The real home of Showtime's popular series lives up to its television counterpart with a plethora of gay clubs and restaurants--and a bunch of other attractions to keep lesbian and gay visitors busy, busy, busy
Toronto ranks high among my preferred places to be stranded.
This I learned from actual experience, having been scheduled to leave Toronto on an airplane on September 11, 2001.
It was midway through the Toronto International Film Festival that I was booked to fly back home to New York City. After waking up to the surreal news and making sure I could stay at my hotel another...well, however long it would be...I ventured outside: The heinous situation played out live on huge monitors located at the corner of Bloor and Yonge streets. The Canadians were agog--and, thankfully, supportive of my predicament, and that of many other U.S. residents faced with longer-than-expected visits to the capital of Ontario.
Toronto's tourism office was extremely helpful in making suddenly necessary arrangements for me. (Visit its Web site for a free gay guide.) For the next week I found no shortage of things to do, places to go, and sympathetic ears to bend. (Dubya screwed up bad by not mentioning Canada in his little "our best friends" speech). Filmmaker Bruce La Bruce opened a gallery show. Our dollar was doing great ($1.50 Canadian to $1 U.S.). The festival, after a pause, continued. And gay distractions were constant.
After all, this is where they lens Showtime's Queer as Folk.
To a citizen of the USA, perhaps the most striking thing about Toronto is that it's not very striking at all. That is to say, on the surface it feels just like another metropolitan U.S. city, a fact that's both a curse and a blessing. A curse because Americans who seek the exotic while traveling prefer French-speaking Quebec. A blessing because Toronto's extremely easy to navigate culturally, linguistically, and geographically (the streets are laid out in a grid system).
The old and the new world meet.
Not that Toronto doesn't boast its share of the unfamiliar and foreign. Tasty paprika-informed restaurants are in abundance thanks to a plethora of Hungarian immigrants. Portugal City, Greektown, Little Poland, a large Chinatown, and the Indian Bazaar add significant ethnic flavor. Sections of Toronto often evoke Oz's ambrosial Sydney and Melbourne. And then there's that colloquial "eh" thing.
The metropolitan area around the capital of Ontario is home to 4.7 million people, and Toronto's distinctive skyline includes the Space Needle-like CN Tower. Yonge Street is purportedly the world's longest (said to be nearly 1,900 kilometers, or 1,200 miles, stretching to Minnesota's border)--several enormous indoor shopping centers line it, making the cold winters less troublesome when retail calls. Speaking of which, cold (and heat) can be avoided all year long by using the city's 10-kilometer-long underground PATH walkway, which links businesses, hotels, office towers, shopping centers (like the massive Eaton), movie theaters, and public transportation, including subway, bus, and streetcar service.
On my trip, following a comfy and uncomplicated Air Canada flight, I embraced late summer's gorgeously sunny, breezy weather and headed directly to the Cawthra Square Bed and Breakfast. Two historic
homes-turned-guesthouses off Cawthra Park, the B&B is owned and run by a delightful gay couple, Ric and Christopher. Besides a Jacuzzi in my bathroom, the place was bursting with home comforts--and comforts I wish I had at home, including fresh baked goods in an all-night kitchen and use of the laundry. On Saturday afternoons, owner Ric hosts a delicious and chatty high tea, while for a premium one can enjoy massage and spa body treatments anytime.
Cawthra's location was perfect to boot, as the gay village thrives just 'round the corner.
A bird's-eye view of the pride parade
So is Toronto really Queer as Folk? Heck, yes! Queens of many demographics, from decrepit cruisers to shaggy-haired vagrant youths, loiter about the city's recognized gay village--also known as Church/Wellesley,
after its major street intersection--all day and night. Many Church Street businesses are conspicuously gay, including Zelda's, a patio-fronted, drag queen-owned restaurant, and Woody's and Sailor, the gay bar we all
recognize from the front of QAF.
