Toronto’s New Jewish Cool (Not Your Bubbe’s Town)

The People’s Eatery, Toronto. Photo courtesy of the People’s Eatery.

The world seems a more dangerous place to travel for everyone, but maybe especially for Jews.  Fig Tree & Vine is launching an occasional series of top destinations for Jewish travelers. We’ve relied on sources including the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent Global 100 Anti-Semitism Survey Index.  So far we’ve visited Tokyo, London’s Historic East End, Curacao in the Caribbean, and Portugal.

By Danielle Crittenden Frum

It’s been many decades since Toronto overtook Montreal as Canada’s largest Jewish population center. The Toronto Jewish community has been enriched by waves of immigration: from eastern Europe before World War II, by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust afterward, by transplanted Montrealers, and then from the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Iran, and South Africa.

Before 1939, Toronto’s Jews predominantly lived in an enclave extending westward from the garment factories of Spadina Avenue. After the war, the community shifted ever further north, up to the top of the city and beyond.

The delicatessens and bakeries of the immigrant quadrants likewise relocated uptown: United Bakers dairy restaurant, depicted below at the location opened in 1912, relocated to a north Toronto shopping mall in 1986. Bagel World — makers of the world’s saltiest and crispiest bagels — is found one further mile uptown.  Only the epic Harbord Bakery retains its original south-of-Bloor location, just a few blocks from the grocery store in which my husband’s father grew up. 

United Bakers original location on Spadina Avenue in 1920.
Photo courtesy of the Canadian Jewish Archives.

Today, Toronto’s western downtown area has become a vibrant, lively, and mostly friendly competition for space between new waves of immigrants, tattooed hipsters, microbrew pubs, high-end restaurants, juice bars, condo developers, and GenY businesses seeking edgy, urban office spaces. The children of immigrants now twirl linguini in renovated warehouses where their great-grandparents once made socks.

I grew up non-Jewish in Toronto. The city of my girlhood was a frankly stodgy place. Whenever I return, I’m always startled by how its grown into a glittering, thrilling world metropolis. 

You may not think of Toronto as a great walking city, in the style of London or Paris. That’s not least because for six months of the year the street life amounts to bundled-up pedestrians racing around piles of slush.

But when the rock of cold is lifted in late May, the city scrambles into life — and what a life it is. While it’s true that property prices in Toronto are skyrocketing, that fact hasn’t yet extinguished the colorful inheritance from the past. On a summer evening you can start at the base of the city, on King Street West at Spadina, and meander up to the green, beautiful spaces of the University of Toronto and Queen’s Park: along the way you will pass through a dozen cultures in the forms of restaurants, neighborhoods, shops, and street life.

The quaint side streets west of Spadina and around Kensington Market look from the outside just as they did 70 and 80 years ago, if the interiors have been transformed by new owners who can pay the new prices. Amongst colorful row houses are low brick, pre-war apartments with wrought iron balconies. Here you can pause and imagine several working-class Jewish families gathering on these balconies on a hot, July night.


And now, alongside the still-flourishing ancestral foodways, a younger generation of Jewish Torontonians is reinventing their inherited culinary traditions in exciting new, cool ways. 

Interestingly, Toronto’s Jewish culinary revival — unlike other revivals in cities I’ve written about  (i.e. London and Budapest) — is largely without Israeli-influence. Meaning, it’s unapologetically, if ironically, Ashkenazy-centric.

Smoky Matzoh Ball Soup at People’s Eatery. Photograph by the author.

If the thought of matzah-ball soup and smoked fish doesn’t excite you, it should. In the hands of these cutting edge chefs, they are seeking a perfection of a type. So if you roll into People’s Eatery at lunchtime, you will be able to tuck into a perfectly crisp, cheese- drooling Reuben, with a bowl of matzah soup that is slightly smoky; or enjoy an exactly right smoked trout with cream cheese on a bagel with the “usual garnishes.”

People’s Eatery isn’t strictly Jewish — only one of its partners is. Instead, the restaurant’s concept is to embrace the multicultured history of its location, currently in the heart of Chinatown, but also once in the heart of the previously mentioned garment district. So along with your smoked fish on a bagel, you can also order a Vietnamese “breakfast” of crispy pork belly on rice or Korean glass noodles with tofu.

Anthony Rose is a prominent restaurant entrepreneur who’s paid homage to his Jewish background with two of his six eateries: Fat Pasha and Shmaltz Appetizing (both opened in 2014). They’re located side-by-side in the shadow of Toronto’s famed, gaudy Casa Loma, an early 20th-century residential “castle” that’s now a venue for parties.

Shmaltz Appetizing, exterior and interior. Photos by the author.

Fat Pasha’s menu is what you might get if your Polish cousin married an Israeli: while beloved for its creamy hummus, it offers an eclectic selection including “shmaltz latkes,” herring three ways, a turkey shawarma, and a tahini-spiced bagel.

