4 min

A quirky, homey, working neighbourhood

Roncesvalles’ village atmosphere is anything but skin-deep

Mabel's Bakery Credit: Adam Coish

Been up and down this road
I hear it’s paved with gold
Or so the story is told
Gonna follow this trail
Straight down to Roncesvalles
Where I hear love overflows

As Jully Black sings in her song “At the Roncies,” there is a lot of love out there for Roncesvalles, one of Toronto’s quirkiest and homiest neighbourhoods. Maybe it’s the historic storefronts running south of Dundas Street West down to King Street, or maybe it’s the absence of shopping behemoths like the Gap. Either way, it’s certainly refreshing to see a slice of Toronto that isn’t dominated by condo towers and golden arches.

Unlike Yorkville or even Cabbagetown, Roncesvalles is very much a working neighbourhood. Sure, some of the shops are downright adorable with old-world bijou out the yin-yang, but a body could get everything needed to survive and thrive without having to leave the ’hood.

For starters, this is a great place for food lovers. There are specialty foods, bakeries and an honest-to-god fish market, complete with a bubbling waterfall window display that makes me feel like the Little Mermaid — or at least the fat old sea witch. For those of us who are accustomed to scrounging for the least-dead offerings at the supermarket’s meagre fish counter, De La Mer (291 Roncesvalles Ave) is a revelation. The cod is shiny and fresh, and the staff is well versed in both product and cooking suggestions.

Just a few doors down, you can find the perfect accompaniment for your seafood entrée at The Mercantile (297 Roncesvalles Ave), a specialty-foods mecca that looks like the film set from every chick flick ever made. Chutneys and jams stand alongside exotic spice mixtures and tea blends, and the smell of fresh baguette is absolute bliss.

For dessert, Mabel’s Bakery (323 Roncesvalles Ave) has everything from glossy, elaborate cakes to the most delicious cookies I’ve had since my Great Macaroon Pig-Out of 2007 (I was in North Carolina, and those scary church ladies know how to bake!). Spooned up with a little frozen yogurt from Gurts (283 Roncesvalles Ave) and you have a meal to die for.

Of course, if you don’t feel like cooking, Roncie boasts several unique and delicious restaurants. Barque Smokehouse (299 Roncesvalles Ave) may not be the ideal destination for your vegan friends, but this place boasts authentic pit barbecue cuisine and a brisket that positively melts in your mouth. My arteries might be clogging, but my stomach is in rapture. If you like live music with your meal, Gate 403 (403 Roncesvalles Ave) has a respectable menu and first-rate jazz acts playing both nightly and on selected afternoons during the week. Juno-nominated artist Elizabeth Shepherd, for one, got her start here.

Amidst these wonderful food shops and boîtes lies a truly enchanting store called Maggie’s Farm (407 Roncesvalles Ave). Filled with whimsy and charm, this secondhand/consignment shop is packed full of vintage LPs (Tony Orlando and Dawn!), fabulous old clothes and a paperback edition of that great lesbian literary masterpiece Forbidden Love. The owner, a vivacious gal named Heather, jokes that she was forced to open the store after she ran out of storage space at home. “I’ve been collecting stuff for 40 years,” she says. “It had to go somewhere.”

The street is certainly kid-friendly, a reflection of the many single-family homes in the neighbourhood. Scooter Girl (187 Roncesvalles Ave) is perhaps the cutest toy store I’ve ever seen, with educational toys, imaginative crafts and just plain fun stuff loading the walls. I pick up some fair-trade finger puppets for my toddler and escape before my Visa leaps bodily from my wallet and drains me dry.

Smock (287 Roncesvalles Ave) is another great place for the whole family, with an arts-and-crafts classroom for kids and a cool café for caffeine-deprived parents. The little darlings can get a sugar jolt afterward at nearby Sweet Thrills (399 Roncesvalles), which stocks all the usual treats as well as a large number of British foodstuffs normally unavailable in Canadian shops. If you haven’t tried Branston Pickle, then this is the time to crack open a jar with your favourite crackers-and-cheese combo.

Books are clearly a welcome commodity here as well. There are two actual bookstores on the same street, and neither of them is owned by Heather Reisman. Another Story (315 Roncesvalles) sells books for children and adults, with an emphasis on social justice and diversity, while A Good Read (341 Roncesvalles) has the rich, solid feel befitting a vendor that specializes in signed modern first editions.

It must be said that a certain hipster vibe can be felt here. Many of the stores have a retro feel, and there’s more than a passing nod toward environmental responsibility. Ecotique (191 Roncesvalles Ave) blends both of these sentiments, with its stock of recycled, reused and repurposed items. My favourites are a line of jewellery boxes and picture frames made out of green circuit boards, salvaged from old computers and electronics. There’s also a gorgeous line of leather-bound journals with cotton pages that contain no wood pulp.

I can’t help but think that these sorts of small, independent shops wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance in other areas of the city where corporate stores and big-ticket rents reign supreme. This is not due to a disparity in quality or variety of goods; if anything, the Roncesvalles businesses offer far superior food and sundries compared to their downtown cousins. Hell, even the ancient Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Ave), a community-run, not-for-profit heritage movie theatre, has the best popcorn in the city.
After speaking with shop owners and clientele alike, it’s clear that this village atmosphere is anything but skin-deep. The locals are adamant that their street continue to prosper and rallied around the beleaguered shops during a two-year period of street work that saw sidewalks torn up and the road frequently impassable. These loyal neighbours trooped through mud and across teetering plank walkways to keep the money flowing.

“They really kept us going,” says Shannon Doyle, owner of The Mercantile. “It was tough times, but people really stuck by us, and we got through it somehow.” Doyle’s been on Roncesvalles for five years, after a nerve-wracking move from her previous College Street location. “I love this neighbourhood. It was a gamble to move her, but I’m so glad I did. The other storeowners are friendly, and it’s just a beautiful street to be on.”

Michael, the manager at Sweet Thrills, agrees wholeheartedly and recalls a personal crisis that showed them all how devoted their customers are. “This was my brother-in-law’s store,” he says. “He passed away three years ago, and within the hour we had people offering to run the store for us. They ran it for us for two weeks. It was the most amazing thing.”