Grab copies of the freebies XTRA! and Fab magazine at the gay center, 519 Church, or check them out online for calendars of weekly club and queer events.
A rainbow banner is pulled through the streets.
My first day in Toronto began with a promenade around Bloor-Yorkville, a posh neighborhood wherein the city's film festival occurs. During the fest (which occurs annually in early September) you'll likely run into celebrities, stalking paparazzi, and film groupies like the starry-eyed teens who camp outside the Four Seasons all day and night hoping for snapshots. Bulging with upscale boutiques and restaurants (not to
mention hotels, which juice up their rates to evil levels during the festival), Bloor-Yorkville is a chichi locale to browse on sunny days. Adult-oriented Lovecraft was a little more saucy than most shops in the area (for instance, a teddy bear shop) but still high-end. Besides expected items like flavored lube, I found campy little waitress rings for
One restaurant of note in Bloor-Yorkville is Patriot, which offers a menu of regionally supplied dishes. Believe it or not, Canada produces wines of distinction, including sweet ice wines, which are derived from frozen grapes, and cheeses from Alberta. And those cheeses, by the way, were rich and supple, including a brie. Who knew?
From there it was off to The Bata Shoe Museum, the world's only museum dedicated to shoes. I was expecting a quirky basement gallery, but the freestanding Bata was huge and architecturally impressive inside and out. Besides rotating exhibits--last year, one involved foot-binding shoes from late imperial China; another, sneakers--their storage floors hold permanent collections of footwear from ancient times to the Spice Girls and beyond. I touched Ginger's U.K. flag boot! Dorothy's ruby slippers are allegedly there too, but I didn't get to see them. That said, I couldn't resist buying a ruby slipper necklace in the museum's gift shop. There's no place like Toronto!
Come evening, I had dinner at Baton Rouge within the massive Eaton Center. Think a good Southern-style chain-mall restaurant and you get the idea. Then I took in the stage musical Mamma Mia! at the nearby Royal Alexandra Theatre. The show was what one would expect, ABBA music and a silly connecting plot--but with a bonus in this case: a cute little guy named Pepper. Happily, the adorable actor who played him showed up at a gay club later on, thus confirming my speculation (and dreams) correct. (He was friendly too.)
Toronto is also home to many Asians, not to mention the most delectable and elaborately prepared dim sum I've ever partaken. Cantonese restaurant Lai Wah Heen, located within downtown's Metropolitan Hotel, served up a lunch of mouthwatering and adorable dim sum dishes (one was shaped like a tiny squid!) and left me wanting ever so many more.
One evening I ate at Matignon, a French bistro close to the gay village. The meal was just fair (shameful by Quebec standards, for sure) but post-meal cocktails were fan-freakin'-tastic at Rain, a super-hip Toronto hot spot. Best known for their signature lychee martini, they also concoct many other delicious specialty martinis (and tapas), which I supped
from retro chairs that hung by chains. Martinis became a rally cry by the time I visited Bar Babylon, a cozy Church Street spot that boasts over 200 martini varieties. Try three or 50, won't you? I did (but I'm not revealing the
Church Street's warm and woody Hair of the Dog restaurant/bar was bustling with coed queers of all stripes. I enjoyed an amazing steak (not to mention good service) and Aussie wine. However, my most memorable dinner in Toronto, bar none, was at Zelda's, an over-the-top kitsch-themed restaurant replete with pink flamingos, owned by an eponymous, sunglasses-wearing drag queen. Saturday nights are theme nights: '80s night on my visit, so the staff donned their '80s best, spun '80s ditties ("We Run" by Strange Advance is a Canada favorite), and even held an '80s trivia contest. The food was good, the cocktails tasty, and Zelda herself an adorably dotty lunatic. Why doesn't San Francisco have something like this? Be sure to grab a copy of the free Zelda's monthly newsletter!
