King West is shedding its party-hard past and growing into one of the city’s prime spots for seriously tasty food.
Toronto neighbourhoods have a way of being reduced to a single adjective. When you read about Queen West in a New York Times write-up or a Yelp restaurant review, it’s invariably preceded by the word “trendy.” Yorkville is “affluent.” Anything north of Bloor is “boring” (or, if someone’s feeling charitable, “sleepy”). These simplifications help make sense of the city’s spaces, but they can become ingrained, persisting even after a neighbourhood has changed. No stretch better illustrates this right now than King West. When many Torontonians think of the blocks between Spadina and Bathurst, the first adjective they reach for is “douchey,” a reference to the neighbourhood’s club-land past. In fact, the area has transformed into a culinary strip to rival Parkdale and Ossington—a place where craft-beer houses and Italian bakeries sit next to boisterous tapas joints and low-lit cocktail bars.
In September 2009, chef Rob Gentile opened Buca in a former basement boiler room down a narrow lane near King and Portland. “All along the strip on both sides, from Portland to Spadina, you had clubs,” he says. Restaurants for the most part were high-end or exclusive: Susur Lee had his upscale fusion bistro Madeline’s, Jacob’s and Co. Steakhouse was serving Raptors and Leafs players. Rodney’s Oyster House, open since 2001, straddled the line between unpretentious local haunt and hip seafood bar, but it shared tight elbow room with bottle-service favourites like Cheval and Brant House. “With all the proposed planning, we knew things were going to change,” says Gentile. “Clubs and residential neighbourhoods don’t mix.”
Twenty years ago, King West was little more than a collection of old warehouses. Along with the influx of clubs in the 2000s, it was the construction of a vertical neighbourhood (and the repurposing of those warehouses as office spaces) that helped the area transition. According to the city, 28 condo buildings with some 5,300 units between them have gone up around King West since 2005, bringing thousands of diners to the area. The commercial makeup changed, too, with prime real estate snapped up by restaurateurs, who had an easier time obtaining liquor licences than club owners did.
Today, you can sample paellas and Spanish wine at Patria, then head a few steps west for ceviche and arepas at Valdez. There are craft beer and game sausages at WVRST, and just beneath, biscotti and amaretti at Forno Cultura. A few doors down, Home of the Brave serves fried-chicken sandwiches above barbecue spot Lou Dawgs. Neighbourhood old-timers (a relative term) like Lee and Buca are busier than ever. The clubs still exist, as do one-size-fits-all pubs like Fynn’s of Temple Bar. But the food landscape has become as varied in price as it has in selection, and the patrons are similarly diverse. Spend a Friday night at Patria and you’ll see the skinny-jean set dig into plates of patatas bravas, while well-accessorized older couples on double dates enjoy paper-thin slices of hand-sabered jamon. “It’s a very broad crowd in the dining room every night—something that wouldn’t exist if King was still this kind of transient area,” says chef Stuart Cameron.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by chefs looking for new outposts. “There are lots of people living, working, and going out in the same place,” says Porchetta & Co. owner Nick Auf Der Mauer, who will open a second location of his pork-centric sandwich shop on King, between Portland and Brant, later this year. “We feel we’re in good company here.”
The restaurant will sit next to a third Pizzeria Libretto location and will be almost three times the size of the original. It’s a bit of a gamble for an owner accustomed to small digs and the benefit of a lunchtime crowd, but Auf Der Mauer is feeling confident.
In part, that’s because King West no longer just comes out at night. Patria, Weslodge, and Gusto 101 serve weekend brunch, and small lunch spots like The Greek and The One That Got Away line the strip. Of course, if you’re Rob Gentile, you could just keep your kitchen open nearly 80 per cent of the day. Earlier this year, near his flagship spot, he launched Bar Buca, a café, bar, and restaurant serving from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. each day. “We wanted to create a neighbourhood spot, somewhere you could stop in the morning for a coffee and at the end of the day for a glass of wine and a snack,” he says. “We could have opened anywhere. But we’ve watched the area develop so quickly, and we love it here.”