That evening, it was Champagne and canapés for our hosted event at the King Street West location of Town Shoes. Founded in 1952, the store is one of five operators comprising Canada’s largest branded shoe retailer. Following a presentation on the latest men’s footwear trends, we were invited to browse the shelves. Kenneth Cole dress shoes or Chuck Taylor designer high tops? I went with the former, plus bow-tie and kerchief, for upgraded man-about town appeal.
Our hops around town also showcased a city madly in love with food. Jumping over to historic Cabbagetown, we breakfasted at Kanpai Snack Bar with entertaining co-owner and “Food Jedi” Trevor Lui. Declaring that “our spicy, flavorsome food is meant to encourage drinking,” Lui and chef-partner Ike Huang have crafted a cheeky hip-hop-themed menu based on Taiwan’s street food and night market scenes. Inventions like L’Eggo My Ch’Eggo (Taiwanese fried chicken atop Eggo waffles with lychee-infused maple syrup and butter ‘on da side’) made for tasty bites. Hip-hop homages include Player Hater (golden fried chicken skin tossed in Taiwanese spices), and Wu Tang Beef (“36 chambers of flava sirloin and onions with black pepper sauce”).
Lunching at Smoque N’ Bones on Queen Street West, a compact two-story brick-walled “barbeque n’ bourbon bar,” we learned how to make whiskey sours, raw egg included, from Scottish barkeep Graham while tearing into platters of pulled pork, pork ribs, and brisket. In hyper-trendy Yorkville, Asian-influenced NAO (New and Old) Steakhouse was a cut above for martinis and amazingly succulent pasture-fed Waygu beef.
Memorable, too, was Rodney’s Oyster House on King Street West, starting with the risqué presentation on the history, anatomy, and appeal of oysters. Yes, bivalves are libido boosters, thanks to their concentration of sex hormone-elevating amino acids and testosterone- enhancing zinc. Size does not matter (“A cup or D cup, take your pick”). Underscoring the theme, erotic photography adorned the bathroom walls—is that pubic hair or a sea urchin? We shucked, we ate, we conquered, just like oyster-loving Romans, and Casanova, who reportedly consumed 60 oysters daily to maintain his erectile strength. Toronto stiff? Only in the best way.
There was also some time to ramble this great city of neighborhoods by foot, subway, and Toronto’s “Red Rockett” streetcars.
To the beat of a street performer drumming while blowing on a miked-up didgeridoo, I explored the maze of narrow streets, alleyways and colorful Victorian façades in Kensington Market. Lined with unique boutiques, ethnic eateries, vintage shops, marijuana dispensaries, and more, this original Jewish center from the 1920s is among Toronto’s most authentic and atmospheric neighborhoods.
The colorful parade of humanity, restaurants, and shops continued in Chinatown along adjacent Spadina Avenue. My quarry here was the legendary El Mocambo Tavern, Toronto’s CBGB, where the Stones played a two-night stand on their 1977 visit, featured on the “Love You Live” double album. Presently shuttered with its famed neon palm tree removed for repair, “El Mo,” opened in 1948, is reportedly due for a comeback.
Cultural coordinates on nearby Bloor Street West include the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, and Bata Shoe Museum. From dinosaur skeletons to Daniel Libeskind’s controversial multi-angled Michael Lee-Chin Crystal Pavilion addition, ROM is a national treasure and wonderland of world cultures and natural history.
Steps away, The Bata showcases the history of footwear, from ancient Egyptian sandals to Vivienne Westwood’s high-heeled “moc croc” platforms and Elvis Presley’s blue-patent loafers. Last year, I caught the museum’s “Curious History of Men in Heels” exhibition, which included Elton John’s Ferradini platforms from the early 1970s. Also on Bloor West is the “Mink Mile” of high-end retailers, including iconic Canadian luxury department store Holt Renfrew.
Meandering toward downtown, I passed a personal favorite, the Art Gallery of Ontario, or AGO. With its own daring expansion, from Toronto-born Frank Gehry, AGO ranks among the largest art museums in North America. Having seen the David Bowie exhibit here in 2013, it will forever feel like a shrine.
