Girlfriends Guide to Toronto
Posted on January 18, 2019
The pressure is on. Your best friend got a ring for the holidays and you’re the bachelorette bash boss. A limo rolling from East Fourth to Tremont to Ohio City for cocktails is nice, but you can do Cleveland next Saturday. Doesn’t your girl deserve a weekend away with her crew? After all, the bestie-moon is trending.
Our neighbor to the north – Toronto – is jonesing for your party. And, with a stronger U.S. dollar — $1 American equals about $1.35 Canadian — it’s like Canada is on sale. You can go by car, about 290 miles or five hours without pit stops. Or take a one-hour flight on Air Canada. Either way, remember your passport.
If you prepare in advance, you can curate a collection of experiences. I’ve tested a number of them. Simply mix and match from the following options. For some, reservations are necessary.
By Paris Wolfe, Special to The Plain Dealer
An ivy wall behind the check-in counter at Hotel X Toronto. (Courtesy Hotel X Toronto)Where to stay: Hotel X Toronto
Overnight options include Hotel X Toronto, just west of downtown. Opened in June 2018, it has 404 rooms but feels like a boutique resort. Pack a bathing suit for the heated, indoor-outdoor rooftop pool that overlooks the skyline and Lake Ontario. And reserve space in sunrise or sunset yoga classes. Upon arrival, tuck luggage into a one-bedroom suite with a pull-out couch (sleeps two to four) and two bathrooms for primping and polishing.
The hotel is a short drive from most activities; simply request the complimentary house car and a driver – a black BMW X5 — to any location within three miles. Return later by Uber or taxi. Voila, no worries about parking or drinking/driving.
The rooftop pool is open year-round at Hotel X Toronto. (Courtesy Hotel X Toronto)
The simple syrups and tinctures that Toronto’s BarChef uses for its “molecular” cocktails are created by the kitchen staff and stored on the lighted bar. (Courtesy BarChef)
Arrival night should start with a celebratory cocktail. The city has several unique cocktails bars. My favorite is BarChef (472 Queen St. W) in the Queen West neighborhood. There, bartender and co-owner Frankie Solarik applies molecular gastronomy to cocktail culture.
My one-and-only cocktail was the Geometric Lavender ($30 Canadian, or about $23 U.S.). A lavender and violet-flavored coiled cream rested inside the glass with white chocolate carbonic snow, red grapefruit cells and Aperol pearls. After removing a bell jar from a wooden base filled with aromatic lavender buds, the server poured over a gin-based effervescent cocktail. This released a cloud of white chocolate and lavender aromas, to complete the multi-sensual experience.
The Geometric Lavender cocktail at BarChef starts with a lavender- and violet-flavored coiled cream with red grapefruit cells and Aperol pearls. (Courtesy BarChef)
The bar at Famous Last Words is paved with Scrabble tiles. The Fahrenheit 451 cocktail is a variation on an old-fashioned – Forty Creek Copper Pot whiskey, maple simple syrup, angostura bitters and orange zest. (Courtesy Famous Last Words)
Across town in The Junction neighborhood, Marlene Thorne and staff mix literary libations at Famous Last Words, where drinks are named after historic literature and popular novels.
Try The Princess Bride ($12 CDN), a mingling of vodka, grapefruit, lemon and handcrafted honey-thyme syrup. Abstaining friends might like the Little House on the Prairie, a non-alcoholic blend of honey, sorghum molasses, apple cider vinegar and soda.
Better yet, book a private class (at least two weeks in advance) for an early afternoon when the bar is closed and Thorne will customize a cocktail for the wedding reception.
Famous Last Words bar offers a cozy place to gather after a cocktail-making class. (Courtesy Famous Last Words)
A skyline“The View,” on the 28th floor of Hotel X Toronto , overlooks the downtown skyline including the iconic CN Tower. The room is available for private parties. (Courtesy Hotel X Toronto)Multicultural Toronto
Time is short and so is the night. If you’re ready to party on arrival night, Uber to El Convento Rico (750 College St.) for a late all-male review or midnight drag show. Dress your clubbiest so the bouncers will choose your party to descend the stairs to the high-energy, often-LGBTQ nightspot. The décor and drinks aren’t fancy, but the beautiful people lined six deep around the dance floor don’t care.
During your visit, you will experience Toronto as the most multicultural city in North America. Walking the streets, listening to people on the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission subways, streetcars or buses) and observing myriad ethnic restaurants, it’s easy to believe that 47 percent of the nearly 3 million residents are immigrants.
My experience substantiated the facts. I met “locals” from South Africa, Trinidad, Ukraine, Iran, Columbia, Syria and more. Some stumbled through English, while others were masters of the tongue. Accents are a charming addition to the city’s soundtrack.
Groups can reserve up to 18 manicure stations at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, including those at this bar. (Courtesy Her Majesty’s Pleasure)Breakfast and manicures
The first morning, I skipped breakfast and joined a group of four for a brunch tour of King and Queen West neighborhoods (CA$99). Advance reservations required, these tours sell out in the summertime. Ariel Kogan of Toronto Food Tours took us to seven stops. We enjoyed eggs Benedicts and bloody Caesars, Korean steamed buns and pork belly sandwiches, Syrian manaeesh, chocolate, chocolate chip cookies and Italian pastry. And coffee.
Too much food? Try a one-course brunch at Belfast Love Public House (548 King St. W). On Sunday mornings, bottles of Prosecco at this Irish-themed pub are half price and come with unlimited orange or grapefruit juice for tableside mimosas.
Or simpler yet, grab breakfast at the Hotel X Toronto’s Starbucks and take the house car to Her Majesty’s Pleasure (556 King St. W) for side-by-side manicures, pedicures and blowout treatments. And coffee. Parties packages – which include a cocktail — are CA$60 for one service or $110 for two services per person. They should be reserved in advance.
