When I started planning a Toronto vacation, I asked my friend in Quebec City for the scoop. She simply described it as, “Like New York, except it’s clean and everyone is incredibly nice.” When she visited Toronto with her family, an intimidating-looking guy accidentally bumped into her husband. Not only did Intimidating Guy say he was sorry, he followed them for a block and continued to express his profound apology. If that’s not the most Canada thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.
Toronto is the first major city you’ll hit when driving into Canada through Niagara Falls. It’s about 90 minutes from the US border and is an easy drive that’s mostly on a highway called Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW). From Fort Drum, if you opt to go through Niagara Falls, it’s about a five-hour drive. If you go through Kingston instead, it’s less than four hours away.
My husband Aaron and I had four days to spend there while our 1-year-old son stayed home with Grandma and Grandpa. That meant we could stay out late, sleep in, eat wherever we wanted, and go to bars without judgmental “You have a baby… in a bar” stares.
When we travel, we love to eat locally and walk everywhere. Even though it was the dead of winter, we opted to do just that. Our hotel, Sheraton Centre Hotel, was across the street from City Hall and in the heart of the Finance District. It was the perfect location for walking to other districts with the option to hop on the subway if necessary.
We ate out for every meal, except for dinner the first night when we met up with Aaron’s Canadian pal Tim. Aaron met Tim when they were both serving in Iraq. Tim, who grew up in Toronto and is easily one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, invited us to dinner at his parents’ house. Somehow his parents were even nicer than he was! Spending time with them was a great “Welcome to Canada” experience, as they definitely supported the stereotype that Canadians are wonderfully kind people.
Here’s the grand list of all the places we ate, drank and were merry in The Great White North. They were all delicious, had lovely people working there, and we recommend you visit them!
In the 19th century, back when this newly-founded city was called York, The Senator was serving delicious meals to residents. In fact, this quaint spot is the oldest restaurant in Toronto! It was a short walk from our hotel, so we hit it for breakfast our first morning in Canada. The Senator serves both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and the coffee was on point. Aaron ordered one of its two famous breakfasts—known as the Senator Breakfast—while I had the Spinach and Egg Bowl. Both were fabulous, but Aaron’s came with Perth Bacon and incredible Maple Baked Beans. Although my breakfast was tasty, I was quite jealous of his order.
The Senator also serves lunch, brunch, dinner and it has a bar. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
Right and Up tip: Ask for the homemade jam for your toast. Even Aaron, who is a weirdo and hates cooked fruit, agreed it was amazing.
I know, I know. Poutine is a Quebec thing. But, that doesn’t mean Toronto can’t also serve delicious Belgian Frites smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Moo Frites is located in Kensington Market, which is the famed historic neighborhood known for its multicultural representations. It’s a small joint with limited hightop seating along the wall. It was snowing when we came here for lunch, so I was thrilled when we snagged the last two seats available. We ordered the classic Poutine, and it was fabulous. Moo Frites has a variety of toppings and sauces, so feel free to get crazy with your order.
So hear me out. Tim Horton’s is basically like Canada’s version of Dunkin Dounts and there’s one on just about every corner in town. But, its donuts are amazing. Even if coming here is the equivalent of eating at McDonalds, I’m recommending it!
Since we were eating out for all of our meals, we wanted to save some Canadian bucks and go cheap for breakfast one day (Ok, two. We ate here twice. SO SUE ME.). The donuts were airy and fresh, and the icing was that thick, shiny royal icing with a distinct crunch. None of that nasty glaze that sticks to your fingers. And, the coffee was good! Tim Horton’s also makes a mean sausage biscuit and other breakfast sandwiches.
Fun fact: Tim Horton the human played in the National Hockey League for 24 seasons and won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He went into the restaurant biz in the 1960s, and by 1968 Tim Horton Doughnut Shop was a multimillion-dollar franchise. Horton sadly died in 1974 at just 44 years old in a car wreck. But his delicious breakfasts live on!
This place was described to us as “a total dive” and, well, let’s just say I was expecting a lot worse! It was clean, the food and drinks were great, and again, everyone there was incredibly nice! So, maybe it’s just Canada’s version of a dive bar.
