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Ackee and saltfish bites, lamb tarts and custom-made sneakers: A travel writer’s guide to Toronto – Salon

I loved visiting Toronto, with its long streets filled with lots of little shops and restaurants, alongside the parks and greenery. Nearly every person we encountered in this city of nearly 4 million was kind and thoughtful, not to mention generous with their recommendations. The city has so much to explore and enjoy — which we did. 

Here is a breakdown of where to stay, what to eat and what to do in the city, from finding delectably crisp Jamaican ackee and saltfish bites to designing my own custom pair of sneakers. 

Where to stay

Shangri-La Toronto 

Staying in the Toronto Shangri-La hotel is an experience. On the drive up, you’ll see the hotel in all its glory as one of the tallest buildings in Toronto, soaring high and standing out against the city skyline. The lobby is just as glamorous, with extremely high ceilings and two-story windows, a comfortable check-in area, and a lobby lounge called Toronto’s Living Room. Fireplaces are scattered throughout, providing warmth and a cozy vibe despite the size of the space.  

Our room was comfortable and spacious, with huge floor-to-ceiling windows offering a magnificent view of Toronto’s downtown. The European-style bathroom is massive, with a deep soaking bathtub that I can easily fit into, but a relatively standard-size shower and water closet. The walls and floor are covered with marble, and the massive mirror comes with an embedded TV, just in case you like doing your makeup with some entertainment. 

But, most importantly, the bed is really, really comfortable, perfect for sinking into at the end of a long day exploring the city. 

4s5yt6 cdhurqsry5mwkbmkexpewdpuredzjet3wffuyldjtwsfjs6d3wprss4xnr059q w0egydopbu77uraordqcakwHotel view (Jodyann Morgan )The lobby lounge serves food all day, and a roster of pop-up restaurants means you’ll be getting the best food for any meal that you choose to eat in. We dined at Veuve Clicquot Patio, which has since closed, but if it’s a reflection of the quality of the food, I have to say that I’m impressed. Meat cooked to the perfect medium-rare, scallops perfectly seared, and delectable crispy salmon skin

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Sheraton Gateway in Toronto International Airport

I’ve never stayed at an airport hotel that I loved until I stayed at the Sheraton Gateway in Toronto’s International Airport. Having recently undergone a $30 million top-to-bottom makeover, the Sheraton is visually stunning. The beds are extremely comfortable and the view takes the already great hotel to the next level. Since the Sheraton is attached directly to the airport, many rooms give you a clear view of the planes taking off and landing, which is stunning during the day, but simply magical at night. Just keep in mind that the hotel is not attached to the terminal where US flights fly out, so give yourself at least an extra 30 minutes (so you don’t miss your flight like Morgan and I did). 

Where to Eat

This section primarily focuses on luxurious, romantic, once-in-a-lifetime restaurants — but it’s not representative of the wide variety of incredible food in Toronto. Travel is all about experiencing. Living in the moment. Walk down the streets of Little Tibet and choose a restaurant at random to order momo. Stroll through Kensington Market and eat dinner by trying a little at a whole bunch of little food shops.

Chubby’s Jamaican 

My wife is from Jamaica, and we live in a relatively smaller city, so there isn’t much Jamaican food. When we travel, especially to major metropolitans, we constantly gravitate to Jamaican restaurants, especially the ones that serve ackee and saltfish, which is my wife’s favorite and is hard to find, even when there is a Jamaican restaurant in town. 

I wish you could have seen the smile on her face when she walked into Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen. The restaurant has a rustic feel, with exposed beams and a lot of natural light. The service was fantastic and incredibly attentive, and the food came really quickly. The Everything Nice was a hit on the cocktail menu — featuring rum, Aperol, mango, lemon, tamarind and scotch bonnet. The rum punch wasn’t super strong, so if you want a stronger drink, add a shot. 

You’re going to want to order the ackee and saltfish bites. The ackee and saltfish are piled onto a fried dumpling, which has been cut down the middle. Ripe plantains were deep fried, producing a wicked crispy exterior and a super ripe, super sweet interior. While the mac and cheese was not reminiscent of a Jamaican macaroni pie,it was out of this world. It featured  little bits of saltfish that acted as a flavor-booster like anchovies do in Caesar dressing. Creamy and delicious.


