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Leslieville charms

Three top picks in the city's burgeoning east end neighbourhood

Atomic Toybot is one of two Kidrobot specialty stores in Toronto. Credit: Erica Lenti

The city’s east end has traditionally been viewed as the boring little brother to more popular west-end neighbourhoods like Queen West. But in 2005, The New York Times deemed Leslieville – an unlikely east-end destination — Toronto’s hippest emerging neighbourhood.

Today, Leslieville is viewed as a miniature town within the city — a family-friendly neighbourhood boasting some of Toronto’s best shops, cafés and restaurants.

Here are three businesses in Leslieville worth checking out.

1. Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen St E

It took a near-death experience and a breakup for Rosemary Doyle to take the plunge and purchase her local theatre, located in the west end of Leslieville.

After walking away from a car accident unscathed in 2011, Doyle pounced on the vacant building on Queen Street East, just past Logan Avenue. Without a partner holding her back, she paid an advance on a year’s worth of rent. “You could call it a bit of a midlife crisis,” she says.

Such was the start of Red Sandcastle Theatre. Today, the theatre is home to more than 40 local shows per year – all costing less than $25. It’s part of Doyle’s plan to help local artists, a philosophy that seems natural coming from the Leslieville resident of 20 years.

"I believe in locality,” she says. “I wanted to open a space where people could put on plays while they’re still inspired to do it, without worrying about expenses."

In August, Doyle will further her plan by hosting 1,000 Monkeys, a 24-hour playwriting festival sponsored by other local businesses. Aspiring playwrights will spend an entire day at the theatre writing their own productions and later reading them to an audience. The best plays will be selected for full production at the theatre in February 2014.

"It’ll be great to get the whole community involved,” Doyle says.

2. Tango Palace, 1156 Queen St E

At the far-east end of Leslieville is Tango Palace, a small but cozy coffee shop – and evidently, a neighbourhood favourite. In business for more than two decades, Tango Palace was one of Toronto’s first independent cafés; in fact, it opened before the introduction of Starbucks in the city. Owner Jeff Marsh says the shop has been a fixture in the neighbourhood since the early 1990s. “We were just looking to serve a good cup of coffee where we didn’t think that was happening,” he says.

In Leslieville – then a quiet area, home to antique shops and thrift stores – the demand for a coffee shop was huge. “If you wanted to buy a $500 lamp, there was no place to sit down and think about it,” Marsh says. “That’s where we came in."

On a typical morning, Tango Palace is packed with regulars who weave their way in and out of the café with coffees and baked goods. Many are on a first-name basis with the barista – and amidst the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, free WiFi and comfy leather chairs, it’s easy to see why.

The shop also boasts the work of local artists and has distributed Xtra for 20 years.

"We’ve always been an inclusive place,” says Marsh, who is gay. “Everyone is welcome here."

3. Atomic Toybot, 978 Queen St E

Kids at heart will love Atomic Toybot, located just east of Carlaw Avenue. Dubbed an “underground toy” playground, the store is part toy shop, part art gallery and part bookstore.

It is one of two specialty stores in Toronto that carries artist-created toys and figurines from the likes of Kidrobot and tokidoki – a draw for both children and adult collectors alike.

"There are a lot of kids around, but [before us] there was nothing really fun in the area,” says owner Christine Timms. “So it seemed like a really good spot."

Inspired by the pop surrealist art movement on the West Coast, Timms opened the shop two years ago with the hope of promoting the local art scene in Leslieville, with a makeshift gallery set up in the store’s back room.

"Toronto has a lot of amazing artistic talent,” she says. “But for some reason it doesn’t seem to get a lot of love."

Every month, Timms mounts a new exhibit for local artists to promote their work. This month, the Toybot will host Passe-Têtes, a pop surrealist show by Quebec City native Alex Garant.

"We look for young, emerging artists to showcase their work,” Timms says. “It’s usually their first show, when they’re nervous to show their work elsewhere or can’t afford it."

"We like to get them out there and get seen."

Other top picks in Leslieville

Majesteas, 950 Queen St. E
Located just west of Carlaw Avenue, Majesteas offers a wide selection of quality tea imported from around the world. Queer owners Rob Gignac and Ian Macdonald are also licensed tea sommeliers inspired by their life in England, “where drinking tea is almost mandatory,” they write on their website.

Nathalie-Roze & Co., 1015 Queen St. E
Located just east of Pape Avenue, Nathalie-Roze & Co. offers handmade and indie designer fashions as well as DIY workshops for crafty east-enders. Owner Nathalie-Roze Fischer is best known in Leslieville for her charities, fundraisers and support of the queer community.
Pilot Coffee Roasters,983 Queen St. E.
Boasting a large street-side patio, Pilot Coffee Roasters – formerly Te Aro – is a Leslieville staple, serving up premium fair trade coffee. It’s also the site of Toronto gay history: The café sits on what was the former home of Gay, one of Canada’s first gay magazines.
WAYLA Bar, 996 Queen St. E.
Steps from Carlaw Avenue, WAYLA is the east end’s only queer bar and lounge. Open all week long – a stark contrast to the four-day weeks most other local businesses follow in the neighbourhood – the bar has been serving Leslieville’s queer community since 2010.