Once a derelict Victorian industrial site, The Distillery District Toronto is now a hip entertainment Mecca. (Think Meatpacking District in NYC or Yaletown in Vancouver.) The neighbourhood has attracted an enormous amount of press since opening in 2003. But does it live up to the hype?
I first visited the Distillery District Toronto in 2004 shortly after it was reborn as an entertainment district. At that time there were only a handful of stores and restaurants. When I was there (on a weekday afternoon) it felt rather forlorn and deserted.
Although much of the renovation work had been done, it still felt like a former factory. And not in the “cool, authentic, historically correct” way... more like a “depressing, dark atmosphere” way.
Still, the renovations were impressive and from an environmental standpoint, I really liked the idea of re-using these old buildings instead of just tearing them down and chucking everything into landfill like we usually do.
There had been a lot of hype about it becoming the "latest, greatest, trendy neighbourhood", but to be frank, I wasn’t very impressed. A few years passed and I always meant to come back. Recently, I checked the area out again. I came to attend a concert at the Toronto Jazz Festival, and a play at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and had dinner at the Mill Street Brewery. My recent experiences have changed my mind about this place… for the most part. (With one exception… more on this later.)
Like NYC’s Meatpacking District or Vancouver’s Yaletown, the Distillery is a former industrial area transformed into an upscale hip destination. Compared to those two neighbourhoods, the Distillery District Toronto is smaller in area, but it is older, and its 44 buildings, all brick except one stone structure, make up the largest preserved collection of 19th century industrial architecture in North America (the two other areas are mostly early 20th century). For this reason it has been designated a National Historic Site. Also, unlike the NYC and Vancouver districts, the whole area is car-free, which means that its developers can tout it as “the largest patio in Toronto”. Technically every inch of the brick-covered pedestrian-only pavement outside the pubs, cafes and restaurants is potential “patio area”. And in the summer, especially when there’s something like the jazz festival concerts going on, the place does feel like one giant outdoor restaurant/bar.
The Toronto Distillery District isn’t just a dining and drinking area, though. You’ll find many interesting shops and art galleries here. If you’re an art-lover, you can easily spend a couple of hours just browsing through the open studios of artists and artisans, chatting with glassblowers, painters, book illustrators and fashion designers. In addition, the district is home to the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, where you can catch live performances all year around. (Yup, unlike many of the other big professional theatres, Soulpepper Theatre Company which operates out of the Young Centre doesn’t just have a fall/winter season. It runs spring and summer seasons as well. More on this later.)
You won’t find any big box retail stores here. No shopping mall retailers either. What you will find are unique, one of a kind boutiques, often staffed by the person who actually MADE the objects they are selling.
The new retail spaces seem to blend very well with the old brick factory architecture. One example is this adorable garden shop:
Bergo is an amazing store where you can browse for unique gifts for the home. They also have some cool kids toys (and toys for adults too).
But the most creative spots are definitely the artists' studios, as mentioned above. Just remember: the studios are closed on Monday. Also, the opening times seem to vary. I was there recently on a Sunday and ventured up to the second floor where only one studio was open. So if you’re keen on seeing one or more particular shops, it’s best to either call or look up their website online for opening hours.
During the summer on weekends a bunch of other artists arrive to sell their work from outdoor booths. There's also a farmers market on the weekends where you can buy gourmet goodies that are often works of art too.
The district has become something of a foodie Mecca. Most of the places are pretty high end (main dishes around $30 a plate) but the Mill Street Brewpub is a little more moderate (burgers and fries for about $12).
If you just want a small snack there's always the cool Balzac's Coffee. I love the vieux-Paris look of this place… not bad for a chain café, eh?
Another hip place at the Distillery District Toronto run by a friendly owner is Caffe Furbo where you will find coffee and art:
I didn't try the sake at Ontario Spring Water Sake Company last time… it was too crowded! Maybe next time.
The Chocolatier Soma is very popular and so is the little bakery. There's also a variety store where you can grab a quick coffee or anything you've forgotten. And TD Bank is on site so if you need cash you can grab it from their bank machine.
