The Shape Shifting Neighbourhood: Kensington Market

Explore one of the most culturally rich neighbourhoods in Toronto

Kensington can feel like a movie set, with a cast of characters and sets created by the most eccentric of designers. If you read anything about Toronto you likely know that uniqueness is in flux. Threats of Starbucks, Loblaws, or Walmarts moving in make the news on a yearly basis, while long-time residents complain of rent hikes as trendy new shops open their doors.

According to the Kensington Market Historical Society, emigrant European Jews, who moved into the market in the early to mid-twentieth century, are the first developers of the market as we know it today. They created an area that was a mixed residential and commercial neighbourhood: opening a hodgepodge of butchers, produce vendors, and second hand clothing stores. The spirit of these shops are still there today but the Jewish cultural influences have now faded while Latin American and Jamaican influences are prevalent. There are also a host new shops, bars and galleries contributing to Kensington’s fluid character.

Food

Jumbo Empanadas
The ultimate in Latin American street food is the empanada. This humble and filling meat pie comes in many forms. At Jumbo Empanadas, these hot pockets come out fresh, gooey, and full of flavour. But don’t just stick to this restaurant’s namesake, try the humitas (Chilean tamales) too.

El Trompo
The el pastor tacos pack the biggest flavour punch at this taco restaurant: three corn tortillas are filled with spicy pork and topped with juicy cooked pineapple. As with most Mexican restaurants, starting with guacamole is always a good idea. Here it’s made even better with accompanying “red” and “green” hot sauces. Test before you try! The green tomatillo sauce is a real kicker.

 

Emporium Latino
If you’re not going to be eating in Kensington, this Salvadorian grocery store should be your go-to for all Latin American home-cooked meals. Stock up on fresh corn tortillas, dried beans and more varieties of salsa than you knew existed.
 

Nu Bugel
Nu Bugel has done what was once thought impossible: make Torontoians love Montreal bagels. These bagels are dressed and baked onsite in a wood-fire oven. Bagels are served fresh and warm all day. You’ll find the mainstays like poppy seed and sesame or go for the more unconventional, like coconut.

 

Blackbird Baking Co.
There are few things better than freshly baked bread and the gluteny goodness that comes from Blackbird’s kitchen is some of the best. Crunchy crusts surround soft, gooey centres and come in baguettes, loaves, and flatbreads. Wheat varieties run the gamut from red fife to sourdough, whole wheat and everything in between.

 

Sanagan’s Meat Locker
Before opening his wildly successful butcher shop, Peter Sanagan was a chef in some of Toronto’s finest restaurants like Auberge du Pommier and Mistura. Sanagan’s is one of the newer spots in the Market, but with local cuts of meat, knowledgeable and friendly staff as well as delicious sandwiches, the shop is winning over new and old patrons alike.

 

Global Cheese
Loving cheese means appreciating the stinky cheese aromas of a good cheese shop. Global Cheese is no exception. The shop really comes alive on the weekend, when staff yell out orders in the busy store, serving customers at a rapid fire pace. The prices are great here and the staff are there to educate about their products – no one is turning up their nose at Global Cheese.

 

Oxford Fruit
Picking a single produce stand out of the many in Kensington can feel like a game of eeny meeny miny mo. Oxford Fruit is always a good place to land on because it has everything you need. The prices and great and conveniently, it’s one of the few stands in the market that takes Interac so unless most places in the Market, you can still go home with bags full, even if you’re paying with plastic.

Casa Acoreana
This is the shop at the corner of Augusta Avenue and Baldwin Street, the nexus of the Kensington universe. Most Torontoians wouldn’t know the name if you asked, but they would know that it’s the place to go for coffee beans, loose leaf tea (like David’s without the price tag), spices and a wicked candy counter. The corner is also home to Casa Acoreana Café, which is a great place to grab a coffee in the heart of the Market.
 

Shopping

Tom’s Place
Hungarian immigrant William Mihalik came to Canada in 1956 after the Hungarian revolution and opened a second-hand store in Kensington. He retired in 1981 handing the business over to his son, Tom, who has been running it as a suit store ever since. They really play up the shtick in their advertising, but don’t let that fool you because these suits are high class.

 

Courage My Love
This is the Platonic ideal of vintage shopping. It’s the store stylists go to to supply their shoots and it’s easy to see why: it’s a treasure chest of cashmere, leather, suede and all around great finds. Jewelry and bead counters run almost the entire length of the store, showcasing new and vintage baubles. There’s never an end to the interesting pieces to buy or make here.

 

Pretty Freedom
The clothing stocked in this vintage store is curated with a focus on the best of the 1990s (and ‘90s fashion is totally in right now). They also sell rings, earrings and necklaces some new and some vintage like the rest of the store.

 

Drinking

Cold Tea
It’s rumoured that if you order cold tea at some of Chinatown’s all-hours restaurants, you will be served beer after last call. Having some sort of secret knowledge is also required to find Cold Tea’s. In a mall on Kensington Avenue, down the hall to a grey door, marked only with a red light is the cramped and bumping bar. On warm summer nights, the back patio nearly triples the bar’s capacity.

 

Ronnie’s Local 069
Every summer, a new restaurant with a fancy patio will open in Toronto to much fanfare. Ronnie’s Local 069 on Nassau Street is no frills, but still holds down as one of the city’s best patios, year after year. It could be the people watching, it could be the craft beers, or it could be the grilled cheese delivered from across the street. Whatever it is, it’s working and here’s to hoping it never changes.

The Embassy
This bar is less of a destination and more of a local hang out. It’s assuming, but never quiet and located right on Augusta Avenue, with a great view of the park. The beer selection is vast and the crowd is friendly.
 

Architecture & Art

Kiever Shul
Opened in 1917, this shul has stood overlooking Bellevue Square Park for over 100 years. Guests are always welcome to attend Shabbat services.

Videofag
In it’s previous carnation, Videofag was a barbershop. But in 2012, playwright and director Jordan Tannahill and actor William Ellis converted the space to a cinema and art gallery, to showcase media and performance art.

 

Bellevue Square Park
This park is a playground and wading pool for the kids, a meet-up spot for locals, and it’s home to drum circles and hula hoopers. It is also where the life-sized statue of Toronto-born actor and director Al Waxman lives. Waxman played Larry King (convenience store-owner, not talk show host) in the CBC television series “King of Kensington”.
 

Events

Pedestrian Sundays
Every last Sunday of the month between May and October, the streets of Kensington are shut down to vehicle traffic and replaced with live music, buskers, and sidewalk sales. It’s a street fair that will make you never want to look both ways before you cross again.

 

The Festival Of Lights
A.k.a. Winter Solstice. This annual festival takes place on the longest night of the year. The festival is a carnival parade, led through the market by musicians, fire breathers, stilt walkers and other colourful characters. The intention is to beckon to the sun to return, but it’s the spectacle of the parade itself that casts the brightest glow.