114 floors above the crowd of pea-sized tourists ambling between the Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, and the miniscule outside Railroad Museum, my first step from Toronto, Canada’s CN Tower elevator left me momentarily light-headed. I focused forward as I inched towards the windows, determined not to look down the 1,465 feet. I gave the Universe a grateful thanks for the small miracle that my brother-in-law’s purchase of tickets for the four of us had mistakenly not included the Skypod level, another 33 floors higher.
My husband, Russ, brother-in-law Randy and sister-in-law Cher all seemed disappointed we would have to stand in a long line to pay another $10 each to reach the top, where the 360 Restaurant smoothly fully rotates every 72 minutes. Maybe my suddenly pale face was the giveaway that I needed a few moments to ground myself. Thank goodness there was no quantifiable wind, which we were told makes the tower (the highest observation platform in the Western Hemisphere) sway.
We were there on an early Monday morning, in the middle of a week-long vacation with Randy and Cher, our first in-person get-together since pre-COVID. Over the weekend, the densely packed throng in the entertainment district was enjoying the first warm days of summer as much as the ambiance surrounding some of the city’s popular attractions, so we thought waiting until Monday would bode better for being less crowded.
We had already explored, learned, and eaten a vacation’s worth of food and drink since our delayed Thursday arrival, which is when our journey began.
FROM THE AIRPORT TO THE EXPRESS TRAIN TO THE HOTEL
Randy and Cher flew from Oregon. Russ and I flew Air Canada out of Orlando International Airport. At Orlando, we had checked-in online and printed our boarding passes. We had no luggage to check, so proceeded to the gate. Not long after, a gate agent called out about 40 passenger names, including ours, and said we had not officially checked in with the ticketing counter and were thus far not verified to board. She took care of us swiftly and efficiently, but obviously we weren’t the only passengers confused by the process.
When Russ and Cher organized our trip, a top priority was selecting a hotel within walking distance of attractions and the train station that linked to the Toronto Pearson International Airport. The city express train would ultimately deposit us at Union Station.
Helpful hint #1: Wear comfortably durable walking shoes. This airport is vast. To get from deboarding our plane to the train, we passed through between four to six security-check areas and went up and down so many different levels that we wondered if we’d fallen into a time loop and would never actually exit. The airport’s friendly staff stationed throughout eagerly helped with directions. (If I’d left Russ to ask for directions we’d still be walking in circles.) The last woman we asked cautioned to be sure we bought tickets (from a machine) and boarded only the dedicated city express line. The trains arrive every 15 minutes, so don’t panic if you miss one… as we did.
Train tickets in hand for our return trip to the airport, we rushed for a car whose doors would close shortly. Russ scurried aboard with me closely behind as the doors began shutting. An impatient man pushed me aside, resulting in neither he nor I boarding unless we wanted to be crushed. A station security officer saw the incident, and as Russ waved despondently from the departing train, the officer escorted me to a bench to await the next train. The agent even called ahead to be sure my husband was made aware I was safe and would be there shortly.
The trip is roughly 30 minutes, with two stops before getting to Union Station.
Helpful Hint #2: No oral message or lit sign indicated what station we were approaching. When the train empties, you’ve arrived at Union.
Our designated hotel was the Delta Hotel Downtown Toronto, well chosen for its amenities and sitting near the Rogers Centre, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Railroad Museum, and the brief walk from the train. We knew our hotel was near all those attractions but didn’t realize they were right next door and across the street from the lovely view of Lake Ontario. Leaving the train platform, we saw signs to the attractions but not our hotel.
A station staffer pointed us to the left. We descended the immediate five steps with luggage in hand, ascended another floor (escalator or elevator option) to a wide, spare hallway that turned sharply several times. One hallway short of exiting towards the attractions was a strong left directly into the third floor of the Delta Hotel Downtown Toronto. Easy (once you know it) and would be a blessing in bad weather.
THE DELTA HOTEL DOWNTOWN TORONTO
This 567-room, 40-story Marriott property couldn’t be more ideally suited for business or leisure travelers. Staffing was professional, helpful, and friendly everywhere, but I really appreciated the culturally diverse, attentive serving staff at SOCO Kitchen + Bar where we ate breakfast each morning and one evening meal. Bottles of water were given at check-in and left each day by housekeeping. When we needed more, the front desk happily obliged.
