The Ossington strip's second act
over 1 year ago
over 1 year ago
There’s a moment, mid-afternoon on weekdays, when the crowds abate and you might stumble upon an empty sidewalk table you can claim for your own. Handle the moment correctly, by sitting down, ordering a glass of something special and soaking in the sights, sounds and soul of the city’s hottest destination.
A busy artery connecting Queen Street West to the south and Dundas Street West to the north, the Ossington strip is a curious blend of character, style and substance. Like the city itself, it’s equal parts urbanity and grit, with an inviting mix of characters populating its restaurants, coffee shops, bars and shops. With a strong sense of community and enough top spots to draw crowds, it’s no wonder these three city blocks have garnered fame and attention here, and beyond.
Today, the densely-packed Ossington strip offers something for every age and taste, from high-brow to casual and almost everything in between. Join the line-up at Bang Bang for some of the city’s most creative and crowd-pleasing ice cream. Taste old-school pizza, guaranteed to transport you to childhood, at Superpoint and Blondie’s. Go for gooey comfort with a Cuban sandwich and a side of golden, crisp tostones at La Cubana. Walk the strip for Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese food, classic French, Mexican or Mediterranean. At Mamakas Taverna and its offshoot, Bar Koukla, be transported by authentic Greek fare from the corner of Ossington and Humbert Street to the coast of the Aegean Sea. With its proliferation of restaurants, wine bars, breweries and coffee shops selling pounds of house-roasted beans, Ossington has become a dining destination unrivalled in the city.
The intersection of Ossington Avenue and Humbert Street, where restauranteur Thanos Tripi's Mamakas Taverna, Bar Koukla and summer pop-up Souvla run this popular corner.
Anyone familiar with Ossington Avenue in the 1980’s and 90’s would be shocked to see it today. Though some city streets never change, with little to hint at the passage of time aside from the degree of fading on the posters in the shop windows, Ossington’s revitalization is extraordinary. A derelict street recognized more for its unsavoury reputation and crime than anything else, it was home to a slew of mechanic shops and karaoke bars, housed in dilapidated buildings in need of love.
“I moved here in the mid-90s and I lived at Shaw and Dundas,” says Pablo Mozo, co-owner, with his sister chef Corinna Mozo, of La Cubana. “Ossington was a street you would never, you barely ever, wanted to even walk down. There was something kind of seedy about Ossington.”
Still, with its central location and textured brick buildings, the area caught more than one entrepreneurial eye. “[My friends and I] were all creative types,” says Mozo. “I worked in advertising and design, others in retail and fashion and we all kind of lived in this area. We were always saying, ‘Oh my God, Ossington is just ripe for the picking. It’s just this huge street, with old-souled buildings but like nothing’s happening on it’.”
Chicken Medianoche sandwich from La Cubana on Ossington Avenue.
La Cubana on Ossington Avenue.
Pho Rùa Vàng Golden Turtle Restaurant has been serving up intoxicating bowls of steaming hot pho, along with dozens of other menu items, from the same Ossington spot since 1987. Yet, it wasn’t until the new millennium rolled in that more businesses, no doubt attracted to the area’s relatively low rents, started to call the Ossington strip home. In 2004, Sweaty Betty’s, a place that bills itself as “the OG dive bar on the Ossington strip,” opened up shop. In 2007, chef Tom Thai’s Asian-fusion Foxley Bistro moved in.
"Cut to the early 2000s and my sister was closing a restaurant [in Boston] and looking to open up a new one,” says Mozo. "So I convinced her to move here and she was like, 'Where do I open up a restaurant?' and I said, 'You’ve got to open up on Ossington.’” In 2008, the duo opened Delux.
With the slow trickle of restaurant openings, the Ossington strip’s reputation started to change. People who would have normally avoided the area, in favour of higher-end or more popular neighbourhoods, started making the trip to the west end. The area was invigorated by spots like Delux.
"[It was] a quality place run by a chef like my sister, who had some notoriety,” says Mozo. "People came and the décor was very different than what was going on around, and what you would normally find on Ossington.”
The increased traffic soon inspired the opening of art galleries, trendy shops and more. "Pretty soon after that it started to pick up,” says Mozo. "And suddenly, it exploded all around us.”
Co-owner Pablo Mozo (left) with his sister and chef Corinna Mozo (right) seated at their restaurant, La Cubana on Ossington Avenue.
Almost as quickly as it had erupted with life and culture, Ossington’s progress was suddenly halted. In 2009, the city placed a moratorium on new bar and restaurant openings on the street, halting restaurant and liquor licenses for the area of Ossington between Queen and Dundas Streets. The moratorium’s aim was to tamper the area’s dramatic growth and maintain a balance between residential and commercial spots.