Wander into Anthony’s deli next door, and you will suddenly feel transported to Toronto circa 1930. In the small, glass-fronted shop, with a meat counter, rows of old-fashioned sodas, baskets of bagels, and a selection of boxed and canned foods, you almost expect a Depression-era, gum-chewing re-enactor to take your sandwich order.

But the sandwich you will receive is no re-enactment.  I sampled some gravlax and slices of “beet-cured” salmon, the former among the best I’ve ever had, the latter exotic and tasty. Bagels are Montreal or New-York style, meaning large, plush, and firm on the outside. Try a “Chub Chub” — a Kiva bagel heaped with both gravlax and smoked whitefish, along with horseradish cream cheese and dill pickles. And if you’re feeling shmancy, you can order a bagel piled with hard boiled egg and 50 grams of sturgeon caviar ($45.00).

Ah, you say, this sounds all very nice — except that I want a smoked meat sandwich, the kind I’d actually go to Montreal for. And now in Toronto you can get that too. In 2007, Zane Caplansky — as his own legend goes — had a craving for really good smoked brisket, but there was no Schwartz’s nearby to fulfill it. He “bought a smoker, pickled a brisket, invented a spice rub” and made it himself. Shortly thereafter, in 2009, he opened his first deli on College Street: a self-consciously retro version of a deli his grandfather might have patronized.

At Caplansky’s core was the brisket — which “rivals any to be had at New York’s legendary delis,” according to the New York Times. But Caplansky expanded the menu beyond the usual deli, offering an all-day breakfast menu (including a smoked meat hash), traditional Polish soups, latkes, kishke, knishes, and even pierogies.

The concept worked. Caplansky recently opened a second deli uptown in Toronto’s posh Yorkville shopping district. He even has a counter at Toronto’s Pearson airport, right beside flights bound for the United States — just in case you need one last bite of brisket before you hit the security line.

I visited the Yorkville location, which amounted to an elegant hole-in-the-wall between upscale clothing boutiques and an antique silver store. As at Schmaltz Appetizing, I definitely had the feeling of stepping back in time but without any old-fashioned loss of quality in the food. Beyond the long counter inside the entrance, there was a “Mustard Fountain,” offering a variety of flavors all in bright yellow, and a “Pickle Bar” with the added bonus of pickled tomatoes and assorted peppers alongside a vat of fat, stumpy dills.

I ordered a bowl of the cabbage borscht and of course a smoked meat sandwich. The day was steamy — not really the season for a wintery soup — but I’ve had superb borscht-style soups in Poland, and I considered the bowl a quality test for Caplansky’s other dishes.

Cabbage Borscht at Caplansky’s. Photo by the author.

It arrived with the sandwich, served on simple white diner crockery, just as it might be served in Central Europe. The first spoonful revealed this was no ordinary recipe. The thin, fragrant broth had a slightly sweet and sour taste, in which floated chunks of meat, tomato, and translucent shreds of cabbage. It was delicious and not a bit heavy — the real deal.

The sandwich, if we are to compare to Schwartz’s (and other “legendary delis”), was in truth disappointing. The smoked brisket was moist and nicely seasoned but not transformative; the rye bread could have come from the day-old shelf at the supermarket. Still, I enjoyed it –and left worried that I’d eaten too much, always the sign of a satisfying meal.

Where to Stay:

For the pampered: Toronto Four Seasons. Few realize that the Four Seasons chain was founded in Toronto by Jewish businessman and writer Isadore “Issy” Sharpe. I remember the first one he built when I was still a child — a white brick, motel-style structure overlooking a ravine park in a Toronto suburb. Like the city itself, the chain has blossomed from its modest origins to the luxurious, international brand it is today. Sharpe’s career has culminated in a soaring new Four Seasons tower in the most affluent neighborhood of his home town. It features an outstanding David Boulud restaurant with a superb selection of globally competitive Canadian wines.

For the cooler set: The Drake Toronto. Located in the heart of the downtown west, The Drake is a pioneer in Toronto’s hip boutique hotel scene. The creation of hotelier Jeff Stober, himself a proud leader in the Toronto Jewish community, the brand has extended to restaurants, stores, and a second branch — the Drake Devonshire — in trendy Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario, about two hours east of the city.


Where to Eat:

People’s Eatery: 307 Spadina Avenue. Lunch and dinner served Monday to Friday, with dinner only on Saturdays and Sundays.

Fat Pasha: 414 Dupont Street. Dinner Monday to Sunday; Brunch Wednesday to Sunday.

Shmaltz Appetizing: 414 Dupont Street (behind Fat Pasha). Take out service only. Open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Caplansky’s: 356 College Street West, and 156 Cumberland Avenue. Open seven days a week, from breakfast through dinner.