Helpful Hint #3: Elevators in the lobby are divided. The left services ground through 26 and the right, 27-40. Visitors to the new fourth floor Cana rooftop bar don’t need a key card to use the elevator, but going above the fourth requires a tap on a large button before pushing a floor number.
Our first night in the hotel we were all too travel-weary to wander, so we dined at SOCO, which is open daily from 7 am to 11:30 pm. The dining area is extensive and there is a sizeable outdoor streetside patio. We sat inside, grateful for the AC. We shared fried chicken chunks accompanied by a sauce (that we debated whether it was Indian or Thai-seasoned) as an appetizer. Not heavy or greasy. Russ devoured a ribeye with a slaw salad and a Caesar salad that arrived with bacon and an unusual dressing. The three of us each had a sizeable piece of perfectly-cooked salmon served atop a light bed of black rice and a pop of color from the al dente sugar snap peas.
The breakfast buffet was fresh, colorful, and each day something new was added. There were cold trays of fresh cut fruit, a variety of muffins, pastries, and breads. Crispy bacon, chicken sausages, seasoned tater tops, scrambled eggs, and sometimes either French toast or pancakes. Russ ate one of their prepared Eggs Benedict each morning, raving each time he popped a piece in his mouth. With the buffet, you could also opt for the kitchen staff to prepare an omelet or some other egg dish of your choosing. While there were many containers of fresh juices, my favorite was a shot glass of the juice-of-the-day; an always different fusion of fruits and vegetables such as celery, pear, cranberry, apple, or pink grapefruit, as well as ginger.
Helpful Hint #4: Buy the breakfast buffet package. It works out to about $20/person, tip included. You can’t buy even a singular breakfast plate for that.
NEARLY SAW ALL ON OUR PLACES-TO-SEE LIST
The four of us enjoy walking, browsing, and exploring. With 25 places to see on Russ’ list alone, we had plenty to keep us moving. The only scheduled activity was a private two-hour noon-time Saturday cooking class Cher and I were to do while the men would explore on their own. (More on that later.)
One of our first discoveries was the Queen’s Quay Terminal, a cross between a mall and a food hall with a variety of restaurants, food stalls, grocery, and retail stores. Cher and I popped in to use the restroom, or as they say in Toronto, washroom. At the grocery store, we bought a package of maple-covered mixed nuts (yum) and a package of wine-flavored gummies (so hard and with an awful taste that we threw them away immediately).
Helpful Hint #4: Many washrooms in public buildings are unisex. Symbols on the outside entrance denote if the washroom has urinals or just stalls.
ETHNIC RESTAURANTS, ART & ARCHITECTURE, AND SHOES FOR THE AGES
An historic building, the 1929-built Fairmont Royal York Hotel, riveted our attention. It was on our must-see agenda. Once we had gawked at the impeccably elegant lobby, original light fixtures, and browsed the gilded ballroom, we encountered the Library Bar. The original library had 12,000 books handpicked by George Locke, Toronto’s second Chief Librarian. At the turn of the 20th century, he cemented his place in history by advocating for literacy and transforming Toronto’s library system into an esteemed institution.
Today those books are housed in a separate room used for private functions, but the Library Bar is an in-demand restaurant reminiscent of a gentleman’s club as depicted in period films. Very hush hush, with quiet service, martinis, stuffed cozy couches set in small conversation pit style, and fine artwork, including an oversized commissioned painting of Locke that hangs above the mantelpiece.
The hostess said the lunch crowd usually consists of international businessmen. A reservation was highly encouraged. Dinner service picks up in the early evening and by 7 could be rather loud with chatter and live musical entertainment. She noted the restaurant is famous for its Bay Street prime rib sandwich and martinis, both served since the Library Bar’s beginning in the 1970s. Just mentioning prime rib had Russ salivating. The prime rib sandwich is only served from noon to 3 pm daily, so that established our reservation time.
