildwood, Del Col’s own skin care line, is made on-site using organic botanicals foraged from the Niagara-area farm where she grew up). The place is also a community hub: Del Col hosts workshops in the back studio, where shoppers can learn to brew kombucha and kefir water, and (coming in September) new moms can work with a holistic nutritionist and herbalist to make all-natural baby powder, oil, cream and wipes.

Rogues Custom shoes
(Image: courtesy of vendors)
Handcrafted kicks

Rogues Custom
10 Dundas St. E., 416-655-0711

This cobbler near Yonge-Dundas Square offers personalized pedal style to guys who don’t have thousands to drop on a fully bespoke experience. There are eight basic models—including a lace-up oxford called The Dutchman and a sleek chukka boot dubbed Handsome Johnny—that can be customized in multiple ways, from the patina of the leather to the shape of a buckle. Fittings happen in-store; shoes are assembled, hand-painted and delivered within six to eight weeks. From $545.

Opelle micro bag
(Image: courtesy of vendors)

1234 College St., 416-822-0206

Brenda Walsh bodysuits and sternum-grazing denim may be standard issue in Trinity Bellwoods Park, but there are chicer ways to embrace the ’90s fashion trend. For instance: a petite knapsack in burnished copper from Opelle, the new showroom on College from Toronto Etsyer Amy Malcolm. The sturdy hardware and soft suede trim give it the sumptuous look and feel of an investment piece—setting it firmly apart from the era of velvet scrunchies and snap bracelets. $460.

Eyebrow extensions

70 Yorkville Ave., 2nd flr., 416-777-9465

Urla Duncan has been helping Yorkville women feign Disney Princess lashes since bringing her niche beauty bar to the neighbourhood in 2012. Now she’s turned her attention to lacklustre brows. Her arch-extension service is a meticulous business: first, brows are examined and shaped to determine which areas require intervention; then, dozens of ultra-fine synthetic strands are glued to existing hairs using a special medical-grade adhesive. The whole process takes an hour; the thick Cara Ds last about two weeks. From $65.

(Image: Thomas van der Zaag)
Statement shades

Holly Eyewear
130 Cumberland St., 416-890-5081

This season is all about flashy eyewear: colourful, sculptural, surreal shades that are guaranteed to draw stares. The coolest ones come from Retrosuperfuture, an Italian brand whose latest line just debuted at the MOMA. The collection, inspired by ink drawings from Andy Warhol’s archives, includes four silhouettes: mod cat-eyes, flat-topped aviators with a glittering gold brow, Wayfarer-ish frames with wacky cut-out lenses and, our favourites, a pair of sweet granny glasses shaped like sideways hearts. Lady Gaga–level confidence is a prerequisite (a sense of humour also helps). $515–$607.

Tierre Taylor hat
(Image: courtesy of vendors)
Retro Milliner

Tierre Taylor

Tierre Taylor’s hat-making business blew up when she was photographed by Humans of New York wearing one of her own prim creations—a dainty chestnut cloche that could have graced Katharine Hepburn in Holiday. Since then, she’s been bombarded with orders for her handmade headpieces, which are inspired by hats from the ’20s and ’30s. Each pillbox, fedora or sculptural fascinator is pinned on wooden blocks, painstakingly stitched, and finished with luxurious embellishments like braided leather, silk flowers or clouds of netting. Our pick for summer: a preppy polo cap made from hand-woven Panamanian straw. $285.

Luxury loungewear

Kit and Ace
779 Queen St. W., no phone

Shannon Wilson, the former head designer for Lululemon (and wife of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson), has opened a new men’s and women’s clothing store on Queen West, soon to be joined by a larger flagship on Bloor Street’s Mink Mile. The brand specializes in casual basics—T-shirts, tanks, leggings and the like—made from qemir, a proprietary cashmere blend that’s irresistibly soft and conveniently machine washable. The pieces are designed for comfort, with smooth seams and removable neck tags, making them suitable for a demanding vinyasa class—but also stylish enough to layer with street clothes.

(Image: Lisa Petrole)
Pamper palace

Her Majesty’s Pleasure
556 King St. W., 416-546-4991

In Toronto, there’s a beauty bar for every occasion, whether it’s a furtive lunch-hour laser treatment or a boozy bridal shower. For the latter, we recommend Her Majesty’s Pleasure, which, despite the silly name, is an enchanting place to get professionally primped (and blissfully buzzed). The ornate shop offers a full list of spa services, including blowouts, manicures and organic facials, but it feels more like a social club than a salon: it’s open until 9 p.m., and the fully stocked bar serves a mean blueberry mojito. During the day, the Colette Petit Café (an offshoot of the Colette Grand Café in the Thompson Hotel) serves cappuccinos and croissants.

