When my family moved to Canada in 2007, I was a college student eager to absorb anything and everything related to food. I often talk about how, funnily, it feels like I “grew up” in Toronto, both as a person and a bit of a gastronome. You could say I spent my 20s eating my way through the city!
But in order to truly appreciate Toronto’s food and drink scene today, I knew I needed to learn more about its past. City blocks that so many of us just rush through - like parts of Queen St. West near Chinatown, City Hall and Yonge & Dundas Square - come to life in totally different ways once you get to know their history.
I’ve always loved how accessible this kind of stuff is, thanks to organizations like Heritage Toronto. So when I heard of the “Good Eats: A History Of Food And Dining In Toronto” walk, I immediately signed up!
A history of Toronto through food
The walk was led by Laura Carlson, a medievalist, food historian and university professor who also hosts a podcast on food history called “The Feast”. I’ve been listening to it since 2016 (the year I discovered food podcasting as a genre) and some of my favourite episodes include “How King Midas Lost His Dinner”, the Toronto-set “A Battle of the Chicken Pot Pies” and “Unsimply Soba: Comics & Competition in Japanese History”.
The writing on this show is fantastic and it feels like I go on a little adventure every time I listen. Total ear candy for someone like me! As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to learn about what the streets of Toronto held beneath the surface.
Our walk started on Peter St., up the road from where Blue Jays baseball fans crowd into the stadium on game days. At our first stop we learned about a biscuit company started by George Weston, who later became Canada’s most successful commercial baker and industry pioneer.
Next we walked up to The Black Bull Tavern, one of my favourite patio spots in the city and just across a streetcar stop I often use. Carlson talked about how in the early days of York (which later became Toronto), this tavern was the last place to get a drink before merchants travelled beyond Spadina Ave., onto the rail station in today’s Junction Neighbourhood and further out west towards Hamilton.
I also learned of The Black Bull’s contentious history with The Wheat Sheaf (at King and Bathurst) as ‘the oldest bar in continuous operation in Toronto’. A fun fact to remember when you next enjoy a pint on that sunny patio!
A short walk from Queen St. took us to George Weston’s Model Bakery, which I have to recommend hearing about from Carlson directly. Think hundreds of loaves of dough hurtling down second story chutes into large brick ovens and you get a sense of what Weston’s model did for the Canadian bread industry. At the turn of the century, it must have been quite the achievement!
One particular thing that amused me had to do with a part of my commute that I’ve gotten so used to seeing. When I get off the streetcar at Queen and Spadina, my eyes invariably see the words “Lot Street” etched into the pavement - which of course makes sense, as Queen used to be called Lot.
Our next stop on the tour was at a structure that once housed St. Patrick’s Market - named for St. Patrick’s Ward (the neighbourhood it was in) and also where the St. Patrick subway station gets its name.
We passed the Harris Delicatessen, the first known Jewish deli in Toronto, and then the Arcadian Court, which Carlson says “boasted one of the largest and most opulent department store dining rooms in the world.” Not something you’d know from its current facade in perennial construction!
I loved learning about Jean Lumb and Toronto’s first Chinatown, located on Elizabeth St., behind today’s Nathan Philipps Square. Lumb became the first restaurateur to be awarded an Order of Canada for her work with the city’s burgeoning Chinese community.
A little sheepishly, the only two things I knew about our next stop, Barberian’s Steak House, is that a) it’s someplace Drake loves to eat, and b) it's someplace for very fancy/expensive dinners. Learning about the location it’s in and how it grew with the city since they opened in 1959 was a treat - though I may still have to wait for the actual treat of dining there!
Our final stop was the Senator Restaurant, tucked behind the bustle of Yonge & Dundas Square. As Carlson describes, it’s the oldest restaurant in Toronto (opened 1929) that’s always operated in the same location.
I love the vibe of the Senator - red booths, wood panelled walls, this long bar that stretches through most of the dining area, all housed in a building from the 1800s. I always dig the music when you walk in the door, the vintage Coca Cola signs, the servers who make you feel like you’ve just returned (even if you haven’t for six months). And, of course, the food - best you’ll get from any diner downtown! I’m particularly fond of their burger, meatloaf, or liver and onions, finished off with a slice of pie.
Now that their wine bar upstairs is open - with a great selection nestled into a cozy little dining room - you really should visit if you haven’t yet.
A highly recommended walking tour of Toronto’s food and dining history!