The Eastern stretch along Queen Street that makes up Riverside and Leslieville is a serene neighbourhood of mostly young families and young professionals who shop at the neighbourhood’s small independent shops and eat at it’s many restaurants. Dining in Leslieville is a competitive sport that has hungry patrons jostling for spots at well-known places like Prohibition or Lady Marmalade. For all its trendiness, Leslieville has many hidden gems (both restaurants and stores) that focus on simplicity, expertly made products, and highlight the owners’ passion for their work.
Gale’s Snack Bar
Most people are surprised to find out that Gale’s Snack Bar at Carlaw and Eastern is actually an operating business, not just an abandoned storefront with the sign still up. Gales Snack Bar serves quick, cheap (both in price and quality) meals to the clientele of mostly regulars. The prices are astounding: $1.50 for a burger, with the most expensive item on the entire menu at $3.85. Though Gale recently passed, her daughter Eve runs the place, serving up generous sundaes for $1.50, cashing everything out with a cash register possibly too old to even be considered vintage.
Hastings Snack Bar
Though only open in the mornings for breakfast, Hastings Snack Bar at Hastings Avenue serves up hearty breakfast meals for $5, and sandwiches for $2-$4. Local lore claims that owner John Chong, who’s been at the grill for 54 years, will start making you bacon and perfectly-cooked eggs as soon as you walk in, yet those craving something different have the large whiteboard menu to choose from. Perhaps Hastings’s hidden gem quality comes from the fact that it deters families; high stools are the only seating, and the tiny storefront has sparse room for a stroller. Rumour has it that this may be Chong’s last year in business, so those looking for a delicious western or takeout fried egg sandwiches best hurry over to Leslie and Queen.
Though already famous for its summer patio, the Ceili Cottage is still a destination for an authentic celebration of Celtic culture. Since the winter months are quieter, the Cottage erects a yurt on their patio so patrons can still enjoy a pint outside, in a cozier environment. Their focus on local, mostly organic ingredients and homemade bread keep locals coming back for more. With 12 taps (four Irish and 8 rotating kegs) and an extensive whiskey menu, the Ceili Cottage is not your typical Irish pub.
The classic greasy spoon, Jim’s serves up inexpensive food at great quality—favourites include the peameal bacon sandwiches on rye toast, and what is a well-deserved claim of “the Best Western sandwich in the city.” Unpretentious, the cash-only spot is frequented mostly by young workers and older European couples, yet Jim’s serves up the best hangover food you can afford after an expensive night out. The joint’s appeal is authentic—rustic furniture is just accidentally rustic, not hand-selected like some other nearby places (Lady Marmalade), and the sandwiches are a better alternative to the expensive Rashers across the street.
Patrons of Dangerous Dan’s in Riverside know truly that “the burgers are bigger at the double D;” the spot still boasts the infamous Coronary Burger Special (two patties, four slices of bacon, two cheddar slices and a fried egg on top, bound to give you that aforementioned coronary) and has topped the charts of best burgers in Toronto. Though the manager Dan is abrasive at the best of times, regulars keep coming back for the variety of tender burgers as well as the comfy car-seats.
Mercury Espresso Bar
One of three coffee joints within a two-block radius, Mercury triumphs over Starbucks (obviously) and neighbour Te Aro in terms of great coffee, focusing on socially responsible beans and handcrafting exceptional specialty drinks. A neighbourhood staple, Mercury wouldn’t be a hipster espresso bar without the occasional pretentious barista, and doesn’t offer wifi. Those who can ignore this revel in the best Americanos and coffee while feeling socially responsible.
Merchants of Green Coffee
Though often mentioned in Toronto coffee news, Merchants of Green remains a hidden gem in Riverside because of its location. Hidden away in the far west side of Riverside on Matilda St., Merchants of Green coffee serves up three different single-roasted coffees every day in a rustic, elegant refurnished warehouse. Riversiders flock to Merchants of Green not for lack of other options (F’coffee and Dark Horse are mere blocks away, on a more accessible Queen St), but for the extremely friendly service of the baristas, the delectable coffee and espresso, and the chance to feel like you’re relaxing in a farmhouse.
Hooked is a “fish store run by chefs,” and opened its first location in Leslieville in 2011. For the locally-grown conscious locals, Hooked comforts by dealing only in local fish farmers and Great Lakes fishers, controlling all parts of the supply chain to ensure that their fish is fresh and environmentally responsible. The knowledgeable staff proudly describes their store values to any that ask, and take time explaining different types and cuts of fish to those that don’t know. One side of the store is a wall of fish-related products, but they also sell things like produce, chips, and their homemade dip (like tarragon Dijon and preserved lemon mayo). They also have a teaching kitchen in-store, for which they provide classes to empower their customers.
The several-block radius along Queen from Carlaw to Jones has several different antique shops, none better than Bronze. The owner Kenny seems to know the history (or use) for almost every object, and the naturally-lit tiny shop, though cluttered, gives a vibe of the garage sale of an elegant interior designer. Bronze is the locals’ go-to spot for antique lighting fixtures, tables, frames, and storage trunks.
Empire by Bullet
This shop in Riverside fills the void for locals who need greeting cards or classic kitschy house items like pillows or aprons. The shop seems to have half of itself dedicated to British products, and unlike other East Toronto shops that mostly focus on candy (looking at you, The Nutty Chocolatier), Empire by Bullet also has soaps, preserves, and even special cleaning products. For many who are longing for British products without the price, the owner has set up floor-to-ceiling shelf with products close to their expiry date, all priced at 30% off. At the back of the store, Empire by Bullet houses Keep Me Posted, the only card shop in the Riverside and Leslieville area, perfect for all your greeting card needs.
Places to skip
Thankfully, Leslievillians don’t have to travel to Bayview or to the Urban Eatery for a taste of Amaya’s butter chicken or masala lime lamb; Amaya has an express bar at Queen and Logan. However, no seating space, a dingy interior, and spotty kitchen service makes eating from Amaya a gamble more often than not. Save the money spent on overpriced Indian and head up Logan a few blocks to Little India where the choices of where to eat are endless, and the food is certainly better.
Though beloved for its all day breakfast, the Tulip at the border of Leslieville and the Beaches at Coxwell and Queen doesn’t measure up as a great steakhouse (though it may very well be the original as it claims). The 80’s wood paneled walls and booths give the long room the coziness of a favorite diner, though with Keg prices, one should just head downtown for tender steaks in a classy environment.