Vintage gems

The Treasure Chest
18 St. Thomas St., 416-971-9666, ext. 6503

Samantha Michelle’s leopard-print nook in the Windsor Arms has the opulent air of an Old Hollywood theatre. The 25-year-old proprietress (daughter of George Friedmann, the hotel’s owner) is equally glamorous: she’s an actress and DJ who jet-sets between New York, London, L.A. and Paris. Michelle stocks her shelves with polished vintage staples—print dresses, sleek fur coats, designer silk ties—and some spectacular one-of-a-kind pieces, like an intricately beaded flapper dress for $680. It’s a noble place to splurge: 10 per cent of all sales go to a revolving list of worthy causes.

(Image: courtesy of LoversLand)
(Image: courtesy of LoversLand)
Boho bridal shop

215 Ossington Ave., 416-551-3321

This nonchalant new shop caters to the kind of woman who’d rather get hitched on Ward’s Island in a diaphanous slip than at the Carlu in a taffeta powerpoof. Brides-to-be book appointments in the sultan’s tent at the back of the space to try on lace gowns from Rue de Seine, or art deco–inspired dresses from Rebecca Schoneveld. The rest of the store is stocked with local small-batch brands, like Parkdale-based Fortnight Lingerie and Kensington’s Province Apothecary (the Lover’s Oil is a honeymoon must). Dresses range from $1,500 to $7,000.

(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)
(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)
Dramatic jewellery

Gilding the Lily
47 Tank House Ln., 416-360-5459

At Annie Jagger’s new shop in the Distillery, Dundas West–appropriate pieces like ear cuffs and knuckle bars are crafted with luxury materials and extravagantly priced for the Rosedale set. Aspiring Rihannas can pick up a $7,000 diamond-studded cuff from Rona Pfeiffer, or, for $2,495, the Panama bracelet from Beaufille: two bangles—one worn at the elbow, the other at the wrist—connected by five delicate silver strands that redefine arm candy.

European kids’ clothes

2647 Yonge St., 647-349-7422

Lawrence Park private schools may be the reason Brooks Brothers has a youth line, but the neighbourhood has never had a kids’ store this cool. Owner Asli Tusavul, an interior designer from Istanbul, wanted to create a retail space where under-16s could experiment with their personal style. The result is Chalk, an understated boutique filled with artfully distressed denim, paint-splattered sweatshirts and eco-friendly sneakers sourced from European labels like Paris’s Finger in the Nose and Veja, and Brussels-based Bellerose. Prices are steep for kiddie gear—e.g., $60 for a cotton graphic tee—but it’s never too early to start accumulating style cred.

Green house cleaner

The Clean Clique

When Shannon Veals was 12, she took over for her mom’s cleaning lady. “I could do a better job even then,” she says. Years later, when she was studying sociology at U of T and looking for a flexible job, she took those housekeeping skills public, starting her own eco-friendly, socially conscious cleaning company. The Clean Clique uses only the highest quality, most efficient green products available, and the staff of six is insured and well paid. The tree-hugging isn’t restricted to your house either—all Clean Cliquers travel by foot, bike or TTC (portable vacuums in tow). $25 to $32 per hour, depending on frequency of service.

(Image: courtesy of The Lily Guild)
(Image: courtesy of The Lily Guild)
Niche florist

The Lily Guild

Last year, Dominika Solan launched the Lily Guild, a passion project that’s grown into one of the city’s coolest florists (the Dark Horse is a regular client). Inspired by 16th-century Dutch still lifes, Solan balances lush blooms with earthier elements, like birds’ nests, mushrooms and even bleached animal skulls. The results are anything but prim—one recent creation, a wispy explosion of cattails and wild clematis, was modelled after something she saw growing by the side of Highway 10. From $50.

Best of the City 2015: this year's guide to all things excellent
(Image: Daniel Neuhaus)
Portuguese Decor

1191 Dundas St. W., 647-352-1191

Nancy Fernandes and Connie Freitas opened this pristine boutique to showcase all the gorgeous handcrafted goods coming out of Portugal, where a sluggish economy has been hard on small businesses. The ambassadorial scheme paid off: the place has been packed with homesick expats and Ossington yuccies lured by the promise of hand-painted porcelain bowls, beautifully packaged scented soaps and colourful throws made from burel, a super-soft wool traditionally used to make shepherds’ cloaks.