If I had to do it again, I’d go for the Bay Street prime rib sandwich. I was allowed one bite of Russ’ because he was experiencing nirvana with each bite of shaved prime rib, tabasco onion, and horseradish aioli on a grilled baguette, but that bite said there was more than 50 years of flavorful history packed inside. Served with fries. Cher, Randy and I each picked a Choice of Three, accompanied by a small green salad. Of the choices offered, we each chose a tad differently. I thought we would get scoops of the options. I didn’t understand it meant mere tablespoons of them on open-faced small squares of bread. Choices included Beef Tartare, Honey Roasted Squash and Beets, Fogo Island Shrimp Ceviche, Sea Salt Potato Salad, and Torched Albacore Tuna. My choices of veggies, Ceviche, and tuna were all tasty but there just wasn’t enough of any of them. The bread was nothing special and I didn’t eat most of it.
Saturday, Cher and I walked to the private apartment of Chef Vinutha Rowe, an instructor for CozyMeal, which offers in-person classes throughout Toronto and online. Cher had taken a very successful CozyMeal online class with a chef based in Portugal, which enhanced our excitement at doing an in-person Neopolitan Italian class (just one of the many ethnic varieties she teaches). Chef Vinutha was sweet, patient, professional, and led us through the hands-on process of preparing a hollowed eggplant loaded with veggies and a sprinkling of cheese (then baked), risotto primavera, stuffed white fish rolls, and a fruit crostata. Alcohol is BYOB. If we had been doing one of the three-hour dinner classes we might have brought wine. The food was healthy, bright, flavorfully enhanced with herbs she grows, and was much more than we could possibly eat. Unfortunately, staying in a hotel meant we couldn’t take the leftovers.
Later that afternoon, we met up with Randy and Russ to enjoy the “doors open” program for many buildings in the city. We eagerly headed to the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, which had recently completed renovations.
Originally opened in 1913 as Loew’s Yonge Street Theatre showcasing vaudeville shows, it was renamed in 1978 as the Elgin. The Ontario Heritage Trust bought the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres to restore them as a performing arts complex. With the purchase, they acquired what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of vaudeville scenery, many of which are currently displayed throughout. Refined, elegant Art Deco gilding embraces the theater lobby downstairs, which can now seat 2,000.
The aptly-named Winter Garden Theatre, up three floors of wide curving staircases, resembles an outdoor garden. In 2018, it was refreshed with a canopy of leaves in the ceiling and 20,000 artificial branches stretching across the expanse and down to the stage columns. It can seat 900 upstairs. For a recent film fest in which multiple movies were shown on both floors, a staff person said they accommodated 10,000 visitors daily. Russ and I have been to many restored vintage theaters and this one stands out as a beauty for the design and care given to maintain its historical significance.
On Sunday, we explored Kensington Market, not realizing until we arrived that the outdoor street-faire atmosphere is permanent. On the last Sunday of each month (which this was), all the neighborhood’s streets are closed to traffic and the party rages with competing diverse music, aromas of cooking foods from booths and the myriad of restaurants, bakeries, bars, specialty grocers, and retail boutiques. Victorian houses and trees line the streets. The outdoor cafes were jam-packed and the sounds were deafening. It was warm without a breeze. We wanted to sit outside, have great food and cold drinks. Did we score!
Amadeu’s Restaurant serves authentic Portuguese cuisine. We sat on the wide L-shaped porch. Buskers drew large noisy crowds in the street fronting the restaurant, but it wasn’t so noisy where we sat that we couldn’t comfortably talk. Cher and I shared a carafe of the house white sangria wine recommended by our server. Ice cold, not overly sweet, with small chunks of green apple, lime, strawberry, and a bit of something fizzy. Wonderfully refreshing. Russ ate steak ala Portuguese with fried potatoes as thin as potato chips and topped with an egg. They were out of gazpacho soup, so I ordered the green collard soup, with a creamy potato base, collard greens and a couple thin slices of Portuguese sausage. This soup was warm but so comforting and delicious that I didn’t want to leave a drop. I also had a Greek salad with grilled seasoned chicken. Cher had salmon with veggies and Randy had a huge piece of cod. It was seasoned and cooked well, but he had a lot of bones to carefully remove. Amadeu’s Restaurant doesn’t have a separate website, but all the local food guides mention them favorably.
Our one disappointment was the Distillery District. We took a trolley there and walked the rest of the way. We envisioned from guidebooks an area of preserved historic architecture. Instead, the few buildings of historic interest were overshadowed by unattractive modern apartments. The district is about two blocks long with a few shops and eateries, but only one distillery. Maybe on the weekend it takes on a more festive atmosphere with vendors and entertainment. We wanted to eat there at a Mexican restaurant with large outdoor seating, but they were packed with people and the music was unpleasantly loud for conversation.