Once the moratorium was lifted in 2010, the Ossington strip’s renaissance continued with a vengeance. More restaurants piled in. High-end clothing stores, design firms and galleries popped up. In 2012, Bellwoods Brewery opened in a converted garage. The brewpub and snack bar served the type of quality, hand-crafted food and drink that would come to define the area.
To some, the geography of the area itself aided in its renewal.
“It starts at Dundas and ends at Queen and that’s it. It’s a real strip” says Mozo. “So it’s become denser. You can’t be close to it and spread out away from it and expand it. There’s something about how it’s condensed that helps make it what it is and that makes it feel different than other strips in the city.”
Opened in October, Delysées Luxury Desserts is part of a new brigade of high-end destination spots populating the street.
“My wife and I, we’ve always loved Ossington," says Fred Naggar, creative director of Delysées. “For what we do, I think we couldn’t find any better street than Ossington because we’re surrounded by what I would consider the best restaurants in Toronto. The best selection of restaurants.”
Boutique sweets shop Delysees' Fred Naggar (right) and wife Khariz Naggar (left) lean over a counter at their new Ossington digs.
An array of specialty macarons at Delysees Luxury Desserts on Ossington Avenue.
After closing the King Street location of Delysées in 2019, Naggar and his wife spent some time scouting new locations for the business while focusing on wholesale. When a space came up for lease at Ossington and Argyle, the couple jumped at the chance.
“I really think we’ll complement the street. A lot of the restaurants are very happy we’re coming because it gives more reason for people to come to Ossington,” says Naggar. “People want to stick around Ossington. All these new places opening is just bringing it to the next level.
Part of the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group helmed by veteran restaurateur Janet Zuccarini, Azhar Kitchen and Bar opened in December 2020, bringing vibrant, hand-made Middle Eastern-inspired gems to the strip. With restaurants near the culinary core of King Street West and in Yorkville, it’s no wonder the group flagged Ossington for its newest venture.
“Having a restaurant on the Ossington strip has always been a dream for me,” said Zuccarini in an interview with Post City. “[I]t’s a great honour to be part of one of the most celebrated culinary scenes in the city.”
There’s something about how it’s condensed that helps make it what it is and that makes it feel different than other strips in the city.
Proving its unstoppable ability to bring all the cool kids to the yard, Ossington landed Manita last year and Crosley’s in January. Paris Paris, Sprezzatura Spaghetti Disco, and the Haifa Room all opened this summer to instant popularity. Each one brings something unique, yet also recognizable, to the ever-evolving area.
On Ossington, "the businesses support each other," says Naggar. "They don’t compete against each other… It’s not like they’re trying to take away business from each other, they actually all work together.”
It’s perhaps this sense of community that gives Ossington the pull of a neighbourhood, elevating it above an average city street. It’s welcoming and vibrant, the camaraderie palpable in the colourful conversations and hum of every corner. “There’s a whole bunch of us who have been around forever,” says Mozo. “It’s really a community of restaurants and bars but also fashion and retail. It’s kind of fun to see and kind of fun to be part of that kind of gang.”
Is Ossington in its prime? Walk down the strip on a Saturday night and it’s hard to imagine it getting any livelier. The air is filled with music pumping too loudly from the stereos of lustrous luxury cars. Families scamper through the throngs, and couples hold tightly to each other as they linger over shared plates. "I cannot believe how busy that street is at night” says Naggar.
A family crossing the street on Ossington Avenue.
"The crowd helps make it. …There’s a certain age and demographic and style to the people that come and they help make the street. It perpetuates itself that way," adds Mozo. Ossington is a place to see and be seen. It’s a place to let loose, to relax, and a place to sample some of the best bites and most intriguing sips currently coming out of Toronto kitchens.
What the future holds is anyone's guess. Will the strip retain its charm, its inimitable quirks? "The rents in the city have gone insane," says Mozo. "The real problem is post-pandemic, who knows? I’m not sure who’s going to be closing down and, once people leave, then people hike rent and only higher-end places will be able to afford it."
Ask Fred Naggar of Delysées and he echoes the thought. "All the little, older businesses will eventually go," he says. "They’ll be replaced by high-end restaurants, high-end boutiques. I mean ...that’s the only way you can make it on that street is if you really stick to luxury."
Though the future is uncertain, what's clear right now is the fact that overwhelming numbers of locals and tourists are treating the Ossington strip as their second home. "I think we’re as forward-looking as any other city and have the most up-to-date retail and restaurants and bars,” says Mozo. “Ossington has just such a great density of all those kinds of ideas. A street like Ossington is up there with all the other cool strips in all the other great cities in the world.”
As you settle into a prime spot at one of Ossington's glorious restaurants, absorb the energy of the street as it awakens from months of sleepy, pandemic-induced closures. Abuzz with the drive of risk-takers and creative leaders, Ossington embodies Toronto’s singular brand of comfortable, amiable, quality cool. Stay a while and you'll feel the energy of the city in the close-knit community that’s throwing open its doors and welcoming everyone in.