Chic cleaning products

Old Faithful
886 Queen St. W., 647-352-9376

Walter Manning believes that domestic tools should be both functional and aesthetically pleasing—even lowly things like cleaning solvents and balls of twine. At Old Faithful, his new shop near Trinity Bellwoods, the former are eco-friendly and lavender-infused, the latter are woven from natural jute, and both are arranged in perfect rows alongside leather-trimmed laundry carts, hand-bound Scandinavian scrub brushes and ostrich feather dusters. Aspiring Nigellas will love the luxe pantry items, like $35 jugs of artisanal maple syrup laced with Tahitian vanilla.

(Image: Thomas van der Zaag)
Stylish place settings

Hopson Grace
1120 Yonge St., 416-926-1120

Choosing china patterns is a thrill at this new Rosedale boutique. Owners Andrea Hopson and Martha Grace McKimm scour the globe for gorgeous tabletop decor, prioritizing great craftsmanship over fancy labels. There are some truly unique treasures: handmade carbon-steel knives from Corsica, medieval-looking ox horn mugs by Abbeyhorn (as seen on Game of Thrones) and, our favourite, London designer Richard Brendon’s exquisite platinum teacups, which reflect the flowery patterns of their vintage saucers—adding a mod twist to the dainty tea room trend.

(Image: courtesy of Kid-Chen Co.)
(Image: courtesy of Kid-Chen Co.)

Kid-Chen Co.

The twee toy kitchens from Kid-Chen take the Easy Bake tradition to the next level. Husband-and-wife team Mike and Kelly Collier handcraft playsets from Canadian maple and non-toxic paint. Our favourite is a pygmy replica of the designer kitchens you find in downtown condos, with a dishwasher, oven, range hood, fridge and sink painted to look like stainless steel ($1,950). To complete the fantasy, Kid-Chen also makes all manner of wooden culinary accoutrements, including a harvest table, brunch dishes and a cheese plate with ersatz gouda and blue—because wine and cheeses are the new tea parties.

Dog furniture

Pup and Kit

The city’s most coveted canine bed is hewn from gleaming maple, with the elegantly angled legs of a Herman Miller coffee table, a wide headboard and puffy charcoal cushions. It was designed for Steven, a slobbering three-year-old French bulldog. Leslie Hemming, Steven’s indulgent owner, created her collection of pet furniture after she bought her first downtown condo and couldn’t find Steven a bed to match her sleek mid-century modern decor. Other poochy pieces include a loungey pallet bed and a hollow dog cave that looks like one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Each style comes in cherry, oak, walnut or maple, with special sizes for cats and a rainbow selection of cushion colours. From $399.

Custom barn doors

1925 Workbench

The best way to transform a glassy condo into a bucolic Victorian farmhouse: hire 1925 Workbench, a design firm that specializes in custom sliding barn doors and hardware. Woodworker Rock Huynh (even his name inspires confidence) and his wife, designer My Le Nguyen, make pieces using salvaged timber and hand-forged hardware. They come in three designs: modernist slabs; panel-style doors with optional glass or chalkboard inserts; and, for purists, a rustic reclaimed barnboard version. Most customers stick to tradition, staining the wood and showing off the gnarly grain, but magpies can opt for a bright sherbet-coloured paint job. Doors start at $270.

Gallery-grade picture hangers


The installation wizards at Artstall call themselves “wall designers”: they’ve hung Monets, Renoirs, Picassos and even a Steinway grand piano at places like the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, and galleries in New York and Miami. The staff consists of professional artists who work with clients to figure out which piece should go where, at what height, and recommend new pieces to fill empty walls. They do everything with gallery-grade precision, using laser-surveying equipment to hang each frame off two points—and ensuring that no drunken party guests accidentally knock your Group of Seven collection out of whack. $100–$300 per hour.

Cool kitchens

Appliance Love
950 Dupont St., 416-516-9500

The window display at this new showroom on Dupont—a man-size stiletto propping up a stackable washer-dryer—isn’t typical of an appliance store. But then, neither is the minimalist decor (by Design Agency, the firm that did Momofuku), or the wine room, where customers can sample perfectly aerated pours. The appliances are pretty cool too: they include luxury ranges from Sub-Zero and AGA; curvaceous, chrome-handled fridges from the Italian manufacturer SMEG; and a slew of Jetsons-esque kitchen innovations, like the Urban Cultivator (a self-watering hydroponic herb garden), and speed-cooking ovens from Monogram that can roast a whole turkey in 21 minutes.

