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Book Reviews

Hip Guide Toronto

by Karen von Hahn

Toronto Discovered

by Robert Fulford

Secret Toronto: The Unique Guidebook to Toronto’s Hidden Sites, Sounds, & Tastes

by Scott Mitchell, photographs by Linda Rutenberg

Beat Toronto

by Christina Temple and David Christian

Toronto Singles Guide

by Leanne Delap and Serena French

Newcomers to Toronto pick up on three things very quickly: only tourists and newscasters enunciate the final syllable – the locals say something much closer to “Tronno”; the flashing green traffic light definitely does not mean “go” if you’re a pedestrian; and kvetching about the weather is an accepted form of social intercourse – the colder, icier, and more bracing the winds, the more intense the conversation.

Discovering the city’s abundant physical and cultural charms takes a little more work. But the learning curve can be shortened with the help of several unconventional Toronto guidebooks that go way beyond the usual tourist destinations, offering unique “insider’s” suggestions about where to go, what to do, and where to eat that are useful whether you’ve lived here 20 years, two months, or are just planning a visit.

Robert Fulford’s Toronto Discovered, a lyrical book-length essay accompanied by 150 colour photographs, is like an afternoon walk with a knowledgeable companion who captures the city with entertaining stories and anecdotes. Fulford, an award-winning writer, journalist, and editor, strolls around the city’s icons – the CN Tower (a good marker if you’ve lost your way), the SkyDome, the CBC Broadcasting Centre, Roy Thomson Hall, and the Princess of Wales Theatre – while discussing Toronto’s evolution from a cold business city to a culturally vibrant one.

Along with architecture and art, Fulford knows his literature, and the text is peppered with apt literary references. Quoting Anne Michaels’ description of Toronto in her prize-winning novel Fugitive Pieces (“a city where almost everyone has come from elsewhere … bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs”) captures the essence of multicultural Toronto. There are four Chinatowns where vendors hawk their fresh wares, from fruits and vegetables to seafood and meat, and numerous other ethnic pockets – too many to list – including a little Italy, a Portuguese neighbourhood, a Vietnamese area, and an Indian part of town.

As one would expect from a writer like Fulford, Toronto Discovered is a highbrow New Yorker-style essay, a coffee table tome for those who know Toronto and want to brush up on its history, and be reminded of its contradictions – from the tony mansions of Rosedale to Queen Street West, “one of Toronto’s cultural legends, the centre of avant-garde art and advanced body-piercing, a place where consumerism and cultural theory live uneasily together.”

For the skinny on curious, eclectic, and off- the-beaten-track entertainment, ECW’s Secret Toronto: The Unique Guidebook to Toronto’s Hidden Sites, Sounds, & Tastes by Scott Mitchell is a guide to alternative shopping, noshing, and sightseeing.

A follow-up to Secret Montreal, Secret Toronto exposes little known (and quirky) activities for the budget-conscious adventurer looking for something different, including a free 30-minute tour of Metro Toronto Ambulance Headquarters (only caveat is that bookings must be made two weeks in advance). Public tours of the Disco Road Transfer Station are also on offer, the Disco Station being one of the two urban locations where you can visit the process of dumping, compacting, and reloading garbage into transport trailers.

“Secret” headings (all are listed alphabetically) include activism, astronomy, crystals, fashions, nudity, parachuting, sweets, salvation, and numerous other topics, ending with zines. While a lot of hidden gems are unearthed, not everything in the book is so very secret. The main Book City on Bloor West, for example, is hardly confidential. But this guide’s advantage is the tidbits of unusual and useful information for newcomers.

For example, you never know when you’ll need the phone number for such conveniences as Waiter on Wheels (751-9684) – dinner from over 60 restaurants delivered directly to your door – or Dial-A-Bottle (751-4040), a service delivering anything in stock at the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), bagged groceries, and prescription drugs.

And there is an abundance of listings for curio shops. Whatever, Ethel, and Eye Spy – all three sounding deliciously like code names for secret agents – are actually antiques and collectibles shops. Kitschy ephemera from the 20th century is on offer: if you’re searching for an authentic Ken doll or a stuffed Samoyed, these are your hot spots.

Beat Toronto: Fifty of Our City’s Most Interesting Restaurants, by Christina Temple and David Christian, offers a visual tour of the city’s eateries on 120 full-colour pages. Ranging from high-end North 44 on Yonge near Eglinton, to casual chow, like Penrose Fish and Chips on Mt. Pleasant Road, a Toronto institution since its inception in the 1950s that serves up chunky cut fries in newspaper and fresh halibut à la family batter recipe, Beat Toronto covers all the dining bases. Arty photographs give a sense of each restaurant’s ambience and an index at the back of the book features a paragraph (with all the key details) on each venue.

“Being hip here isn’t cliché performance-art pieces about ritual scarification where the deep and sober patrons are uniformly clad in black,” says Karen von Hahn in her Hip Guide Toronto.

“To me, hip is found in the inherent soul of a place or event; it’s driving out of your way just to pass by the giant Penaten jar on Bathurst at Dundas, or refusing to even enter a dollar store, yet jumping at any opportunity to visit Honest Ed’s.” Honest Ed’s and other venerable institutions are covered in Hahn’s guide, which is a suprisingly irreverent and down-to-earth insider’s scoop on restaurants, cafés, clubs, shops, and cultural venues.

Even if you’re not looking for a soul mate, The Toronto Singles Guide by Leanne Delap and Serena French is an amusing how-to handbook on finding love in the big city. French and Delap cover every possible pick-up venue, including a summary of which subway stops and streetcar routes are the luckiest, grocery stores likeliest to have the highest quotient of singles, as well as a selection of bars ranked by romance potential. All-time winners include The Roof Lounge atop the Park Plaza and the Consort Bar (the name gives a good indication of who drinks there) in the King Eddie hotel.

When more desperate measures are neccessary, Delap and French offer advice on crashing conventions, surfing the Net, and finding the right dating agency. While the focus of this book is finding a partner, the Singles Guide works as a witty handbook to the Toronto scene, with an incisive run-down of which crowd hangs out where, what they eat, wear, and listen to.