In a city that gleefully plunks glass and metal behemoths on top of its dwindling historical buildings, Toronto’s Kensington Market is a refreshing break from the banality of modern development. These cramped, slightly grungy lanes must surely be anathema to slick urbanites, hungry for antiseptic order and sameness. But Kensington’s charm lies snuggly in its pokey alleys, flamboyant graffiti and a jumble of shops that range from old-school ethnic to cutting-edge hipster.
The market’s streets are crammed with parked cars and filled with pedestrians who seem to walk anywhere but on the actual sidewalks. Add a flock of cyclists rocketing through at breakneck speeds and you’d think disastrous chaos was only moments away. But somehow it all works. Juno Award–winning saxophonist (and mayoral candidate) Richard Underhill has lived in the Market for 14 years and loves the area’s character and close-knit community. “I really gravitated towards here because I was originally from a small town,” Underhill says. “Kensington is a small community within a big city, and I immediately felt at home. I think what it does best is respect the individual and allow you to just be you.”
It also provides some of the freshest food available downtown, along with a collection of coffee shops, restaurants and goods that are as varied as they are affordable. Here are some of our favourites.
If I don’t have pie, I shall surely die
There are a few great bakeries in Kensington, including My Market Bakery (184 Baldwin St), which offers a nice range of baked goods, and Pancho’s Bakery (214 Augusta Ave), famous for its churros (basically a deep-fried Latin American choux pastry with delectable fillings). But if you want pie — and I mean truly delicious, authentically homemade pie — there is simply no place better than Wanda’s Pie in the Sky (287 Augusta Ave). These golden beauties are a world away from the overly sweet, mass-produced discs you’ll find at the grocery store. The coconut cream pie is a revelation, while the sour cherry pie will make your lips pucker and your tummy happy. Wanda’s serves great soups and sandwiches as well, but they’re merely the opening act for the show-stopping desserts.
Kensington is truly a bike-centric neighbourhood. Here you can ride them, buy them, have them repaired or just wax enthusiastic about the marvels of bipedal locomotion. There are several vendors in the Market, but certainly the largest and best known is Bikes on Wheels (309 Augusta Ave). What started out in 1994 as a tiny co-op business is now a veritable showroom of all things bicycle, the go-to place for both the casual cyclist and hard-core enthusiasts.
Mary Jane (no, not the black-patent-leather kind)
Even before its decriminalization, marijuana was an out-and-proud resident of Kensington Market. It’s almost impossible to wander these lanes without catching a whiff from a nearby spliff, courtesy of official purveyors like Hot Box Café and Roach-O-Rama (204 Augusta Ave) or any number of wandering freelancers. On the day I tour the Market, I am offered pot twice, most memorably by a cheerful Haitian guy tooling around on a moped. He’s gracious in the face of my polite demurral, telling me that he thinks I have nice lips, “but not in a gay way,” before speeding away. I’m left bemused but strangely flattered.
The other drug of choice
Coffee. It’s everywhere in the Market, from the grungy fun of I Deal Coffee (84 Nassau St), where world events are debated over affordable java, to the hip espresso fiends crowding the sleek stainless-steel counters at Café Pamenar (307 Augusta Ave). Fair-trade beans are de rigueur here, while foodies will love the fresh-baked accompaniments found at Fika Café (28 Kensington Ave), Grind House Café (281 Augusta Ave) and Café Unwind (68 Wales Ave).
Okay, so it’s actually nothing like the great Satan of cheap retail, but the Blue Banana Market (250 Augusta Ave) is the closest thing to a department store in Kensington. Row upon row of housewares, kitchenwares, clothing, treats and just plain fun stuff pack this huge interior space, giving it a colourful kitschy look without the tackiness of its corporate cousin. Each section is rented out to local craftspeople and producers, so there’s an ever-changing stream of interesting products. Blue Banana is the perfect source of basic dietary staples like handmade fudge and caramel popcorn, as well as unique gifts like chicken-shaped handbags or clothing emblazoned with the vintage CBC logo.
The Latin Quarter
It makes sense that ethnic foods thrive in Kensington, given its rich heritage of Eastern European vendors and the proximity of Chinatown. But these days it’s all about Mexican food, with hotspots like El Trompo (277 Augusta Ave), Seven Lives (69 Kensington Ave) and Mexican Salsas (249 Augusta Ave) offering sit-down dining, while El Gordo Fine Foods (214 Augusta Ave) covers the quick eats. Stop into Segovia Meat Market (218 Augusta Ave) for dozens of chorizo sausage flavours and a weekend lunch counter of Brazilian and Latin fare.
Tongue and eggs, please
Le Kensington Bistro (256 Augusta Ave) is a true gem. Owned by childhood friends Jean-Charles Dupoire and Sylvain Brissonnet, this intimate French boîte offers a menu straight from France, with a few surprises thrown in. The wild-mushroom risotto is very tasty and the rotisserie chicken divine, but for a real treat, try the bistro’s brunch menu: the croque-monsieur sandwich features beef tongue and Gruyère smothered in béchamel sauce, while the boudin noir’s black pudding sausage, caramelized apples and scrambled egg offer a delicious take on a classic farmer’s breakfast.
The best part of Kensington is truly just strolling its streets. You may not need anything from the inexplicable number of army surplus stores or the countless outdoor bulk bins of dried beans, but it all adds to a vibe that makes the outing equal parts shopping and sightseeing. For such a small area — just a few blocks, really — Kensington offers hours of sustenance for both body and soul.