A taste of Toronto's West-end
A culinary tour through Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood
One of my favourite things to do in Toronto is to explore new neighbourhoods and the incredible foods they have to offer. There are so many gems all over the city and as an East-ender, I don’t venture to the West-end as often as I’d like. That’s why when I was offered the opportunity to come along on a food tour of the Roncessvalles (Roncy) neighbourhood, an area with a great deal of history that was annexed into the City of Toronto in the 1880's, I jumped at the chance. Food Nook Tours was started by Bria Weaver, a Roncy local, out of a desire to bring more people to her neck of the woods and to share the incredible eats it has to offer. I’m going to take you on a walkthrough of everywhere we went and everything we ate.
The scent of good quality, Belgian chocolate is enough to make all your worries melt away, which is why, as Bria points out, chocolate shops are, by nature, recession proof. Whether you’re celebrating life’s wins or drowning your sorrows, chocolate is always the answer.
Atmosphere: A narrow shop with a long counter to one side and shelves filled to the brim with every flavoured chocolate you could possibly imagine. They also serve ice cream, which is definitely a smart business move in the summer heat, but a lot of places can make good ice cream. I was more interested in testing out what they’re known for – rich, creamy, light, dark, plain, flavoured, chocolate! The staff were very friendly and accommodating. They also offer chocolate making classes where you can learn how to roll the perfect truffle or how to use impressive moulds to create chocolate creations for $75 per person, which includes all equipment and the use of their glorious chocolate.
Food: They provided a sample of a number of their popular chocolates for us to try, including their version of a classic crunchy bar – so good (even better than the original!) I had to take some home.
Bria’s favourite: “I am a dark chocolate fan and mango fan, so one of my favourite healthy-ish snacks is their mango dipped in dark chocolate.”
Fun Facts: They’re known for the fact that they will dip almost anything in chocolate, including potato chips – actually delicious! They made this discovery on their first Christmas when they were running out of treats, so the team headed to the grocery store to find anything that could be dipped in chocolate, and returned with, none other than, potato chips. They often create unique treats themed with the seasons. Last year they made chocolate dipped crickets that ended up being so popular they now have them all year round.
Address: 361 Roncesvalles Ave
I have a friend who lives in the neighbourhood and had previously introduced me to Fantail bakery, so I was already a fan. They make gorgeous savoury and sweet pastry creations that all look and smell amazing. Since I’m more of a savoury food lover, I’m always excited to see bakeries getting creative with cheese, vegetables and herbs and Fantail does some impressive things with their muffins and scones.
Atmosphere: This shop is so welcoming and the staff are friendly, answering my constant questions of “what’s that” without even the trace of annoyance. Unlike a lot of modern bake shops they encourage people to sit and hangout with a number of tables and chairs available, all set against this beautiful green and gold wallpaper that I wish I could pull off in my home. At the back you’ll find a glass counter filled with an array of golden treats and the smell of good coffee.
Food: We sampled some savoury and sweet pastries and followed it up by purchasing a couple of coffees to keep us going. I recommend grabbing a table and lingering over a coffee and a savoury pastry for the full Fantail experience.
Bria’s favourite: “Fantail makes out of this world brioche. They mix it up with savoury and sweet flavours. Pair this with a cappuccino and some people-watching from one of their window seats and I am in heaven!”
Fun Facts: The Fantail is a lovely little bird that, according to mythology, is a messenger between the gods and humans. The owners of Fantail grew up in rural New Zealand where they often saw fantails right in their backyard. It’s a family-run business and each of the owners is an artisan - A tailor, a woodworker and a painter.
Address: 333 Roncesvalled Ave
Twitter: @Fantail333 Instagram: fantail_bakery_cafe
If I lived in this neighbourhood, it’s safe to say I would spend every paycheck at this place. Need all the bitters and syrups to stock your bar cart? High-quality spices, sauces, marinades, completely unnecessary, yet irresistible kitty-cat salt and pepper shakers? This place has got you covered!
Atmosphere: a high-end pantry supply store stocked from floor to ceiling with everything to make your culinary dreams come true. You’re not going to find large kitchen equipment here, but you will find popcorn from the Toronto Popcorn Company and frozen, high quality prepared meals, alongside high-quality brand name products you’ll also find at stores like Mcewan Foods.
Food: We were given samples of popcorn and fizzy, sugar-free drinks to sample and time to wander around the store. The drink wasn’t flavourful enough for me, but I do love that popcorn.