(Image: courtesy of vendor)
(Image: courtesy of vendor)
Scandinavian Design

245 Davenport Rd., 416-968-2768

Arne Nordtorp is hell-bent on introducing Torontonians to great Nordic craftsmanship. Earlier this spring, the cladding came off his 3,500-square-foot showroom in Yorkville, which has been undergoing renovations for two years. The place stocks some incredible pieces, like a $20,000 tufted leather daybed by the Danish designer Paul Kjaerholm—the same model that sits in front of Monet’s lilypads at the MOMA. But Nordtorp’s democratic design philosophy makes him scatter modestly priced finds among the masterpieces (we like the modular storage units from Muuto, which start at $140).

(Image: courtesy of vendor)
(Image: courtesy of vendor)
Fold-up furniture

Cut and Fold

Architects Tony Round and Andrea Kordos have invented a unique solution for cramped living quarters: the origami chair, a geometric lounger inspired by the Japanese paper-folding art. When assembled, the steel frame cradles an octagonal bucket seat covered in leather, wood veneer or, our favourite, a luxe cowhide finish. But cleverly placed hinges allow the whole thing to collapse into a flat panel, making storage a breeze—even for the seriously square-footage-deprived. $1,600.

Comedy hub

Bad Dog Comedy Theatre
875 Bloor St. W., 416-491-3115

Last summer, Bad Dog Theatre Company opened a new training centre on Bloor West. The cramped but cozy space houses a friendly bar and 64-seat theatre. For newbies, we recommend Theatresports on Saturdays, a joke-off tournament that’s as fierce as the fighting pits on Game of Thrones; avant-gardists will want to check out the mid-week performances, including live improvised podcast recordings. There’s also a quirky collection of comedy classes—in the past year, programming has doubled due to explosive demand.

Best of the City 2015: this year's guide to all things excellent
(Image: Gabby Frank)

Mascot Beer Garden
31 Mercer St., 416-979-0131

The Entertainment District’s new beer garden, perched on the rooftop of the Mascot microbrewery, is covered with picnic tables, white picket fences, a cute Astroturf carpet and, because it’s clubland, a house DJ. The beer list focuses on German-inspired brews (an earthy pilsner and fruity Hefeweizen, for example), which make ideal sops for the herzlich menu of sausages and burgers, served from a rooftop food truck with its own fruitwood smoker.

Private recitals

Pocket Concerts

In the era of small-batch everything, chamber music has made a circuitous trip back to private parlours. Pocket Concerts, founded by violist Rory McLeod and his pianist paramour Emily Rho, stages private concerts in clients’ homes, plucking musicians from the TSO, COC and National Ballet Orchestra. Each concert is a mix-and-match operation: one show in the Beach featured a harpist, flutist and violist playing works by R. Murray Schafer and Claude Debussy; another in the Annex included a soprano, pianist and clarinetist tinkling through frou-frou pieces by Schubert and cabaret numbers by Kurt Weill. The productions are intimate and ornate, the kind of experiences best enjoyed with champagne and powdered wigs.

(Image: Erin Leydon)
(Image: Erin Leydon)
Bespoke cocktails

Civil Liberties
878 Bloor St. W., 416-546-5634

Civil Liberties is a casual hole-in-the-wall with luxurious libations—like Cheers if Sam Malone had a man bun and shook up Prohibition-era tipples. There is no cocktail list. Instead, you describe your mood and see what delicious concoction the bartenders devise; ask for something adventurous, and they might deliver a head-thumping blend of genever, house-made vermouth and Fernet Branca. Snacks are less varied—grilled cheese sandwiches made with a Kraft slice on a Toast-Tite grill like the one you left in your university dorm room. Definitely not highfalutin, but damn if they don’t taste perfect at 2 a.m.

(Image: Thomas van der Zaag)
Pet resort

9 Meteor Dr., 416-679-9599

This is no basement kennel—it’s a 14,000-square-foot resort for dogs. They offer overnight boarding for all sizes and ages, with luxurious amenities like Kuranda beds (the canine equivalent of a Hästens), HVAC filters (necessary for asthmatic pooches), flat-screen TVs (in case your dog likes to fall asleep to Fallon), a playground and pool, and private webcams so you can check in while you’re away. You can also upgrade to one-on-one fetch sessions, grooming services and doggy treats (including special ice cream). From $59 a night.