With such a great currency exchange rate going and credit cards in pocket, I traipsed to Queen Street West, where many amazing and eclectic goodies can be found: records, beauty products, furniture, thrift, books, accessories, and food. At Black Market I snagged a new glittery Elvis shirt for around $5 U.S. Another great store, Iodine, featured skin care products in "hospital chic" packaging: IV bags and blood-collection tubes, for instance.
Shopping comes even cheaper at Kensington Market, a stretch of narrow streets lined with establishments like ethnic supermarkets and amazing vintage clothing shops. My favorites were the nifty Exile and Asylum stores, which sold pop-icon T-shirts and a bevy of clever accessories, including pants belts fashioned from seat belts. Yep, I got one and you don't, because they're exclusively handmade by an enterprising Toronto local.
Getting back to that Queer as Folk thing: I visited The Barn/The Stables, a three-floor, appropriately barnlike dance haven, nightly. The top two levels pump out dance, house, and diva tracks, with muscle boys reigning over the uppermost floor. The bottom floor, meanwhile, offers a hodgepodge of fun tracks, including salsa, retro disco, and top 40. The crowd is also a little more ethnically diverse on the bottom floor.
A few blocks away is Zipperz/Cell Block Dance Bar, which reminds me of Manhattan's legendary Monster. Dichotomously, a piano bar, inhabits the club's front for warbling show tune queens, while a hot disco floor occupies the rear for the twirling set (like me). I'd have to say, the city's most eccentric individuals worked both rooms, so do drop by for a drink. Circuit boys and their friends, meanwhile, flock to Fly on Friday and Saturday nights (Saturday nights, according to some of the locals, are best). The Friday I attended, a merry, lowbrow-but-didn't-know-it DJ churned tragic, dreadful house while a small clutch of fashion-disaster, urban-obsessed Asian youths approximated circuit dance moves. On the plus side, the club's really pretty to look at--in fact, some scenes that take place within QAF's fictitious Babylon club are shot here.
My favorite Toronto dance club? On Friday and Saturday nights a very queer live theater venue, Buddies in Bad Times, morphs into a super-fun discotheque catering to the alternative, youthful, and indie-minded crowd. The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, and Destiny's Child all pumped through the same speakers, and not a frown was had. For those who prefer to watch others dance--and wave around their unclothed wares--Yonge Street's Remington's is the place to be. A well-maintained, multilevel go-go boy joint, a bevy of young, buff (occasionally skinny) boys on Viagra take to the stages and display their generous proportions.
If you leave Remington's empty-handed, you might try a "bubble tea" next door at Tea Shop 168 (though bubble tea is not mentioned by name on the Web site). A mix of iced black or green teas flavored with almond, strawberry, mango, or the mysterious "pudding" atop a pile of sweetened tapioca pearls, it's a yummy delight I couldn't get enough of. You can find bubble tea all over Toronto, and it's not to be missed.
My final day was spent sight-seeing, mostly by Lake Ontario's Harbourfront area. Its Hippo Tour was by far the most shamelessly touristy activity I've partaken in, well, a long, long time. It's a bus that looks like a hippo, drawing many quizzical stares from other tourists and not-entirely-respectful guffaws from locals. After a casual drive around the southern part of town, it heads back to the Harbourfront and dives right into the water, James Bond-ing into an aquatic vessel. A short cruise around the harbor later, it crawls back on land, passing many Miamiesque condos on the drive past Queens Quay to start. Home and dry, I consumed a tasty sausage, a Toronto street vendor staple. Alas, I didn't have time to take a ferry to the Toronto Islands (a tranquil and beautiful little diversion, I'm told), as I wanted to hit the huge HMV on Yonge Street to buy some music (the selection is great, their admittedly high prices offset by the favorable U.S.-Canadian exchange rate) and Chinatown.
Of course, I'll be back for those Islands later, to revisit the city that filled both my fantasies and kept me company during harsh realities. Thanks, Toronto--you're one of my best friends, no matter what Dubya
The Toronto skyline