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Squish factor: The bathroom is small, but doable. Half the seating is on the main floor, but half is upstairs with a flight of stairs to walk up. Ask for lower-level seating when making your reservation if stairs are not your thing. 

Byblos Downtown

The outside of Byblos, an Eastern Mediterranean restaurant, is pretty nondescript, but after you walk down the stairs into the restaurant, it’s a whole different world. The restaurant is dimly-lit, filled with large round tables for group dining. Booths line the right side of the restaurant. The staff treat you like family and are incredibly familiar with the dishes served. Skip the beef tartar, which was just OK because the menu is full of absolutely incredible food. 

The wagyu lamb tart was amazing, a perfect balance of flavors surrounded by a chewy crust for a great balance of texture. We were informed that the lamb shoulder main course was the restaurant’s signature dish, and it was crystal clear why that was as soon as it got to the table. Beautifully prepared with pomegranate seeds on top and served with a variety of sauces, like zhug and labneh, as well as delicate wrappers to make your own bites. My wife loved the bronzino, served whole, deboned and butterflied. 

Leave room for dessert. The chocolate cake is made for chocolate lovers and skeptics alike, and their version of baklava is out of the world. 

Squish factor: Must walk down the stairs to get to the restaurant. Very narrow bathroom stalls. 

MIMI Chinese

Just having opened a year ago, MIMI Chinese feels like luxury from the moment you walk in the door. The restaurant is extremely dark (actually, a little too dark) with crimson velvet upholstered chairs and booths, and a large, striking lotus flower mural. The leather-bound menu is extensive, featuring dishes from all over China, but focused on Cantonese food from Guangdong province. Morgan and I got the chef’s tasting menu, which featured many of the dishes from the menu in smaller formats so we could try a wide variety. The star of the show is a visually stunning (and pretty tasty) four-foot-long single noodle dish, a MIMI Chinese version of  Shaanxi Biang Biang noodles, traditionally served with Sichuan chili oil and cut with scissor table side. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of great Chinese food over the years, and in a lot of ways, this is a restaurant you go to for the ambiance and decor. The food is good, but there is a lot of absolutely stellar Chinese food in Toronto. 

Canoe

For luxury dining with panoramic views, you’ll have to make reservations at Canoe. Located on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower, Canoe serves a menu that celebrates local Canadian ingredients. The service is attentive,but leaves plenty of room for you and your dining companion or partner to enjoy each other’s company. Let’s just say that Canoe is definitely proposal-worthy

We started our meal by sharing a perfectly cooked scallop served on its shell, covered in pastry dough “en croûte,” and bison tartare, which offers a lighter flavor profile than the traditional beef tartare.  Our main course was a flaky, wild Pacific halibut, served with roe and an onion ring, cooked perfectly. Halibut is one of my favorite fish to order at a restaurant and Canoe did not disappoint. 

I’d skip the surf and turf, which included an aged California strip loin and a half lobster, in favor of something on the menu that’s more unique. The dessert menu is extensive, featuring Canadian cheeses and pastries. We ordered an Ontario rhubarb terrine with camelina oil cake and goat yogurt mousse, and it was simply divine and perfectly balanced.

Expert Tip: Make a reservation a little bit before the sun is set to go down, allowing you to admire the city both in the daylight and in the dark as the lights twinkle around you. 

Activities 

Hammam Spa by Céla

Located in a high-end mall, the Hamman Spa by Cela is tucked away, an oasis where you can re-energize. Morgan and I got the Céla Seed to Skin Ritual, which was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Walking into the treatment room, you’ll find a massive stone table, large enough for both of us to lay down on, which we were encouraged to do in just our bikini bottoms. What followed was incredible, and somehow super funny at the same time. We were covered in bubbles and washed from our neck down to our toes using buckets of water that were dumped on us. Then nearly every inch was scrubbed before being washed yet again and finally covered in body cream. It was an incredibly relaxing experience; my skin was so soft and vibrant for days after the treatment. Hammam Spa by Céla will help take your vacation to the next level.

