An innovative inner-city project in Toronto has transformed an old industrial site into a buzzing entertainment precinct. Brian Johnston raises a glass to the Distillery District.
If you walk eastwards from downtown Toronto towards the Distillery District, there are few indications you're nearing a little gem of urban regeneration. You have good reason, though, to keep marching through tired streets and dusty parks, past metal-clanging car-repair shops and disheartening fast-food outlets. On Mill Street, turn through a gateway and find transformation. Buildings gleam, shop windows wink invitingly, and food is no longer fast but rather slow, enjoyed in sunny red-brick courtyards where jugglers twirl.
When it comes to urban redevelopment, industrial sites are usually first under the bulldozer. Fortunately, when the last factory gave up in the Distillery District in 1990, the area's distinctive architecture was preserved as a movie set for dozens of productions, from Chicago to X-Men. Film appearances as factories, prisons and concentration camps could easily have left the district with an image problem. But by the early 2000s Toronto was bubbling with renewed energy and bright ideas. A private company began converting the industrial decay into a mixed-use pedestrian zone. Refusing to lease to franchises or chains, it encouraged creative businesses to move in: artist studios, craft workshops, advertising agencies.
Ten years on and, after a slow start, the Distillery District has blossomed. Staying true to its creative vision, it's anchored by the Young Centre for Performing Arts, where multiple theatres host plays, cabaret acts, performance art and movie screenings. Its stores remain devoid of souvenirs and made-in-China bargains, instead showcasing inventive fashions, jewellery and paintings. Cube Works Studio creates funky, colourful artworks from sewing spools and Rubik's cubes. Distill Gallery features playful recycling in which old Nancy Drew novels might become purses; at Sports Gallery, leather from baseballs used in Yankees games transforms into sports fans' wallets.
This is enough to make the Distillery District unusual but, even better, you can talk to the people who make the goods on-site, and watch them repurpose denim or carve cabinets from local wood. At Soma Chocolates, machinery rumbles and the smell is overwhelming. You can see chocolate being made before trying a cup of the signature product, a spicy Mayan-inspired hot chocolate with chilli peppers, ginger, orange peel and vanilla.
It's fitting that the buildings themselves are a work of art, too. Together they form the largest collection of 19th-century industrial architecture in North America. The industrial past is celebrated rather than suppressed: piping and walkways still run overhead, utilitarian red brick glows with an almost minimalist chic, and machinery sits like modern sculpture in odd corners. Some of it has even become modern sculpture: the district's central feature is a huge arrangement of old distilling equipment called Still Dancing, by famed New York conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim.
Fittingly, one of the few intruding sounds is of passing goods trains along the nearby railway track. The railway and nearby quays of Lake Ontario were once the area's industrial lifeline. A flour mill was the first factory established here, in 1831, but it was an 1837 whiskey business that soon prospered. Gooderham & Worts became the largest whiskey distillery in the British Empire and took over most of what became known as the Distillery District.
A little industrial museum would round out the Distillery District experience, but you can learn more by joining a one-hour tour on foot. It takes you to hidden corners of buildings you might otherwise overlook, where old barrel-making equipment, company safes and paintings of the factories in their heyday are displayed. Tour guides' tales of 19th-century working life are horridly fascinating. The low ceilings of some rooms are a reminder of child labour, while metre-thick walls counteracted the explosions that were all too common during the distilling process.
Alcohol is being produced once more in the Distillery District, though presumably with more attention to occupational health and safety. Mill Street Brewery produces notable beers that now have a city-wide following: try the organic lager, the dark and fruity Tankhouse pale ale, or the dense Balzac's Coffee Porter, whose earthy flavour recalls roasted coffee beans.
Meanwhile, Ontario Spring Water Sake Company claims to be the only sake brewery on the east coast of North America. Production takes place behind windows, with signs explaining the process, or you can join a brewery tasting tour. The pungent smell alone is enough to make you tipsy, but you can also try samples of 10 varieties of sake, or even sake ice-cream.
