An erroneous lead on an apartment first brought me to Leslieville. As a newcomer to Toronto, I had heard rumors of this chilled out haven in an otherwise jumping metropolis. People called it “Toronto’s Brooklyn.” And while my “bright, spacious two-bedroom loft” turned out to be a dingy partitioned attic, the neighborhood did not disappoint.
Labeled by the press as Toronto’s “next big thing,” I’m convinced Leslieville has already arrived. It was originally an industrial neighborhood that housed mostly blue-collar factory workers. It still has some of its Depression-era charm, but is now the subject of gradual gentrification.
While Toronto is mostly known to Canadians as the nation’s fashion and culture capitol, Leslieville is decidedly sleepier. In fact, it’s the closest thing this Vancouver girl has found to a West Coast vibe since moving to Ontario’s capital city in February.
This is where Toronto hipsters come to roost when they are through with the West End art scene. You’ll see them shopping for mid-century finds to fill their turn-of-the-century fixer-upper, towing their well-shod tots in Radio Flyer wagons (designer strollers are for the Midtown set) and eschewing downtown clubs and cocktails for backyard patios and microbrews.
Leslieville’s main thoroughfare is a 2km (1.24 mile) stretch along Queen Street East, just a 10 minute street car ride (or 25 minute walk) from downtown Toronto. Blink when you pass the dingy TV repair shops and landmark peeler bar, Jilly’s, and you’ll discover a quietly hip enclave of gastronomic treats, art, and a hearty sprinkling of antiques.
Here are my top picks for a perfect day in Leslieville*:
1091 Queen Street East
Leslieville is one big trove of mid-century finds, but Ethel is a perfectly curated collection of vintage lamps, clocks, Pyrex, telephone tables, and fondue pots. You’ll feel like you’ve walked into a Mad Men set, so it’s no surprise many of these items are rented out as props for television and movies. Owner and former interior designer Shauntelle LeBlanc is happy to chat vintage and modern design with any keen shopper, and stocks a great line of made-in-Toronto cards, alongside her retro wares.
1142 Queen Street East
If you haven’t had your fill at Ethel or prefer your vintage finds without a side of kitsch, pop over to GUFF (Good Used Furniture Finds) for pristine mid-century pieces. Plan to have a van at your immediate disposal because it’s hard to pass up the perfect teak console, Danish modern dining set, or industrial table you are sure to find at GUFF’s new Queen East space.
The Purple Purl
1162 Queen Street East
Toronto’s answer to New York knitting boutique Purl Soho, The Purple Purl is its own community within the community. On any given Tuesday night the lit-up windows reveal women of all ages sitting in a circle of cozy chairs, knitting socks and spinning yarns. On the main floor you’ll find three technicolor dream walls stocked with high quality wool, while the basement hosts knitting and crocheting classes for eager novices like me. Even if you’re not into knitting, it’s worth stopping in for the herbal teas and homemade ginger cookies.
Nathalie-Roze & Co.
1015 Queen Street East
Though Toronto’s fashion scene is ruled by the trendy West End, Nathalie-Roze is an East End gem, worth a trip in its own right. The boutique-slash-craft studio features dozens of local designers and their mostly handmade wares including jewelry, men’s ties, and baby goods. I’m a sucker for the custom onesies made out of old souvenir t-shirts.
Ed’s Real Scoop
920 Queen Street East
Ed’s serves up the best gelato in Toronto, and possibly the best in Canada. They’ve been making their own gelato for a decade, but the Leslieville shop is relatively new. Not that you’d know it by the queue out the door on sunny days. If that crowd doesn’t tip you off, the smell of freshly made sugar cones will let you know you’re in the right place. Take advantage of Ed’s liberal sampling policy, and then take home a tub (because one cone isn’t enough). I can’t get enough of the passion fruit gelato and am counting down the months until I get to try their seasonal eggnog ice cream.
812 Queen Street East
Bonjour Brioche is a little taste of Quebec in Toronto—slightly pompous waiters and all. This cash-only brunch spot is a Leslieville mainstay. The weekend lineup is killer, but well worth the wait. If you’re short on time, just grab a freshly made croissant or baguette to nibble on the road. If you have more time, however, the croque madame (fried egg, gruyere, and ham on a perfectly puffy slice of brioche) is amazing. Bonus, for ’80s TV fans, it’s on the corner of Degrassi Street. Yes, THAT Degrassi Street.
This unassuming restaurant is easy to locate between its two namesake streets, Leslie and Jones. When you spot a giant “Hello my name is…” sign hovering over a doorway you’ll know you’re in the right place. Leslie Jones is a perfect extension of both the neighborhood’s vintage vibe and gastro-obsession. The Italian-inspired menu is always changing, as are the records, spinning mellow tunes on a turntable at the back of the restaurant. As Leslieville becomes an increasingly popular foodie destination, it’s hard to find dinner and drinks for two south of $50. It’s also hard to find restaurants that don’t overcook their risotto, but here it’s flawlessly al dente and conveniently affordable. The patio out back is strewn with lights, perfect for Toronto’s famously hot summers.
Dark Horse Espresso
682 Queen Street East
Leslievillers are spoiled for choice when it comes to independent coffee shops. With nearly one per block it’s hard to narrow down, but this gem on the western edge of Leslieville is my favorite place to while away a Saturday morning. Ever-changing art on the walls and in my latte foam make each visit an adventure. The giant communal table is a great place to meet locals, and the super friendly staff are more than happy to chat while they work. Take advantage of free wifi (no password required) and truly delicious scones.
*Note: Don’t plan to visit over a Monday when most of the shops and many restaurants are closed.