Younger night owls are flocking to Little Italy, where new clubs and art hubs have settled in among the strip’s red-sauce restaurants and dance halls.
On Valentine’s Day, I ventured deep into Little Italy for the opening of an exhibit called “With Pleasure.” There was a DJ spinning in the storefront window, digital collages inspired by vintage erotica, a wall plastered with candy grab bags (surprise sex tip inside!), and bottomless glasses of wine, all framed by a series of captivating paintings of voluptuous tribal women by Sri Lankan–born Rajni Perera. The downstairs had been converted into a full-on “porn fort,” where explicit projections ricocheted off bedsheets. Welcome to Huntclub. It’s one of the newest social hubs to invigorate the strip—and it’s only the beginning.
College Street used to bore me. I figured it was a place for people holding fast to old faithfuls: Diners who staunchly believe that the charms of an Italian comfort spot like Café Diplomatico have not been exaggerated, or brides whose last taste of single life happens at Latin drag bar El Convento Rico. But Huntclub’s arrival on College—one of the few art galleries to open around here in years—mirrors the new direction of this old-school street. Since its launch last September, Huntclub has hosted packed late nights with everything from punk-rock photo exhibitions to, well, porn. The multi-purpose space (in the former home of Celestinos shoe store) is the pet project of photographer/videographer Darlene Huynh, a decade-long resident of the area. She rents portions of the two-floor space to other artists, like silk screeners and carpenters, many of whom also live nearby.
The “porn fort” at Huntclub’s recent “With Pleasure” show. (Photo: courtesy of Huntclub.)
“Unlike the homogeneity found in Queen and King West, Little Italy has sustained its authentic feeling,” says Huynh. I appreciate her point about our favourite strips turning one-note. Not only do the joints further south all look alike, they seldom seem to add anything new to the nightscape. Plus, when you’ve got places like the Big Bop giving way to a Crate & Barrel, or galleries like the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and Edward Day moving to make way for a condo, there’s a desperate need for fresh air. “I can feel the shift in the type of people who inhabit this neighbourhood,” she says. As older generations—Portuguese, Italian—move out, younger crowds who feel alienated by their once-artistic hoods are sliding in. The strip could be a second shot for them. “I wanted to build a space that facilitates creativity and community engagement, especially for artists on this street,” says Huynh, who has set up an affordable photo studio to offset the heavy rental prices in Liberty Village or a trek to cheaper spaces in the east.
LE1F at Moskito + Bite. (Photo: courtesy of Conrad M. Stocks.)
Even beyond Huynh’s progressive art hub (which helps fill the hole left by Whippersnapper Gallery) or the formidable taco joint La Carnita, College Street has never felt like more of a place to get down. Sure, there have always been crown jewels like Revival (hip-hop karaoke!) or Sneaky Dee’s (cheap nachos!). But now, there are spots to accommodate different kinds of night owls—like Moskito + Bite, which recently opened where the legendary nightclub Plaza Flamingo once stood. It’s ambitious not only in size (two floors, a 900-person capacity), but in scope, with a substantial food menu, crafted cocktails, live music downstairs, and a killer sound system upstairs for big-name DJs. Like Huntclub, M+B is a canvas in progress, an alternative to places like Revival or Mod Club, which I find tend to skew older. But Vanoush Farzam, an M+B partner, insists it’s not here to transform College into King West. “We try to avoid certain things that neighbourhood stands for. We’re not a nightclub; we don’t serve the top-40 crowd. We’re very particular about the bands and music we bring in and the laid-back atmosphere we’re creating.”
I see College changing into something far more eclectic than the entertainment strip. In just over a year, the neighbourhood has welcomed new restaurant Johnny Jackson, where pinball and pulled-pork sundaes (that’s right) are served alongside indie-rock and folk performers, and Crawford, the two-level dance bar beside Mod Club, featuring retro-video gaming nights and free grilled cheese with your hip-hop beats. Old faves have a new look, too. Monarch Tavern on Clinton revamped its social calendar, and I’ve landed there for everything from book launches to rock nights to wicked karaoke throwdowns. Souz Dal is becoming a destination for crowds who want good vibes and cheap drinks without the cover, line-ups, or bullshit. To my rich-financier readers, I offer this advice: Buy the Waverly Hotel, gut it, then renovate it along with the Silver Dollar Room. Now that’s a party.