Nina Mytsykova is a lawyer who recently moved from the Ukraine to Toronto and works as a manicurist at Her Majesty’s Pleasure while resettling in her new country. (Paris Wolfe, Special to The Plain Dealer)
When I arrived 15 minutes early at HMP, bartender Graham Mothersill welcomed me with a foamy cappuccino and bottomless lemon-cucumber-mint infused ice water. The elegant salon and cocktail bar has seven pedicure stations and 18 manicure stations for groups to gather. Test a blush-colored gel polish for the wedding day.
Visitors to the Lip Lab work with technicians to create custom lipsticks from 200 different pigments. (Paris Wolfe, Special to The Plain Dealer)
Properly coiffed, check out nearby Lip Lab by Bite Beauty (678 Queen St. W) and design a personal lipstick color for the nuptials (CA$55). Again, reservations are recommended for a group experience and a girlfriends’ package is available. Technicians here spend at least an hour selecting the just-right hue from 200 pigments, and then they mix the sheen (matte, shiny) and flavor into an organic stick. Pay a little more and custom blend pigments for an even more exclusive result. Ready-made shades are available for those in a hurry.
Louis Vuitton is among the luxury brands found in the exclusive Yorkville neighborhood, also known as “Mink Mile.” (Tourism Toronto)
One of the best afternoon options – in my opinion – is shopping. Rationalization: Shopping requires walking and that makes the Fitbit happy. Moreover, the bride will require a honeymoon trousseau. Need I say more?
You can select a distinctive neighborhood – Distillery District, Kensington Market, Yorkville, Queen Street West — to experience. Once there, power up at a local restaurant for lunch.
Suzanne Colmer, center, and her team Your Shop Girl examine the merchandise at LOFT as they guide a group of women through an image consulting group tour. (Your Shop Girl)
To get the most from your experience, hire super shopper Suzanne Colmer, owner of Your Shop Girl Image and Style Consulting (CA$50-$100 per hour). She’ll recommend the appropriate shopping district and serve as guide. Colmer and her staff – you’ll need her staff for a group — will identify your style, colors and body shape before recommending clothing. They bring bubbly and have access to exclusive retail discounts.
With my “creative, classic and flirty” style identified, Colmer took me to Anthropologie in upscale Yorkville (also known as Mink Mile) to seek sweaters; there I found two pieces to pop my mostly black wardrobe.
Another option, Kensington Market, just northwest of downtown, is a maze of narrow streets and alleys lined with boho, hipster, vintage and health food shops as well as chocolatiers, bakeries, coffeehouses, vegetarian and ethnic restaurants. Kensington Market is like Cleveland’s Coventry neighborhood times ten. And it’s affordable.
Kensington Market is an older, multicultural neighborhood with a jumble of ethnic and vegetarian restaurants as well as boho, vintage and smoke shops. (Tourism Toronto)
A 13-acre mix of commercial and residential real estate, the Distillery District houses cafés, restaurants, and shops in repurposed 19th century Gooderham and Worts Distillery buildings. (Tourism Toronto)
Oh, but the Distillery District, a pedestrian-only expanse located in repurposed, brick Victorian industrial buildings, will entertain you. The mix of artist studios, galleries, restaurants, distillery, breweries and quirky retailers includes the flamboyant clothing line Desigual from Barcelona and the art deco shoe collection designed by John Fluevog of British Columbia as well as conservative Canadian designers. Pause to sample spirits and sake distillery products or brewery wares between shops.
The Queen Street West neighborhood offers designer consignment for those who want couture, but can part with only a couple hundred dollars. I’m still drooling over the silk, fringe-accented Fendi LBD, a deal at CA$500. It would make a classy statement at the wedding reception.
If you’re not shoppers and want more action, schedule a Beyonce Dance Class ($19 Canadian) with The Underground Dance Centre (220 Richmond St. W) and upgrade your hip swivel to full-body engagement.
Whatever filled the day, finish it with a Cocktail Tour led by Erin Henderson and Dick Snyder of Drink Toronto Tours (CA$150, reservations required). Like Colmer, they’ll match your tastes to a neighborhood. We started at Assembly Chef’s Hall in downtown. The hall is an elevated food court with 17 stands operated by the city’s best chefs. The guides paired hand-tossed, spicy sopressata pizza from The Good Son with a signature margarita from Bar before continuing with cocktail-food pairings at three additional venues.
Oyster Happy Hour in Toronto. (Paris Wolfe)
When a cocktail tour is too much, simply opt for Oyster Happy Hour, 3 to 6 p.m. daily, at John & Sons Oyster House (56 Temperance St.), where the exchange rate makes for an outstanding deal.
Not interested in the bar scene? Relax into Catalan small plates at Madrina Bar y Tapasin the Distillery District or a 45-day dry-aged, local steak at Kojin in the entertainment district downtown. Both restaurants design their dishes for sharing.
Opened in summer 2018, Madrina is operated by Michelin-starred chef Ramon Simarro and offers an array of acorn-fed Iberian hams such as the coveted Gran Reserva, 48-Month, Joselito at CA$42 for 50 grams (50 grams is less than 2 ounces). Other dishes range from CA$4 to $33.
Also founded in summer 2018, Kojin is part of David Chang’s Momofuko dynasty and shares space with the celebrated bakery brand Milk Bar. From the griddled corn flatbread with grass-fed butter and spiced honey to the 15-ounce strip sirloin, ingredients are sourced locally.
Finish the night laughing off a few calories at the 10 p.m. improvisational comedy show at Second City Toronto (51 Mercer St.). The political jokes may be a little Ontario-centric, but they’re relatably funny.
The next morning start over again with breakfast… or return to Northeast Ohio with a collection of memories.