I get it, January’s cold. You probably dread the idea of venturing anywhere outside of your bed. But this month, when productivity is less than paramount, is the best time to start exploring the city we study in. The Cabbagetown-Parliament strip is a neighbourhood where cheap, exciting immigrant cuisines meet cozy, yuppy-driven neighbourhood cafes.
Wellesley and Parliament, roughly a 20-minute walk east of campus, has to be one of the most unexpected intersections in the city. St. James Town, one of Toronto’s most densely populated and lowest income areas, hits Cabbagetown, a pocket of quasi-suburban affluence. South along Parliament, the South Asian and West Indian influences of St. James Town mingle with photogenic establishments catering to well-to-do Cabbagetowners. Almost completely free of chain stores, this little strip of Parliament offers the best of so many worlds. So bundle up, pack a few readings, and spend a little time east of Yonge.
Breakfast and first study session
Café Olya (540 Parliament Street)
Café Olya immediately greets you with the warm smell of fresh-baked buttery pastries. Half of the tiny café is behind the counter — where other street café’s might try and maximize seating and content themselves with an espresso machine and bought pastries, Café Olya makes everything in-house.
It serves a clientele of dedicated neighbourhood regulars, and so at 9:00 am they are already sold out of savoury biscuits. Luckily, soft, gooey chocolate chip cookies are laid out and just starting to cool. Seating is limited to two barstools and a window bar, so if you’re coming with a large group, get your coffees to go.
If you’re soloing, grab an Americano and whatever pastry’s going that day, and set up by the window. It’s hard to sprawl out on the table, but the lack of WiFi means you’re bound to get some work done. When you want a break, the big, bright bay window provides some excellent people watching.
Rashnaa (307 Wellesley Street East)
The first Sri Lankan restaurant in Toronto, Rashnaa has been operating on the edge of Cabbagetown for almost 25 years. It boasts a variety of Sri Lankan dishes hard to find outside of Scarborough.
Growing up with pretty standard Toronto Indian food — which my Indian roommate informs me is decidedly northern ‘Mughal’ — the Sri Lankan fare at Rashnaa is unlike anything I’ve ever tried. Their lunch specials are all between $5 and $10. I splurged a bit and got the Rashnaa combo ($14 with roti and Chai), which was a heaping plate of basmati rice, a crisp popadom, soft dal, tender chicken thighs in a dark, spicy curry, and a dish of curried eggplant, potatoes and plantain in coconut sauce.
Chatting with Arun, who I think owns the place, results in a new dish: curried beets. The sweet-spicy curry will surprise and delight, especially when you dip some thick, flaky roti in the sauce. Arun, who seems a little standoffish at first, is immensely proud of his restaurant and happily shares a twenty-years of operation award he received from Bob Rae. For fans of Indian food and South Asian neophytes, Rashnaa is the perfect sort of unexpected.
Cabbagetown Brew (552 Parliament Street)
A little ways south of Rashnaa is the newly renovated Cabbagetown Brew. The Italian-Canadian coffee shop has been in the neighbourhood for about two years. It’s a little ostentatious, but the boisterous, opinionated guys behind the counter give the place a lot of charm.
The big, garish, off-white armchairs are almost too comfortable. If you’re not too busy, take a quick nap as the owners unironically blast Frank Sinatra. The coffee is strong and should get you nice and productive again. Big windows and fast WiFi actually make for a good work environment if you can get past how comfy the chairs are. Cabbagetown Brew also has a solid menu of pizzas, panini, pastries, and grilled cheese. If you want a change from South Asian food, prosciutto grilled cheese is a pretty excellent early supper.
Shopping on the way out
Vintage Vagabond Co. (603 1/2 Parliament Street)
Don’t let the name fool you, this is not a vintage store a-la Queen West — there are no hipsters silently judging you here. Instead, Mike and his dog Josephine guard a genuinely eclectic collection of everything from vinyl records to vintage cookbooks.
Pointe shoes sit next to mid-century silverware while oil paintings of foxhunts bedeck the walls. The shelves are crammed with ceramic beer steins and crystal decanters. Costumes, taxidermy, leather and furs have a room of their own. The jewel of the collection, at least to my eyes, is a signed copy of Gone With the Wind.
Mike’s a lovely guy and Josephine is sweet (and very well-behaved). Prices are negotiable and it’s hard to leave empty handed. And be careful, because you don’t have much room to move!
January at U of T is all about mild productivity. Turns out, Parliament Street is a great place for that. If the day’s not too cold, you can even take a walk in Cabbagetown proper and linger over some of Toronto’s most interesting residential architecture. Sure it’s a bit of a trek, but for curries, coffee, and a second-hand crystal chandelier, you’re not going to find anywhere better walking distance from campus.