I swear to god it sometimes seems like there’s an electrified fence running along Bloor Street, preventing me from venturing north from my cozy downtown nest. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so surprised and delighted working on these neighbourhood profile pieces, given the incredible variety that lies within a 15-minute cab ride from my front door.
For one thing, I’m astonished how inured I’ve become to omnipresent spirit-crushers like Starbucks, Chapters and Pottery Barn. So much so that when I walk the blocks of Mount Pleasant between Davisville and Eglinton avenues, I actually notice their absence. It’s a nice feeling.
Many small businesses are still striving — and thriving — in the nooks and crannies thus far spared the corporate retail onslaught. It’s clean, colourful and low-rise, all conducive to the solid pedestrian traffic evident even on a chilly spring morning.
It’s also one of the more interesting foodie destinations I’ve come across. One of my first stops is Lollicakes (#1 on the map, 559 Mt Pleasant Rd), a tiny bakery jam-packed full of cupcakes… on sticks! Barbara Rotberg opened her decadent shop six years ago and is glad that the street has retained its character and clientele. “It’s a real neighbourhood,” she says. “There’s a wonderful community feeling here. I just love it.”
In deference to my deeply held convictions regarding journalistic scrutiny, I dutifully cram one of Rotberg’s fluffy creations down my throat. It’s heavenly: rich and moist, with a delicate icing that lacks the oily quality so many mass-produced cakes seem to possess these days. I bolt for the door before three years on the elliptical trainer falls before a baker’s dozen of these little morsels of ecstasy.
My next stop is Alexandre Antique Prints, Maps & Books (#2, 593 Mt Pleasant Rd). The walls are lined with all sorts of cool old maps, antique CN posters and such, but it’s the back section that immediately catches my eye. There, nestled in dark wooden shelves and lit by a small chandelier, is a breathtaking collection of antique books, including a first edition of Peter Pan (1906) that almost yanks my credit card from my wallet.
Thankfully, the $1,750 price tag jams it back in, but I’m sorely tempted by a pristine 1928 edition listed at $175. The owner is a bit chilly when asked for personal information, but I catch my reflection in the window as I leave and deduce the reason: green icing smeared along the left side of my mouth, courtesy of my Lollicakes orgy. Always classy, me.
I pop into Hazel’s Diner (#3, 523 Mt Pleasant Rd) for a quick tidy and peruse the menu for a future visit. It’s total comfort food, with an all-day breakfast and a creamy-looking mac and cheese that makes my mouth water. I decide a Cobb salad is just the thing to balance out my sugar levels and leave feeling happily sated and nutritionally righteous.
Unfortunately, just a hop, skip and prance away is Il Gelatiere (#4, 647 Mt Pleasant Rd), an establishment that shares a complicated history with my dietary goals. My intention is to have just the tiniest serving of one of their beautifully tart (and relatively light) citrus offerings, but somehow a big ball of pistachio gelato makes its way into the queue to expand my body’s fat cells. I leave with a purposeful stride, searching in vain for a lipo clinic on the strip. The closest thing I find is Vacuum King (#5, 540 Mt Pleasant Rd), which sells new and reconditioned vacuum cleaners, as well as repairing and refurbishing old ones.
I barely manage to resist entering a tiny, chic place called Café Pleiade (#6, 557 Mt Pleasant Rd), despite an appealing Franco-Italian menu that boasts mussels, veal and even calves liver (trust me, it’s delicious when cooked right).
As on my previous trip to The Junction, I’m struck by how many Mount Pleasant Village businesses are geared toward families and kids. There’s the delightful Mabel’s Fables (#7, 662 Mt Pleasant Rd), an honest-to-god independent bookstore that’s as charming as it is packed with books for kids of all ages. There’s even a small section of adult fare for parents to browse while their offspring sit and read or visit with the store’s feline namesake, Mabel 2 (the original Mabel moved on to the big litter box in the sky a few years back).
There’s also a shop called Kids Costumes (#8, 539 Mt Pleasant Rd), which features the most amazing handmade outfits for Halloween and dress-up I’ve ever seen. The child in me who dreamed of being Laura Ingalls cheers at the sight of an authentic prairie-girl costume, complete with pinafore and bonnet. There’s also a lovingly stitched Anne of Green Gables getup, along with tuxedos, medieval armour and jerkins, and an Egyptian costume that would make Lady Gaga weep.
But the absolute end-all for kids of all ages has to be The Little Dollhouse Company (#9, 612 Mt Pleasant Rd). This huge shop contains a world of its own, rendered meticulously in miniature. The walls are lined with dollhouses ranging from $299 to more than $3,000, as well as tiny dinnerware, upholstered furniture and even little wooden citizens to inhabit it all. Despite the several customers present, the air is one of hushed admiration. Children gaze open-mouthed at the scenes of everyday life, recreated in small scale. The poor little dears’ heads would surely explode if they were given a tour of the backroom by owner Maria Fowler.
“This is where the real fun happens,” Fowler says as she leads me into the store’s workshop. I am gobsmacked at the towering Victorian mansion that greets my eyes. It’s at least four feet tall and has an amount of architectural detail that seems almost impossible in such a small scale. Winding internal staircases, hardwood floors and hand-painted wallpaper transport the viewer into a miniature universe. Even the handrails look hand-carved. “This is a custom order,” Fowler explains. “We create them for people all over the world. We’ve just built one for a lady in Rome. These are collector pieces, of course.”
I’m almost afraid to ask how much something like this costs, and Fowler chuckles at my hesitation. “Well, this piece has all leaded glass and premium materials. It’s $50,000.”
Once I regain consciousness, I realize that it’s probably an appropriate price for a piece of original art possessing this size and detail. Each piece is created to the customer’s explicit direction and design by a disappearing brand of artisan and involves hundreds of hours of labour and costly materials. The reason people come from all over the world to this shop is plain: in a world of Barbie and her plastic ilk, not many people create one-of-a-kind dollhouses anymore.
It gives me much food for thought as I visit the remaining shops along the strip. I’ve become so accustomed to mass-produced articles and food that I’m almost startled to see independent producers still selling their wares to a community that obviously supports them. I can’t imagine where else you’d find such treasures as Culinarium (#10, 705 Mt Pleasant Rd), an organic grocer that features local, sustainable organic produce and offers food-box programs, classes and even an upcoming anniversary celebration complete with a five-course progressive dinner party that will unfold throughout the month of April.
There are far more eateries than even my appetite can manage, including Bread and Butter (#11, 507 Mt Pleasant Rd), whose authentic schnitzel earns raves from neighbouring shopkeepers, and a smattering of pubs for those hankering for brewed and fried fare.
I end my day in complete surrender, standing helplessly in front of the Cheese Emporium (#12, 245 Eglinton Ave E, at the corner of Mt Pleasant). The name really does say it all: wall-to-wall cheeses of every flavour and country imaginable, along with an olive bar and plenty of freebie tasters.
Be fair warned: this is not Loblaws, so you can expect to pay premium prices, but the cheeses are sublime. So much so that, as I drag my bloated, sorry self home, I feel no remorse for the triple-cream Brie that somehow seduced me into yet another heady, short-term dalliance I’ll probably regret.
Oh, who’s kidding whom. I won’t regret a single cupcake, spoonful or heaped cracker. You won’t, either.