Squish factor: The largest robe was a tad too small on me, but still worked. If you wear over a size 24, you’ll be more comfortable in your own robe. We got a tour of the place, and I would not recommend getting a pedicure due to the high-level positioning of the chairs.

Make your own lipstick at Lip Lab

Ever since I heard of the Lip Lab, I’ve been dying to make my own customized lipstick. The Lip Lab is dedicated to helping you make the perfect lipstick for day-to-day or occasion wear. They make it so easy! You’ll choose your shade, your finish, and even the scent the lipstick will have. My wife made a glossy sheer lipstick, which fits her masc style best, while I went with my go-to lip, a bold red. They will mix the color and let you try it, adjusting it until it’s exactly what you want. Once the color is perfect, you’ll choose the tube and they will pour the melted lip into the mold, creating the perfect bullet tube of your go-to color. The final step is choosing a name for your color, and getting the name engraved into the tube. The whole experience is such a good time and you leave with a souvenir you’ll actually use.

Squish factor: You’ll be seated on high bar stool-like chairs at a large counter. It was OK for the short experience, but there isn’t any other seating if the bar chairs don’t work for you.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada

There’s something special about wandering around an aquarium and enjoying the beauty of 20,000 aquatic animals. The Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada features North America’s longest underwater-viewing tunnelI, which is absolutely breathtaking. There’s a moving path, so you can simply stand and take it all in. Even the building is impressive! If you’re looking for something a little different, get tickets for the second Friday night of the month, which is Jazz night.

Food tour of Kensington Market

First of all, throw everything you think a market is out of the window because Kensington Market is different. It’s less of a market, and more of a neighborhood filled with loads of tiny shops and restaurants crammed together, with housing above the stores and behind them. 

We love taking food tours in as many cities as we can, so a Tasty Tour’s food tour of Kensingtom Market was on our agenda, and it didn’t disappoint. We started our tour with two types of coffee, including an iced coffee that wasn’t acidic, and a boureka, a handheld Jewish pastry with potatoes and cheese inside. The guide told us about the evolution of the market from a Jewish neighborhood, and the many different immigrant groups that currently thrive there, as we made our way around the market, eating Jamaican beef patties, Egyptian falafel, and a Persian omelet before ending the tour with a freshly-fried churro. 

Squish factor: The food tour involved a moderate amount of walking, but many of the visited establishments had steps in order to get in. At the end of the tour, there was a 3 flight up view point which I skipped.

Car Tour of Toronto (Tours by Locals)

Tours are a dime a dozen in any big city, so it can be hard to decide which tour to take. I’m all for tours that explore a city from the perspective of someone who lives there, rather than someone just showing off the tourist landmarks. Tours by Locals allows you to book a wide variety of tours, and we decided on a car tour by Mitch. The tour is super customizable, and when Mitch learned that we were exhausted and just finished a three-hour local tour, he was able to adjust the itinerary to fit what we wanted to do. We got to see unique houses, cars and neighborhoods, and even grab a delicious iced coffee during the 3.5 hour driving experience. It was such a great time, and a wonderful way to learn about Toronto.

Customize your own sneakers at Mack House Labs

Located in a shipping container market with lots of little micro-businesses, Mack House Labs has a small studio where you can customize your sneakers. They recommend solid white ones for more versatility. The space is cozy, but has everything an art studio needs. In the center, taking up most of the room sits a massive plastic-covered table surrounded by white metal chairs. 

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After setting up your stations and sneakers, the artist will walk you through the process and all the stations before you can dive deep into the process.  You can use paint or marker to customize every part of your sneaker. The artist will assist with answering questions about specific techniques, but leaves the specifics of the process to you. Finish off your sneaker with your choice of laces, varnish, and even the aglets, the metal pieces at the end of the laces. 

Squish factor: The only seating in the studio is high-up metal bar chairs, which can be uncomfortable for a bigger person.