Around the corner, OCAD University’s (Ontario College of Art and Design) Sharp Centre for Design, a box elevated high above the street on multi-colored, multi-angled struts, is one for the camera. Then, dropping down to Queen Street West, I lunched at another personal favorite, Queen Mother Café, before continuing down to Toronto’s central waterfront district to check out the ten-acre Harbourfront Centre cultural complex.
Staging more than 4,000 mostly free events annually, from festivals to weekend happenings, this innovative district features attractions like preeminent Canadian contemporary art gallery The Power Plant, and charming Toronto Musical Garden. Nearby is summertime oasis Sugar Beach, just down from The Distillery District, the triumphant multi-use revival of the 19th-century Gooderham and Worts Distillery complex.
That night, I headed for The Village with some gay Westin Harbor and Sheraton contacts and their friends. We passed by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, (the world’s largest and longest-running queer theatre company (en route to the Church Street strip). Our congregation’s first stop was Byzantium, now in its 17th year as Toronto’s original, reigning martini bar. From creamy (the Pearl Necklace) to classic, the martini menu, which includes house signatures such as the Dirty Boy, Viagra, Hunk, and Jolly Rancher, is reason alone to come and come again to this appealing retro-lounge/supper club.
From there it was across the street to catch the popular Friday night drag show at Crews and Tangos. Located inside a converted Victorian home, the nightclub was minded by unfriendly bouncers (not unusual, I’m told) and jammed with revelers, so we went up the block to Woody’s. Every inch as much fun as advertised, this Church Street landmark (with no-cover brother bar Sailor next-door) was packed too, but with a better vibe by far. Fans of Queer as Folk will remember Woody’s from the show; fans of sexy bartenders, hot videos (playing on overhead screen), and events such as the regular Friday and Saturday night “Best Ass” contest will make this expansive, five-bar funhouse their Toronto go-to.
Finishing the night playing pool at super-friendly Church Street hangout Pegasus, I also had recommendations for my next visit, including campy piano bar and nightclub duo Zipperz/Cellblock and O’Grady’s, with its popular outdoor patio. Toronto also likes it raunchy at joints like dungeon-themed Black Eagle for bears and the leather/denim/bondage set, and no-holds-barred bathhouse Steamworks.
Icaught up with Chantelois by phone two days after the end of Pride, which ran from June 1 to July 3. Calling himself “exhausted and relieved,” he described “a most magical month.” Attracting over one-million people, the many milestones and highlights started at kick-off, with the historic first-ever co-raising of the Trans pride and rainbow Pride flag at City Hall. Unprecedented, too, was Parade weekend’s Trans March, the largest in history by far, with some 11,000 people. Add to this Justin Trudeau becoming the first Canadian Prime Minister, and possibly first sitting national leader ever, to enthusiastically participate in a Pride event.
The celebrations included parties and special screenings (including Mean Girls) at TIFF Bell Lightbox, home of the Toronto International Film Festival. There was also the meet-and-greet reunion with cast members from Queer as Folk, followed by a party at Toronto’s biggest gay nightclub Fly 2.0 (the show’s fictional Babylon), with my all-time favorite drag queen (name), Toronto’s Sofonda Cox, among the per- formers. Add to this, memorials and panel discussions; RuPaul and George Takei; the 20th anniversary of Dyke March, and much, much more. For Chantelois, an unanticipated measure of success was that “we were able to still have a safe and secure Pride after what happened in Orlando.” As announced by Chantelois following the tragedy, the Pride Parade was dedicated to the victims; their names have also been inscribed in the Village’s streets.
Between assuming his leadership role just one year after Toronto host- ed WorldPride and his own game-changing ambitions, Chantelois had much at stake tied up in the event. Was the intended impact there? After telling reporters during Pride that “I didn’t pick this job to run a beer festival or a music festival. I picked this job…to make the world a better place,” it appears that he did indeed take a big step in that direction.
“The concept resonated across the city, from the street to major institutions,” he said. “With the resulting awareness around what can be done in a month, as opposed to a week, I believe we have changed the way people look at Pride, and what it can achieve in the broader context of rights not just for the community, but for all people,” continued Chantelois. “Next year will be even more inclusive, as we reach out and find room for even more marginalized members of society. The hope, the goal, is that other Prides around the world do the same.”