By Jennifer Merrick
Toronto – “Opa!” the waiter shouts, as the brandy-soaked Greek cheese bursts into flames. This scene unfolds repeatedly in restaurants that line Toronto’s Danforth Avenue between Pape and Chester in the neighborhood known as Greektown.
Evidence of the area’s Greek heritage is seen and heard throughout the streets here. The blue and white Greek flag is proudly displayed in shop windows; trips to Greece are featured prominently by travel agents; street signs are in both English and Greek; and the language can be heard in coffee shops, spoken passionately by retired gentlemen over coffees.
A bronze statue of Alexander the Great stands proudly in a parkette at the corner of Danforth and Logan and I’m sure if the conqueror himself were looking down, he would be proud of how the Greek community has thrived, half a world away from his homeland.
Toronto claims the third largest Hellenic community outside of Greece, after New York City and Melbourne, with 200,000 residents of significant Greek ancestry. Their history in the city dates back to the 1850s, but it was 100 years later, during the 1950s, that the community really took hold. The population increased to more than 100,000 from 10,000 by the early 1960s and continued to rise substantially into the early 1970s.
It was in this neighborhood where the majority of these Greek immigrants first started their new lives in the Canada, and although many have now moved to suburbs throughout the greater Toronto area, Greektown remains the cultural and economic center of the community.
It’s not all Greek, though. The enclave has diversified in the past 20 years and now Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants stand alongside their Greek counterparts. But it’s the community’s Hellenic roots that continue to define it, providing its unique flavor.
Only 10 minutes east of downtown and right on the subway line, the neighborhood is easy to get to, and once here, there’s plenty to do. Shopping is a popular choice. Specialty boutiques line the Danforth, with home decor and designer fashion, fruit and vegetables stalls, Greek emporiums and everything in between.
As good as the shopping is, the food is even better. The best way to enjoy the neighborhood is to arrive hungry and indulge in the authentic Greek food on offer.
For an appetizer, try some pita with an assortment of dips like humus (chick pea puree, tahini and garlic), melitzanosalata (eggplant puree, garlic and spices) and taramosalata (red caviar, lemon and spices). Don’t forget to order the Saganaki (Greek cheese), worth it not only for the taste, but the pleasure of watching it being flambeed at your table.
Souvlaki, of course, is the quintessential Greek main dish, and it’s a fierce competition as to who has the best. Louis Meat Market (449 Danforth) is definitely a front runner, particularly for the take-out crowd. What makes its version so good?
According to the cook, it’s all in the mix of seasonings. “I could tell you the spices, but you wouldn’t be able make it like we do.”
Gyros are another popular choice for fast Greek food and Alexandros (484 Danforth) is famous for its pitas piled high with meat, onions, tomato and tzatziki for under $5.
For a sit-down restaurant, you can’t go wrong with Astoria (390 Danforth). Voted best souvlaki in the city for many years running, it is one of the area’s most popular Greek restaurants. Its generous portions, reasonable prices and perfectly seasoned kebobs keep customers coming back.
The Pantheon (407 Danforth) restaurant has an extensive seafood menu and an old-world atmosphere to enjoy it in. Sitting at a table surrounded by Greek families spanning three generations, it’s easy to imagine you’ve been transported to Mediterranean Europe.
If you still have room, Athens Pastries (509 Danforth) serves high-quality Greek desserts, including bougatsa (pastry stuffed with a thin layer of custard), loukoumades (small fried balls of dough drenched with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon) and galakto bouriko (thick slices of custard sandwiched between thin layers of pastry). Be warned. They’re addictive.
Greektown celebrates its culinary treasures every year in early August by hosting Taste of the Danforth, a weekend celebration of food that attracts over a million people to this neighborhood to sample to their hearts content. But anytime of year, visitors can appreciate delectable edibles amidst a lively atmosphere and a Greek legacy that continues to live on.
If you go:
Greektown (Danforth Ave. between Chester and Pape); www.greektowntoronto.com . By car: Take the Don Valley Parkway, which connects with the QEW Gardiner Expressway to the south and the 401 highway to the north. Take the Bayview/ Bloor exit, follow the signs for Bloor Street/Danforth Avenue and then travel eastbound.
By public transit: Take the Bloor-Danforth subway line and get off at Chester or Pape station.
TAP into TO!: A great way to explore Toronto’s many ethnic neighborhoods, or even downtown, is through the TAP into TO program. Like the well-known New York City greeters, volunteers give free tours to visitors. These intimate outings provide an insider’s view of the city and its neighborhoods. Find out more at www.toronto.ca/tapto ; 416-33TAP-TO (416-338-2786).