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FOOTLOOSE

Toronto Changes Life Style

August 06, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

TORONTO, Canada — This vibrant, cosmopolitan city was once known as "Toronto the Good."

Founded in the 17th Century by French fur traders who lost it to Britain with the fall of New France in the next century, it was christened "York" and soon after was nicknamed "Muddy York" because of its swamplike terrain.

While Montreal and Quebec City tripped lightly along with their Gallic ways, Anglo-Saxon Toronto became so conservative that department stores not only didn't open on Sundays, they drew curtains over their windows so that righteous citizens wouldn't be tempted by earthly cravings on the Sabbath.

And so it went until the end of World War II when Toronto, which had been 80% Anglo-Saxon, suddenly experienced an influx of immigrants who brought new life styles and cultures from throughout the world.

Getting here: Fly Air Canada, Wardair American, Northwest, Eastern or Canadian International.

How long/how much? Three days should do it, unless you want to make forays into other interesting towns and regions of Ontario. Lodging and dining prices are moderate for a big city.

A few fast facts: Canada's dollar was recently worth 85 cents U.S., a plus for American visitors. Visit any time between late spring and late fall. For winter visits, bring a parka.

Getting settled: Venture Inn (89 Avenue Road; $77-$82 double B&B) sits downtown in the trendy Yorkville area. It's a nondescript modern building but comfortable and a real value. Inside decor is Early American, with bedrooms featuring huge maple beds, excellent baths and lobby hutches, giving it a country feeling. Breakfast only.

The Windsor Arms (22 St. Thomas St.; $89-$153 double) has been our Toronto favorite, resembling a vine-covered English country manor with a very clublike interior. The antiques are real, the feeling warm.

Dining facilities at Windsor Arms are known collectively as Three Small Rooms, which give you a choice of grills or more fancy fare to go with a superb wine selection. Windsor Arms, a step from Toronto's finest shopping, is a member of the worldwide Relais & Chateaux group of hotels.

The Westbury (475 Yonge St.; $89-$119 double) also is near the center of things. It's a large and lively place with good dining and most of the big city hotel amenities. Bedrooms are bright and comfortable, lots of business types in residence.

Regional food and drink: Although their city is without its own recognizable cuisine, Toronto natives are justifiably proud of its restaurants. The reason is that they have the best of the world's foods right at home, and the dining business continues to boom.

The streets of Yorkville are chock-a-block with chic restaurants. Danford Avenue looks like a linear version of Athens' Plaka with its Greek cafes and tavernas. You'll also find Szechuan, Thai, French, Indian tandoori and Tony Roma's ribs. And Canadian beer is super.

Good dining: Centro (2472 Yonge St.) in little more than a year has carved a reputation for turning out an upscale, imaginative northern Italian menu. It is bright, cheerful and contemporary.

Try the Tuscan white-bean soup with sun-dried tomato and eggplant relish, or the penne with tomatoes, basil, olives and roasted chiles.

Main courses such as grilled veal chop with sage aioli (sage-flavored mayonnaise), fried artichokes and pepper squash fall in the $14 to $18 range. Hot appetizers and pastas go for about $7.

Bangkok Garden (18 Elm St.) is the most beautiful Thai restaurant we've seen. Elaborate use of wood, slate, brass, green plants and ponds create a truly opulent and serene setting.

As curries are a Thai staple and to get them right takes a bit of doing, Bangkok Garden flies the curry paste and other exotic seasonings in from Thailand. Each dish carries a five-level, scale-of-heat symbol as a warning to diners, level four being described as a "raging fire," level five for "masochists only."

An eight-page menu takes you through many of Thailand's finest dishes. The Gang Kiaw Waan Gai curried chicken kicks in with a five-alarm rating on the first bite.

Bellair Cafe (100 Cumberland St.) stands in the middle of Yorkville and is the chic stop for Toronto's beautiful people at lunch or dinner.

Decor is minimal, with dramatic contemporary art on stark white walls. You can dine on a terrace in good weather. A menu offers sage-Brie fritters with a plum conserve, salad of grilled chicken with pancetta and chives vinaigrette, fuselli with crab meat and asparagus in a light dill cream.

Going first-class: The King Edward (37 King St. East; $183-$242 double) is a deluxe hotel. A traditional facade and elegant lobby give way to more contemporary bedrooms with every possible comfort and amenity. Dine beneath baroque ceilings and the pastel surroundings of Cafe Victoria any time of day, or more formally in Chiaro's for dinners of French cuisine and fine wines.

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