Helpful Hint #5: Coins are required for the trolley car. The driver can’t help. You must insert the coins (no paper money) into the on-board machine to get a ticket. At least the trolley car overhead announces where you are, unlike the train from the airport.
Seems as if when we are on vacation, we eat more frequently than at home. We stopped at a couple restaurants with outdoor seating for snacks and drinks. They’re worth mentioning because they offered up variety at reasonable prices for sizable portions.
At Kellys Landing, we shared a trio of tasty dips, breads, and veggies, as well as nachos. The dips, served in small ramekins, were a goat cheese red pepper dip, an eggplant dip, and an edamame hummus. There was naan, focaccia, and various hunks of veggies. The nachos were plentiful, with corn chips, mozzarella, cheddar, pickled red onions, house-made tomato jam, cilantro, sour cream, jalapeño crema, tequila & mole spiced beans. We shared a bottle of red wine and Cher had a pinot grigio.
Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill (on Front Street) has several locations. This appeared to be a trendy place with a younger clientele. Don’t recall all we nibbled on, but it did include some good guacamole, sweet potato fries, and crispy chicken chunks.
One evening we popped into Moxies Toronto Downtown. Very California-style contemporary with woods and chrome. Sophisticated and uptown atmosphere. Even before the huge menu was perused, I liked that the washrooms had no door to push open and there were paper towels instead of driers. Also liked that all the menu items were noted with calorie counts. I wasn’t particularly hungry so ordered Cashew Chicken Lettuce Wraps, never imagining my husband would enjoy eating this as well. Crispy chicken, cashews, ginger, sesame, crispy wontons, fresh vegetables, lettuce, and spicy mayo made this tasty dish filling but not high-calorie.
We didn’t just eat our way through Toronto, but we did work up appetites by walking many hours a day. One day our adventures meant an Uber ride to Casa Loma, North America’s only full-sized castle. Research told us that the 200,000 square foot castle spread over five acres is a hot destination for tourists by late morning, so we arrived as it opened. We didn’t do the audio tour, preferring to venture on our own, but did heed advice to first watch the 20-ish minute documentary running non-stop downstairs.
The intimate room had comfy chairs. The documentary provides an in-depth overview of Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife, Lady Mary’s rise and fall through society before financial investment mistakes brought their ruin, forcing them to first sell off their belongings and then the estate. Beginning in 1911, 300 men worked tirelessly for three years to construct the Edwardian castle on top of a hill overlooking Toronto.
There are two towers. Russ and I climbed to the very top of quite steep and shallow curving staircases to reach each tower. I don’t know why I was the only person to yell out “Coming up or Coming down” on the one-person staircases. The curves were so narrow that you couldn’t see if anyone was up ahead or below planning to be on the stairs and there was certainly no room to maneuver. The view from one tower was worth the climb if for no other reason than to see a unicorn gargoyle perched against an upper turret. The other tower presented spectacular birds-eye views of the city below.
We peeked into the wine cellar, uncovered during a renovation, examined rooms of dishes, bedroom furniture, and clothing. We also walked the entire length of the tunnels, with a pictorial history of the area’s events, from construction of the castle, military honors, to plagues and poverty of the townsfolks which were displayed in chronological order.
Today there are concerts and a well-regarded steak house on site, but they wouldn’t open for the season until days after our visit. We enjoyed a lovely light lunch in the café. I left feeling sad that Pellatt died alone and penniless (his wife had died years earlier from illness). All the thousands of people he had aided, and the girl guides his wife funded and organized were forgotten by “friends” when the couple lost their fortune. I felt better knowing their history and the castle will keep them “alive” for future generations.
We left Casa Loma in the early afternoon and took an Uber to our next stop.
While the husbands went to the Royal Ontario Museum, one of the largest museums of art, world culture and natural history in North America and certainly the largest in Canada, Cher and I headed to the Bata Shoe Museum, a top to-do attraction she had discovered. It was just several blocks away from the Royal Ontario Museum.
