It was a perfectly ordinary, rainy Thursday night on West Bloor Street, in a perfectly ordinary Hungarian restaurant, Korona. The homey decor seemed frozen around 1965: booths with red vinyl seats, dolls in traditional folk costume on the shelves, festive paper streamers in the Hungarian flag colors of red, green and white. A few late customers dawdled, murmuring in the native tongue, with the sweet but melancholy violin music of the homeland keening softly in the background. This joint was not jumping. I couldn't have been happier.
I'd just put away a hearty plate of veal paprika with dumplings and spicy red cabbage for less than $10 American. I asked owner Helen Harmat what she'd recommend to wash it down, and into a stubby water glass she poured the house favorite, a white Debroi wine. When its unexpected potency made me pucker, she leaned back to laugh.It was a Toronto moment: simple, pleasurable, authentic.
And the city offers many such moments, for each ethnic neighborhood holds tightly to the ways of its old country. Tax forms come in English, French, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Greek. The neighborhoods live in harmony while each plays its own distinctive tune.
"There's zero racial or cultural tension. Just look at all the different kinds of people at this bar," said Chris Lawson, relaxing with some fellow 20-something Floridians at the Bishop and the Belcher on West Queen Street. "In friendliness, I'd put Toronto right up there with Atlanta."
I had other Toronto moments that spoke of a city with a wealth of neighborly free spirit.
At Second City, sister to the original Chicago club of the same name, the audience roared its approval of a sketch in which a couple was kicked out of a restaurant for happily bursting into show tunes in the "No Singing Section" (a witty jab at Toronto's regulations that make it practically impossible to enjoy a smoke any-where).
At Theatre Passe Muraille, a 30-year-old troupe in a comfortably converted warehouse, there was a similar outburst of meaningful mirth from an audience made up mostly of high school students, watching a scene in which an actor representing England manipulated a ventriloquist's dummy representing colonial Canada. The fascinating history play "1837: The Farmer's Revolt" featured two whites, two blacks and two Asians portraying the full spectrum of early Canadians, from native Indians to Scottish immigrants.
Despite downtown's rich store of museums, theaters and restaurants - tightly knit by a fast, clean subway system - there are swaths of central Toronto that could be mistaken for any routine U.S. city, with the franchise stores you'd find at any Atlanta mall. It's best to rent a car, then, so that you may easily reach some of these unique neighborhoods and attractions:
There was quite a racket coming from (what else?) an Italian wedding - a honking white limo bearing bride and groom through cheering well-wishers - as I arrived on West St. Claire Avenue, the district's central course or Corso. On side streets are rows of small, neat houses of Italian immigrants, with kids playing street hockey and occasional wooden storks in front yards to announce new family members (blue for bambinos, pink for bambinas). The Corso features bargain stores and produce markets, but if there are outstanding Italian restaurants here, I could not hunt them down. (There are many scattered around other parts of town).
There are four Chinese communities, but this is the oldest, around Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street (also home to a burgeoning Vietnamese population), and it bristles with the most storefront places to eat and shop. At the district's heart is Kensington Market, where a handful of the original 1900s Jewish merchants' shops are surrounded by noisy, aromatic stalls from every corner of the world. You may see white Abyssinian yams big as tree roots; orange Vietnamese squid the size of footballs; sections of Caribbean sugar cane the size of majorette batons; Chinese housewives picking up blue crabs with tongs as if testing them for feistiness.
The trolleylike buses of Toronto Olde Town Tours (416-798-2424) are an excellent value because the $18 (U.S.) tickets allow you to hop on/hop off the bus all day, as often as you like, to explore museums and well-preserved edifices. Prime examples include the Hockey Hall of Fame, housed in an 1885 beaux-arts bank; the Romanesque 1899 Old City Hall, whose weird carved rats sent a message from disgruntled architect E.J. Lennox to city fathers; and Lennox's Casa Loma, a chateau-style 1911 mansion with a stunning vista of the city and as many eccentricities (secret passageways, underground tunnel to the stables) as its original owner. Strike out on foot, too, to see more prizes of carved Romanesque sand-stone: the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children (magnificent angels guarding the door); and the University of Toronto's Blood Donor Building (leaping stags, moose heads).
The largest community of its kind in North America, with 120,000 residents of Greek heritage, it's increasingly called the Danforth (after its central thoroughfare) to embrace the newer pockets of Indian, Latin American, Chinese and Portuguese immigrants. Drowsy by day, bouncing to Greek music in the wee hours, the district has lots of cozy taverns with white stucco walls, and everywhere is the light, bright blue of the Greek flag.
Based in Toronto is the hottest theatrical producer in the world: Garth Drabinsky and his Livent empire. He premiered "Ragtime" here before sending it to his Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Times Square, and Toronto will enjoy similar previews of Broadway-bound blockbusters at his splendidly remodeled Pantages Theatre and the sister Ford Centre. A must for stage buffs is the free Toronto on Stage pocket map and calendar available in most hotel and theater lobbies. The Royal Ontario Museum is famed for its archaeological collections (including a complete Ming Dynasty vault), and the Art Gallery of Ontario boasts the largest public collection of Henry Moore sculptures in the world. Fall is an especially beautiful and culturally alive time of year to visit, with the Toronto International Film Festival in September and the International Festival of Authors in October.
Saris (you'll also see it spelled saree) and other native garments are hung out over the sidewalks of the Gerrard Street district, creating little wind-fluttered groves of cotton and silk in shades of magenta, violet, rose, saffron, tangerine and mint-green edged with gold. Equally fascinating are the signs of contemporary Indian culture: video stores with big, sensationalistic movie posters of dark-eyed heroines standing on windswept mountaintops or clinched with bare-chested hunks. When I was perusing the new film releases from Bombay, I heard "The Simpsons" theme played on tablas and sitar.
In Cabbagetown, so named for a staple food of its formerly Irish population, tumble-down brick duplexes with mansard roofs have been converted into trim town houses, cafes and vintage-stuff shops. Another hot Bohemian 'hood is a three-block stretch of West Bloor around Basel Street. This artery is murder on your arteries because you can get Thai, Argentine, Hungarian, Korean or South and East Indian food and top it off with chocolate fondue at Cafe Orgasmo. Even trendier is West Queen Street, where high-tech dance clubs have names such as Whiskey, Saigon and Fluids. Brian Harper, a bouncer, said, "People come from miles to see our freaks. We had a limo cruise by here the other night with a lady singing opera -- really good opera -- out the window."