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts opened at the Distillery District Toronto in January 2006. You can see shows here by the Soulpepper Theatre Company, George Brown College theatre and other companies.
I love the way they've renovated the old Tank Houses 9 and 10. The two-storey lobby feels airy and inviting. There's a lovely modern fireplace with a bench all around it. When you walk in you see the box office, a café counter and a bunch of inviting tables where you can sit and drink your coffee or have a sandwich before the show. Unlike most theatre cafes this one is open all day, not just during performances, so it’s another spot to go and have a snack when you’re tired from shopping in the District.
The theatre has turned the Distillery District Toronto into a real entertainment centre. Now you can make a day or evening out of it… come for a matinee, do a little shopping and then have drinks and supper afterwards.
Wanting some free entertainment? (Besides the people-watching from the patios, I mean.) Watch out for events like the Toronto Jazz Festival:
Gooderham and Worts opened their distillery here in 1837. After a century and a half of operation, the distillery closed in August 1990. It was once the largest distillery in the world. An exterior wall across from the Young Centre displays an artist's view of the area in the 19th century:
One of the buildings features some blown-up photos of the interiors of the buildings when it was still a distillery:
Love these shots of some of the former workers:
During the 1990s the site remained pretty quiet except while it was being used as a movie set. Incredibly, more than 1,700 films have been shot here. Some of the movies are: Cinderella Man, Chicago, The Recruit, The Man, Frequency, Don’t Say a Word, and Against the Ropes. It’s still used for films and tv, by the way. Recently episodes of Warehouse 13, the sci-fi show, were shot here.
If you want more of the history (pre-redevelopment days), check out this site: http://www.distilleryheritage.com.
In December 2001 Cityscape Holdings Inc. purchased The Distillery, later joining up with Dundee Realty Corporation. The developers described their goal this way: "Our vision was to combine the romance and relaxing atmosphere of European walking and patio districts with the hip, cool dynamic of an area like New York City's SoHo or Chelsea, where creative minds get together and you feel as if anything could happen."
The first businesses opened in 2003, so they made amazingly rapid progress in only a year and a bit. The theatre opened in 2006.
The next project is housing. Skyscraper condos are going up. You have to wonder if they are going to block out the sun and how that’s going to affect the “gigantic sunny patio atmosphere”.
When you arrive pick up one of the free booklets about the district from one of the shops. It contains articles about the galleries, stores, dining places, etc. as well as a handy map showing you where to find everything (including the bank machines and public washrooms). The place isn't large so you can wander around without a map but it helps if you don't want to miss anything.
If you want a guided tour you can sign up for the Segway tour or take one of the walking tours.
Location of the Distillery District Toronto
The address of the complex is 55 Mill Street, but it covers the space between Parliament and Cherry and between Mill Street and the Esplanade. This area of the city is known as Corktown. It's just north of the Gardiner Expressway and Lake Ontario.
The Distillery District Toronto is east of downtown Toronto… about 2 km east of Union Station Toronto. For some people this means it's a bit "out of the way". There are no hotels right near it, for example. It's not quite as convenient as the Entertainment District for example. But if you're starting from Union Station you can walk this in about 30 minutes, or you can hop the #72 bus from just outside the station and be there a little quicker. Or just grab a cab.
Bottom line about the hype
My recent visits have changed my mind ... for the most part. The site is a lot more lively than it was in its early years and subsequently I feel more of a good vibe when I visit now. But I must admit that for me at least, the air of “former factory” still clings to the place (just as it does for me in Vancouver’s Yaletown or NYC’s meatpacking district). Like Mark Twain, “I hate work..even when someone else does it.” And this former industrial area, as renovated as it is, still reminds me of work...the back-breaking, sweat-inducing kind. However, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be reminded of these realities. It just makes me wonder if the ghosts of previous workers are still wandering around the district and if so, what do they think of us lazy spoiled slugs today? Are they jealous or just contemptuous of us slurping our fancy $5 coffees?
For more information
Check the Distillery District Toronto web site: http://www.thedistillerydistrict.com
And you heritage buffs will want to check out: http://www.distilleryheritage.com/
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