A handful of new businesses and events are giving people a reason to cross the Don after 9 p.m.
There’s no easy way to say this, but Toronto’s east end is about as exciting as your first hangover. As a west-ender, I’ve always thought of the cluster of neighbourhoods on the other side of Parliament as the afterlife, the place you go to rest after you’ve, well, had a life. At the very least, it’s the part of town you trek to for brunch or an over-hyped burger once a year. There are bars sprinkled throughout, but few places take the party up a decibel, unless you count the peelers at Broadview. The area is expansive, with robust pockets like Cabbagetown, Greektown, The Beach, and Leslieville, which offers the strongest selection of yupster-tinged things to do. And yet, those are daylight indulgences. After dark, the east is underwhelming, under-developed, and feels like a scene out of the Salem witch trials, where you’ll be hunted with pitchforks for disturbing the peace.
Nothing there mimics the groove that exists in the west, but that leaves ample room for creativity and risk. It’s an area that lends itself to unique destination events. Last Sunday, I biked warily across Gerrard for one such gathering: Feast in the East, a monthly night of music, food, and art spearheaded by native east-ender Neil Rankin and his pal, concert promoter Tad Michalak. Held at Polyhaus, the vibe was as chill and open as that underground salon in Shortbus (minus the sex). Kids were haphazardly huddled in pockets across the floor and on couches, or cooling off in clusters by the A/C with minimalist mojitos. It’s what you’d imagine the all-ages club The Bronze in Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be like, with Tenderness, “Toronto’s avant-pop songstress” Chrissy Reichert, wailing wickedly over hard bass beats. That night, she shared the bill with three other bands. Michalak estimated that there were at least 100 people in attendance, which made it intimate, and a perfect foil to the typically manic west-end live shows.
Rankin is a life-long resident of the area and the barman at Queen and Broadview’s The Avro. “We started [FITE] because we recognized a need for some nightlife out here beyond just drinking in a bar,” he said in an email. Each edition comes together around an artwork and a meal provided by local culinary talent. The one I attended featured hanging abstract installations with ’60s undercurrents from artists Augustina Saygndvong and Danielle Bessada, and a light-as-air summer (vegan) curry dinner cooked by Amanda Martin. All this for only $7 (or $13 at the door).
FITE celebrated its one-year anniversary in May, and has been growing in popularity with each installment. Rankin and Michalak’s good friend Cameron Lee now curates the artists each month, fostering talent from across the city. Rankin said the trio strives to create a night “for anyone and everyone who enjoys something a little bit different from the average show at a bar and anyone who loves to eat and feed their ears and eyes at the same time.”
And then there’s WAYLA. Short for What Are You Looking At, the gay-centric Leslieville bar opened in March 2010 and offered something not found in a 20-minute travel radius. With a modest patio and 175-person capacity, the bar is open all week and offers dance jams on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, including one ever-so-popular bear party. “The area is not known for clubbing and dancing, so you really have to create a destination for people to want to come and check it out,” said manager Brian Duval. After a stint at a west-side bar for a few years, Duval returned east and was pleasantly surprised by the difference in clientele, likening Leslieville to the early days of Ossington. “On a west-side weekend, you get a lot of people who are imported from the suburbs or from North York or Scarborough,” he said. “Here, you get the locals, those people who want to go out and party, not go somewhere because it’s cool or the ‘in’ thing to do.” WAYLA is consistently busy due, in part, to the fact that it has no competition. Yet.
This month, FITE moved to Polyhaus, a new loft-like concert venue-cum-event space that just popped up at 388 Carlaw, joining similar east-end spots like the Dickens Street Theatre and the Opera House. Parkdale’s Wrongbar is also rumored to be opening an east-end portal soon. Leslieville coffee joint Red Rocket recently relocated to Danforth and Coxwell because of rising rents, and was just approved for a liquor license. It will begin light cocktail service any day now. Rankin also told me about a Monday night wine/hip-hop party at new-ish Ascari Enoteca 26 (1111 Queen St. E.) that he said is “a real barn burner.” It’s only the beginning, I think, because a light that burns half as bright burns twice as long. And the east has just been lit.
The next Feast in the East is Aug. 17 at Polyhaus, 388 Carlaw Ave.