Bria’s favourite: “Like you I could spend my whole paycheck here. I love Meredith’s Ginger Syrup. It is an elixir that is refreshing in cocktails or put in a hot tea when you’re not feeling well. It includes honey, ginger, and lemon – all essentials for fighting a cold!”
Fun Fact: The owner, Shannon moved the shop from Little Italy to Roncy where it has become a local, go-to spot for gourmet food. Bria has a personal connection to The Mercantile since they once saved her family’s holiday meal. Her family was in need of the ingredient, ‘nigella’ for a holiday recipe and couldn’t find it anywhere in Mississauga. Bria popped over to The Mercantile and sure enough, they had it!
Address: 297 Roncesvalles Ave
De La Mer
A good fishmonger can be hard to find these days and like a butcher or a baker, they are often an integral part of the neighbourhoods they’re found in. They’re often run by people who have extensive knowledge about their products and are able to tell you where it comes from, what’s in season and how to prepare it. In Scarborough my go-to shop is Diana’s Seafood when I’m looking for high-quality seafood. At De La Mer you’ll find a healthy helping of fresh fish, including some unique preparations and incredibly (and entertaining) friendly service.
Atmosphere: When we entered the shop we were immediately welcomed by warm greetings from the staff. There is serious personality behind this place and it’s clear that’s part of the charm. They were so busy while we were there, we could barely find room to stand and yet the staff kept their cool, serving regular customers while giving us the spiel about who they are and what they do.
Food: They served us fresh oysters, followed by candied salmon – so good! It sounds simple, but the seafood is but just so fresh and flavourful and that’s really what made it great for me. They also have prepared foods that had me drooling, like a house-made spicy crab dip that I plan to go back and stock up on.
Bria’s favourite: “My tried and true favourite is their vodka and dill gravlax. It is so good with a toasted bagel and cream cheese. My new favourite is their candied citrus salmon. I eat it like candy, straight from the package, standing at my fridge – classy I know.”
Fun Fact: At De La Mer they smoke nine metric tonnes of seafood every year! If you purchase their oysters, they’ll shuck them for you at no extra cost and will often give away fresh dill or lemons they happen to have. They’re also full of knowledge and unique facts, for example, did you know that salmon and flamingos get their pink colour from a type of shrimp they eat that releases a natural pink dye?
Address: 291 Roncesvalles Ave
Barque’s Butcher Bar
Barque’s is part of a franchise that includes Barque’s Smokehouse restaurant, with locations in Toronto and Burlington, Barque Events, a catering company, and Barque’s Butcher Bar, a smaller restaurant and shop where you can eat in house or purchase equipment to do your own grilling and smoking at home.
Atmosphere: It’s a very modern, industrial style restaurant/shop combo that will be immediately inviting if you recognize the Barque’s brand or simply love to grill. It certainly smelled mouth-watering walking in and made me want to pull up a chair, order a cold drink and dive, face first into some barbecue.
Food: I loved the smoked chicken wings, served with a tangy, peppery dry rub, giving them a super crunchy bite and served with an assortment of sauces, including: ‘bama, sweet heat buffalo, and chipotle, all offered in cute, little squeeze bottles, so you can sample as many as you like. I don’t think we use enough white barbecue sauce in Canada – the perfect combination of creamy, vinegary, deliciousness and it feeds right into our national love of mayonnaise!
Bria’s favourite: “I cannot get enough of their wings. Their wings are not small, little things. You get your money’s worth and a full belly. Their seasonings help make them extra special.”
Fun Fact: When they first opened they had these little golden dinosaurs scattered throughout the place as part of the décor. Unfortunately, many of them ended up being stolen, but you can still find a few around. It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo trying to find one.
Address: 287 Roncessvalles Ave
A bit about Food Nook Tours
When Bria launched Food Nook Tours in 2016, she chose the tour stops because they are all places that she genuinely loves to frequent. Right now the tours are only offered in Roncesvalles, though she did run a seasonal tour in the Junction, and does plan to expand. The best way to be in the loop on all of her upcoming tours is to subscribe to the Food Nook Tours newsletter at foodnooktours.ca.
I highly recommend planning a Food Nook Tour and exploring the foods of one of Toronto’s greatest, old neighbourhoods. They offer tours for bachelor and bachelorette parties, corporate groups and individuals. Bria is an excellent tour-guide with a wealth of knowledge about Roncy and a genuine passion for sharing it with others. It’s clear that she has worked hard to cultivate relationships with purveyors across the city and has learned not only about the foods they have to offer, but the history of their businesses as well. If you're looking for something fun and different to do on a free weekend, I recommend booking yourself a tour!
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: @FoodNookTours