Best of the City 2015: this year's guide to all things excellent
(Image: Thomas van der Zaag)
Yoga class

Ripley’s Aquarium
288 Bremner Blvd., 647-351-3474, ext. 2601

Just when we thought yoga had reached its apex, a new spurt of tranquil tutorials started popping up. The newest and best is at Ripley’s Aquarium, which lets lotus-legged practitioners skip the weekend crowds in favour of a pre-dawn Hatha class. The Tuesday-morning sessions alternate between Rainbow Reef and Ray Bay. Valerie Wint, a certified Ananda yoga teacher, instructs students on their sun salutations and vinyasas while Picasso triggerfish and humbug dascyllus fight for their breakfast in the tank. $160 for eight sessions.

(Image: Tamara Lockwood)
(Image: Tamara Lockwood)
Man cave

Rod, Gun and Barbers
2877 Dundas St. W., 647-350-6446

Despite the candy-cane pole and plush leather barber chairs, Rod’s is less a place to get a haircut than a place to hang out. Owner Jeff James modelled the shop on an old-fashioned gun club, throwing his personal collection of girly pin-ups and taxidermy on the walls and positioning the swivelling seats next to a fully stocked bar. To that end, haircuts are just a fraction of what’s on tap. Guys can sign up for the Rod and Gun Club (which hosts hunting trips to the Ontario bush), swing by for live music on weekends, or spend a leisurely afternoon with The King: a haircut, a Montecristo cigar and a glass of single malt, all for $60 ($80 with a straight-razor shave).

Parkour gym

The Monkey Vault
100 Symes Rd., 647-350-1111

Parkour is a cross between gymnastics and military boot camp: traceurs (as acolytes are known) climb, leap and slither through an urban arena of streets and alleys. The Monkey Vault is Toronto’s only gym devoted to the sport, founded by Dan Iaboni, a former movie stuntman. It occupies a 10,000-square-foot warehouse just off St. Clair near Weston, where Iaboni has set up a vast clapboard city of miniature towers linked by girders. Experts practise scaling 13-foot walls and teeter across the beams; newcomers receive a gentler initiation, vaulting over waist-high barricades and jumping through window frames. Classes from $35.

Gaming bar

I Darts Toronto
7850 Woodbine Ave., 905-604-7850

In 2012, Markham-based buds Andrew Chiu and Steven Fan started a business lugging electronic dart boards to billiard clubs around the city, trying to convince the owners to install the units—they use felt-tipped darts and connect to an online network, allowing users to compete on a city-wide level. Within three years, Chiu and Fan had opened the first bull’s eye bar in North America. I Darts Toronto draws nightly crowds of casual players, converted pros and weekend revellers who come for the bar’s neon-lit drink “towers”—frighteningly tall personal dispensers that pour draft beer.

Kids’ birthday destination

Action Potential Lab
451 Christie St., 416-538-4100

In 2013, Lisa Carrie Goldberg, a biologist, took over a Victorian apothecary in Hillcrest Village, opened up her own kids’ chemistry lab and became the Converse-wearing antidote to buttoned-up science teachers everywhere. The place is cute and unfussy, with vintage curios filling the white built-in shelves and sciencey diagrams on a wall-size chalkboard. Kids can make turquoise exploding volcanoes, dig up faux dinosaur teeth, print their own photos using paper that develops in the sunlight, or make a robot from batteries and recycled tin cans. The learning is fun and collaborative, and Goldberg’s lab-coated team takes care of all the requisite setup and cleanup.

(Image: Liz Bedall)
(Image: Liz Bedall) Photography by Liz Bedall
Dance class

Elevation Dancentre Studio, 979 Bloor St. W.,

Nicky Nasrallah, a Beyoncé-obsessed actor-comedian, taught himself to dance at clubs like Wrongbar and the Annex Wreck Room, where people would challenge him to Queen Bey dance-offs. Before he knew it, he’d mastered all her choreography. Several times a week, beheeled women and men totter into his Bloordale studio to learn a new routine: the boy-band moves of “Love on Top,” the tribal stomps of “Run the World” and the Fosse-inspired flapping of “Single Ladies,” which takes two sessions to master. And, this being Beyoncé-land, each class ends with a YouTube-able group video shoot. $15 per session.

Best of the City 2015: this year's guide to all things excellent
(Image: Barb Simkova)
Dual-purpose bar

Northern Belle
913 Dundas St. W., 416-823-8969

Dundas West is known for two things: craft coffee shops and moody candlelit cocktail bars. Northern Belle is both. By day, it serves cold-brew coffee; by night, a selection of cocktails, with an emphasis on vermouth. And sometimes you can have it all, as in the L’Eclisse, made with Cointreau, vanilla liqueur, Fernet and cold-brew. There’s something wonderful about a place where you can pop in for a morning croissant and linger until last call.


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