Imagine four floors of shoes with more than 15,000 pairs of shoes in the collection first begun by Sonja Bata. When her collection outgrew her home, the family established the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation. The museum opened in 1995, designed by Moriyama and Teshima Architects. The Foundation funds fieldwork to collect and research footwear from multiple communities, such as North America’s Indigenous cultures and circumpolar groups in Canada, Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland.
Over 4,500 years of history are reflected in the permanent exhibition, All About Shoes, while three other galleries rotate shoes occasionally by themes. Now through October 6, the exhibit is The Flowers in Bloom. Cher and I oohed and aahed over how each pair of shoes was described, detailing who made it, when, and why was this significant. Displays ranged from Chinese bound-foot shoes and ancient Egyptian sandals to chestnut-crushing clogs and glamorous platforms. We marveled at intricate embroidery, imagined wearing furry boots while sloshing through the snowy mountains, couldn’t imagine the balance required by some of the stiletto heels. There was one floor of sneakers, some famous, some wacky (we thought), and most functional. We spent two-and-a-half hours reading and admiring.
Now you know we can’t have walked around all those hours and not be hungry. There was no question where our final meal would be.
The first time we ate at Terroni’s (on Adelaide) was because Russ wanted Italian cuisine and several food guides named this one. It is housed in an old courthouse (the architectural aspect appealed to us), with many rooms and a staff so large (and who have loyally stuck with the restaurant though good and bad times we were proudly informed) that the restaurant can feed up to a 1,000 people a day. We opted to sit outside in a fenced off area that becomes a working street each September.
Our friendly and talkative server described the Chef as so picky that he sources as much as possible locally, but in some cases, will import ingredients. When she said he only uses pistachios from some region in Italy for his pistachio gelato, I saw Russ’ eyes widen with anticipation. On our two trips to Italy, I am sure he ate pistachio gelato at least once a day, developing a strong palate for what was authentic or flavored artificially.
Everything is made in house, including all the pastas. We ordered the lightly breaded fried calamari, which we were told flatly is only served with a couple wedges of lemon. Our server said to trust her that this is the best and most authentic way when done freshly and correctly. It was amazingly delicate. Dense Italian bread was placed on the table. The three red wine drinkers shared a bottle of Avi S. Romagna Sangiovesi from 2019.
I had Ravioli di Zio Paperone, ravioli stuffed with duck confit, roasted butternut squash with oyster, button mushrooms, and parmigiano. Cher had a salad ala Nicoise. Russ had lasagna. Russ ordered the pistachio gelato (bursting with pistachio grains) and the three of us shared the tiramisu, a thick and creamy pudding served in a small round glass.
The meal was so memorable, and Russ was so enamored with the pistachio gelato, that we returned on our last night. The doorman smiled warmly and welcomed us back. I was stunned he’d remember us considering the large numbers of guests who visit. We again sat outside.
I wasn’t as hungry, especially after another round of that fantastic calamari. I ordered Farinata con le Barbabietole, a chickpea pancake, roasted beets, heirloom carrots, ricotta salad, arugula, watercress, sunflower sprouts, and pistachios. Cher had Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci, handmade spinach tortellini filled with ricotta and pecorino with butter, sage, and parmigiano. Randy chose Spaghetti in Canna a Mare (a pasta bowl loaded with fresh clams and mussels, calamari, scallops, tiger shrimp, light tomato sauce, and mildly spicy. Russ opted for Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, a traditional Bolognese ragù with parmigiano.
For dessert, of course he again ordered the two scoops of pistachio gelato. I know the rest of us shared another dessert but was too sated to eat much.
Checking in at Toronto Pearson International Airport was simpler than it had been at Orlando International Airport. Just as we thought we’d coast home without issue, our flight was allegedly delayed nearly three hours due to bad weather in Orlando. We found when we landed the weather had been perfect.
Our gratitude for getting home safely was compounded the next day when Air Canada’s computer system in Toronto glitched and flights were cancelled for many days.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of International Live Events Association and Meeting Professionals International and is now serving on the 2022-2023 MPI Global Advisory Board for Small Business Owners. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events in her blog, Hotel Happenings & Program Promotions. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. Karen@KarenKuzsel.com; www.KarenKuzsel.com; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady. Food photos for this series by Karen Kuzsel. All other Photos by Russ Wagner, a retired government planner/builder who has a passion for historic architecture, wine, trains, travel and taking photographs.