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Things Will Be Great When You’re Downtown – for the Holidays

By Nancy Wigston


Growing up in the Toronto burbs, I always wanted to live “downtown,” and now I do—in historic St Lawrence/Old Downtown. The Victorians invented the holiday style that we love and celebrate today, and St. Lawrence is the hippest of Victorian ‘hoods, ideal for a winter walkabout.

Not to brag, but we do have a few Toronto icons. At Wellington and Front looms the 1892 red-brick Gooderham (Flatiron) Building. In winter strings of tiny lights wrap the trees in the park to the west side, where a witty 1980 trompe l’oeil painting by Derek Michael Besant adds dash: More windows! Flying curtains! Victorians might have raised an eyebrow, but today’s visitors just snap more photos.

Across the street, the St. Lawrence Theatre Centre for the Arts (StLC.com) stages a slew of holiday offerings, from theatrical to musical fare. Leader Lane takes you to King St. and the smiling uniformed doormen at the holiday-decorated luxurious Omni King Edward Hotel (OmniHotels.com). High teas are special here, and in December, even more so: The Nutcracker Tea is served daily, 2:30pm – 5:00pm.

Since 1903 the King Eddy has hosted royalty of every variety. Movie stars and rock ‘n rollers—Liz and Dick, John and Yoko—they’ve all slept here. Last June actor/guest John Malkovich rushed to the aid of a stricken passerby, along with Ben Quinn, who owns PJ O’Brien’s Irish pub at 29 Colborne. Their kindness made headlines, and says a lot about visitors and downtowners alike.

At the corner King and Church Streets, another icon: the soaring Gothic Revival spire and honey-blonde bricks of the 1853 Cathedral Church of St James. Ringing chimes on the quarter hour, St James scores the soundtrack to holiday time in the city. The twice-weekly organ concerts are free, and among other holiday highlights are choral services and “Creches from Across the World.”(StJamesCathedral.on.ca).

A few blocks east, funky-cool Le Petit Déjeuner, 191 King St E (PetitDejeuner.ca) attracts line-ups for Eggs Benny and Duck Confit early on weekends. (Dinners are a more intimate affair). A few blocks further east (291 King E), the Patrician Grill’s generous breakfasts and legendary home fries deliver an authentic diner experience. No wonder filmmakers love the place.

Heading up Frederick St to Adelaide, look to your left, for the Union Jack flag flying above Toronto’s First Post Office. 260 Adelaide E. Behind the door at the top of the steps awaits the world of 1833, when this post office was a vital link between newcomers and the families they left behind.

Inside it’s homey, adorable–and a functioning post office/museum. The reading room, fireplace, and wooden tables entice kids and their parents to experiment with Victorian-era letter-writing. Quill pens dipped in ink, then stamped and sealed with red wax, make instant keepsakes. Hey, Santa might like a letter too! If you mail him at Santa Clause, North Pole, HOH OHO Canada, you’ll get a reply from his thousands of helpers. Other treats include a scale model map of 1837 Toronto, intricate old-style letters, and an array of gift books, cards and packets of old-time stamps. (TownOfYork.com).

For lunch, reserve a table at busy Origin (OriginToronto.com), at King and Church Streets, a chic “high energy global food bar.” But oh, the market beckons too. Formally known as the St. Lawrence Market, directly south of beautiful 1850 St. Lawrence Hall at Jarvis and King (StLawrenceMarket.com), the market attracts both tourists and ordinary shoppers from Tuesday-Saturday.

Everyone from Anthony Bourdain to my three-year-old grandson loves the back bacon (Canadian bacon) sandwiches from Carousel Bakery. But tons of ready-to-eat goodies—from giant Italian sandwiches to delicately artistic raw dishes—can be found on the market’s basement level. Sundays the north end (The Farmer’s Market on Saturdays) is awash with antique sellers, an ideal place to buy souvenirs.

Winter nights come early, but St. Lawrence is alight with cool bars and hot music guaranteed to warm you to your toes. PJ O’Brien’s (PJObrien.ca) famed for its fresh pub food and dark Guinness, features boot-stomping live acts with a Celtic flair. “Pop music with an edge” plus a wide range of craft beers are found at C’est What? 67 Front St (CestWhat.com). And everyone loves to dance to the music at The Reservoir Lounge at 52 Wellington East (ReservoirLounge.com) — hot jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie.

In festive downtown Toronto, winter will keep you warm.

Nancy Wigston, a freelance travel writer and critic, lives in Toronto’s St Lawrence neighbourhood.