Opinion
5 min

Discovering Corktown

Find everything from Ethiopian coffee to traditional French soap in this emerging Toronto hotspot

Shauntelle Leblanc is the owner of Ethel, where the motto is “Life is too short for beige.” Credit: Adam Coish

As someone who used to confuse Corktown with Leslieville (those little signs are no friend to the nearsighted), I was pleasantly surprised to find that an area I’ve always thought of as Lower Regent Park has a special history all its own. I lived in Cabbagetown back in the 1990s, when Regent Park was one of those areas a safety-conscious swishter like myself would never consider visiting after dark. It was gangland, and the risks of walking through ranged from screamed insults to serious physical trauma.

Of course now the area is well into its rebirth. Condos and affordable housing coexist happily within sleek new buildings, bright street lighting gives off its reassuring glow, and a slew of shops, both old and new, are enjoying a brisk trade as young families and hipsters flock to the area. Nearly gone are the low-rise brick cubes that became a symbol of poverty and crime for decades.

Corktown runs roughly from Parliament Street to the Don River along a rapidly evolving stretch of Queen Street East. Back in the 1800s, this was home to thousands of Irish immigrants, many coming from County Cork, from which the neighbourhood takes its name. There’s still a nice sense of history, with heritage homes and shops making up the bulk of the buildings. But the reinvention of the area is bringing in new business and refreshed services to the area.

The showpiece is definitely Corktown Common, a magnificent mixed-use space that rests on the site of a former pig-slaughtering facility. Designed with both community enjoyment and environmental sensitivity in mind, the Common features a super-cool splash pad and playground, beautiful protected wetlands and a rolling tree-studded lawn that is pleasing to the eye even as it provides flood protection for the area.

There’s also a thriving restaurant scene in Corktown, with places like the Paintbox Bistro (555 Dundas St E) and other eateries opening up shop. Certainly the most posh of these is Que Supper Club (364 Queen St E), an upscale barbecue restaurant that serves an eclectic fusion of tastes and cultures. Now, kimchi tacos and redneck sushi may sound like slightly incongruous food combinations, but Que makes it work with a harmonious blend of flavours and artistic presentation. For the less adventurous, standard fare like pulled pork and wings round out an ambitious but accessible menu.

Just up the street is neighbourhood favourite Keeffaa Ethiopian café and restaurant (368 Queen St E). This place is perennially busy, with both coffee connoisseurs and diners looking for authentic, vegetarian-friendly Ethiopian cuisine. All the food is made onsite, while the coffee is, according to my java-crazed travelling companion, the best thing since the advent of home-sized espresso machines. There are lattes made with almond milk, ginger tea with coconut milk and a delicious hot chocolate that is so spicy and sweet I want to bathe in it. The menu offers plenty of vegan options, along with raw foods, eggs and breads all prepared in the Ethiopian style. Definitely worth a repeat visit.

There’s also more mainstream fare at places like Magic Oven (360 Queen St E) or Souvlaki Express (348 Queen St E). I love the historic Dominion on Queen (500 Queen St E), a warm, comfortable space with great pub food and an even better live jazz scene. Redline Coffee and Espresso (354 Queen St E) is the destination for perfectly tart, freshly squeezed lemonade. They also serve Kawartha Dairy ice cream, which is perhaps the only good thing ever to come out of Peterborough (birthplace of Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach — I rest my case).

Gentrification is definitely colouring the tone of Corktown. There are several of what I like to call “lifestyle stores” — little shops that carry a modest selection of furniture and lighting along with interesting chachkas and greeting cards.

Even & Odd (356 Queen St E) is a cute place, featuring a blend of home décor, kitchenware, silk-screened bags and such. I love their fair-trade totes from the UK, emblazoned with robins, owls and other birds. And while I may not personally be a fan of scented candles, their Savon de Marseille traditional French soaps are absolutely divine. The barn-board-style storage boxes are very cool as well.

Just on the other side of Parliament is Ethel (327 Queen St E), a wonderful hodgepodge of home accessories and furnishings that conjure up images of the 1960s while staying firmly in the present. How can you not love a place that uses an old swim flipper as a doorstop and stocks vintage frosted highball glasses? The name may evoke images of Lucy’s famous frumpy sidekick, but the similarity ends there; Ethel carries a modest but delightful selection, ranging from retro lighting and ceramics to a fabulous couch that is part space-age and part Father Knows Best in style. Their slogan sums it up perfectly: “Life is too short for beige.”

Gen-Cor Custom Furniture (342 Queen St E) is another great find. Their handmade wood offerings are both gorgeous and reassuringly solid — an important distinction for all of us cursing the inevitable splitting of Ikea plywood, just weeks after the expired warranty. There’s some classic design here, as well as a subdued modernity: a bathroom vanity done in Shaker style, featuring modern hardware and a sandblasted glass countertop, is chic but timeless, while the full-size dining table with hand-etched swirly design can easily seat 12 of your closest friends (or 10 that you’re moderately ambivalent about).

There’s also Adornments on Queen (338 Queen St E), which is part tea shop, part furniture-and-accessories store. It has a serious Parisian theme going on, with wrought-metal birdcages, European-style place settings and a selection of loose-leaf teas from Steeped and Infused that is truly astounding. Blends like ginger lime fruit, grapefruit ice tea and tulsi orange ginger tell you this is definitely not Tetley land. Very chi-chi; surprisingly affordable.

It’s nice to see an art space in the Corktown mix, and Urban Gallery (400 Queen St E) has a community feel that fits in well with the neighbourhood. The gallery falls under the Urban Source Catering umbrella (located next door) and offers venue rentals as well as wall space for city artists. Painter Allen Shugar’s work was recently featured in its Pride showing, and the team is always open to submissions.

Antique Asylum and Ye Olde Tackle Shop (370 Queen St E) is one of the businesses that have been around for years. It’s a classic jumble shop, with a fun blend of old and new lining its shelves. Definitely good for an hour of browsing and the occasional one-of-a-kind discovery.

But the best vintage lighting has to be from Douglas Poole Antiques (358 Queen St E). Any era in which humans were capable of jamming a light bulb into a socket is represented here in glorious, chaotic fashion. This cavernous place is packed to the rafters with chandeliers, Tiffany-style shades, and those old cast-iron-based lamps that were so heavy you needed to do a round of squats before rearranging your room. One heft of these little miracles of design reminds me of the days when things were built to both please the eye and last generations. Owner Douglas Poole is, sadly, retiring early next year, but the good news is that he’s knocked everything in the store down to serious clear-out prices. He’s been here for 12 years and has watched the neighbourhood transform with great interest.

“Oh, it’s so different now,” he says. “There are so many changes, with the new developments and all the new stores opening up. But it’s always been a great area. I will miss it.”