At 6 p.m. on a weekday Sneaky Dee’s had bouncers out front checking IDs, so this place probably gets rowdy as the night goes on. I think the bouncers were just being polite checking ours since we were clearly the oldest people in the building. It’s mostly filled with college kids and hip 20-somethings. We were seated in a graffit-ladened booth and were tended to by a ridiculously cool girl with a shaved head, full sleeve tattoos and a crop top. I couldn’t have felt older or more like a mom.
Famous for its massive plates of nachos, we ordered the Kings Crown nachos featuring beans, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, mixed peppers, jalapeños, melted cheese, guacamole and sour cream. We washed them down with a couple pints of beer and were subsequently rolled out of the building like Veruca Salt. Totally worth it.
The Burger’s Priest
I won’t even bore you with other details about this place, because all you need to know is: Grilled Cheese Sandwich Bun. That’s right. The Burger’s Priest has a burger where, instead of a regular bun, the top is a grilled cheese and the bottom is—you guessed it—ANOTHER GRILLED CHEESE. Come here, order The Vatican Burger, and you’ll be happy. My husband certainly was.
Right and Up tip: The Vatican Burger is the star, but everything here is good. Especially the massive portion of fries. I ordered the Red Sea Burger, which is basically a chili cheeseburger, and it was awesome.
World Famous Peameal Bacon Sandwich
A lot of things claim to be “World Famous,” but Carousel Bakery inside St. Lawrence Market can legitimately make that declaration. The eatery and its signature sandwich have been featured in countless magazines, books and food shows. In fact, a letter written by acclaimed chef Emeril Lagasse swooning over the grub is one of many celebrity endorsements posted around the counter.
It’s simple and it’s delicious. The fresh bun is filled with strips of the city’s famous peameal bacon, which is cured pork loin coated in cornmeal. DIY condiments are on hand, but you don’t need anything to dress up this beauty. It’s perfect just the way it is. A few other shops inside St. Lawrence Market sell the same sandwich, as it is a Toronto staple, but Carousel Bakery is the one that gets (and deserves!) all the attention.
Right and Up tip: St. Lawrence Market is a cool place to walk around and pick up things like maple syrup, chocolate, pastries, produce, meat, bread and more. We also got a couple bagels from St. Urbain Bagel, which is famous for its Montreal-style bagels.
Tips for Visiting Toronto
Since you can drive to Canada, it’s easy to forgot that it’s a whole other country. Here are a few tips and recommendations about visiting America’s Hat:
- If you have USAA, all you need to do in Canada is find an ATM and withdraw money like you would in the US. You’ll need cash if you want to make purchases in St. Lawrence Market!
- The exchange rate varies, but as of now $1 American = $1.23 Canadian. That means if, say, you’re eyeing a Canada Goose parka, you’ll save some dough by purchasing it in Canada.
- You can use credit cards if you prefer (we used our USAA Visa), but let your bank or credit card company know you’re traveling so they don’t assume your cards have been stolen.
- We only used the subway once, but it was extremely easy to use. Plus it’s clean and felt safe.
- Fans of the show Frontier will notice the huge Hudson’s Bay Company department store at the mega mall, Toronto Eaton Centre. Hudson’s Bay is known for its iconic multicolor striped clothing and decor. I desperately wanted a wool blanket, but the high price makes you audibly say “Ooof” and move on. We did, however, buy a couple bottles of maple syrup here.
- There are bars all over town, and we popped into several for afternoon drinks. My go-to drink was a local English-style cider called Brickworks Batch 1904. I’m kicking myself for not bringing a few cans home!
- Stock up on Cadbury chocolate! I lived in England as a kid, which means I grew up on the delicious creamy goodness of actual chocolate. Hershey’s is gritty, sugary trash. YEAH I SAID IT. And Hershey’s acquisition of Cadbury in America means the “Cadbury” chocolate we see at Easter is now also trash. So, visit a Canadian grocery store or drug store and load up on the good stuff.
So go on and visit our friendly neighbors to the north! You’ll love it!
About the Author
Rachel is the editor of Right and Up. She is an Auburn grad (War Damn Eagle!) and holds a degree in journalism. While working as a sports writer covering the Tigers, she met a cute, tall officer stationed at Fort Benning. A few margaritas, some conversations about why a no-huddle offense is superior and 18 months later, they got married. They have PCS’d to Fort Huachuca, Fort Riley and are now in the National Capital Region. Together they have a son and two dogs.