With just 10 streets covering 5.6 hectares, the Distillery District is compact. It won't take you long to get an overview, but shopping and dining could easily have you lingering, and plenty of festivals (especially in summer) provide a lively atmosphere. Weekends are the best time to go, as local residents in the trendy condos nearby arrive for brunch, while visitors from around Toronto come to browse the farmers' market and relax in cafes.
Balzac Coffee was the trailblazing first to move in and still offers the best industrial-chic look, with soaring ceilings and red-brick walls offset by a bit of bling from chandeliers. In winter, people linger inside over newspapers and Fair Trade coffee; in the summer, they spill onto the square, to be entertained by buskers.
Original ironwork, distressed furniture and old advertising posters are a recurring - but not overdone - theme in the Distillery District's eateries. Pizza-and-pasta joint Archeo is housed in a former carpentry shop, where exposed brick and pine are offset by terrific photos showing scenes from factory life in the bad old days.
In the Boiler House Restaurant, reclaimed material found on-site includes scrap metal and Douglas fir, and the furniture is crafted the old-fashioned way, without using nails. The interior has won several design awards, good enough to match its contemporary Canadian cuisine, a temptation of pumpkin gnocchi, sable fish smoked over apple wood, and baked Arctic char.
There are rather more-eccentric Canadian flavours at Greg's Ice Cream, such as grape nut (a North American breakfast cereal), maple syrup, or the signature and much-lauded roasted marshmallow. Then saunter on to A Taste of Quebec, whose wash-rind 1608 cheese is a delight, midway between smooth and soft with its own distinct nutty flavour - a Toronto newspaper declared it "more Canadian than maple syrup". You can try other cheeses, such as the buttery Grand Manitou and the blue-veined sheep's milk Bleu de la Moutonniere, by ordering a platter.
Maple syrup-flavoured with green tea or orange liqueur, foie gras and raspberry butter are among the other delicacies served up in this gallery featuring Quebec artists working in glass, ceramics and wood. The blend is quintessential Distillery District style, and a suitable homage to the new life of old factories.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Air Canada and Tourism Toronto.
Getting there Air Canada flies from Sydney to Vancouver (14hr), with only a brief stopover before continuing to Toronto (5hr 10min). Connections from Melbourne on domestic airlines.
Economy fare from $2124 from Melbourne and $2012 from Sydney low-season return, including taxes. Phone 1300 655 767; see aircanada.com.
Staying there Hilton Toronto is in the middle of the city and has comfortable and spacious rooms from $C320 ($300) for two. Phone 1300 445 866; see hilton.com.
Park Hyatt Toronto has a good spa and great rooftop bar. Rooms from $C290 for two are newer and larger in the North Wing. Phone 13 12 34; see parktoronto.hyatt.com.
Doing there Distillery Historic District. Phone +1 416 364 1177; see thedistillerydistrict.com.
Segway of Ontario offers daily one-hour historical walking tours of the Distillery District for $C19, plus taxes. Phone +1 416 642 0008; see segwayofontario.com.
FOUR OTHER HISTORIC TORONTO WALKS
Black Creek Pioneer Village brings together more than 30 restored buildings to recreate a Victorian-era farming community of the 1860s. Staff in period costumes demonstrate spinning, sheep shearing, rail splitting and other rural skills. Phone +1 416 736 1733, see blackcreek.ca.
Campbell House Museum is an art gallery in the 1822 former house of a chief justice, complete with period furniture. Guided tours provide insight into Toronto's early history. Phone +1416 597 0227, see campbellhousemuseum.ca.
Casa Loma is a magnificent folly built by a leading Canadian financier in 1914 in the form of a neo-Gothic castle. The grand interior is a riot of wood, glass and marble and can be visited on a self-guided audio tour. Phone +1 416 923 1171 or see casaloma.org.
Spadina Museum is the adjacent but overlooked neighbour of Casa Loma. The recently renovated mansion has beautiful gardens, with interiors and tours (one aimed at kids) themed around 1920s and '30s life. Phone +1 416 392 6910, see toronto.ca/culture/museums/spadina.htm.