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Toronto - November 2023

Lester B. Pearson International Airport (YYZ) serves Toronto and my well drawn up plan was to take the Union Pearson Express (UP Express or UPX) from the airport to our downtown hotel. I like the idea of using mass transit to start off my travel adventures, so as to both reduce my carbon footprint and its associated costs (Uber: $42 CAD vs. UPX: $24.70: $12.35 x 2). It turns out that because I am a "Travel Genius (Level 3)," Booking.com offered a free airport transfer. I felt bad about the extra CO₂ generated, but I didn't want to insult the good people at Booking.com by saying no.


Coordinating the transfer wasn't as easy as I would have liked. Booking.com initially stated I would be dropped off at "Toronto cleaning service" which I found rather confusing. I later found out it was not my destination but the name of the transfer service, which didn't really allay my fears as much as I would have liked. At this point I became concerned there might be a language issue, as it was mentioned that my driver might not speak English. I immediately brushed up on my "Bonjour" and "Monsieur, connaissez-vous le chemin jusqu'à l'hôtel Pantages?" but in the end it was not required as Cheng spoke a fair amount of English.


It turned out that our transfer was via a Tesla, so my global warming anxiety was as needless as my linguistic one. Though when Cheng spoke of his "work two job" economic plight, it fell on the deaf ears of this 2013 Hyundai Elantra owner and O&G fixed income retiree.


The Tapas

The Future. Who knows what it will bring? I'm hopeful that it brings a country filled with civil discourse, civic leadership with a modicum of humility, and citizens that use God's guidance to bring about peace, love, understanding, and fewer deaths as a result of mass shootings. One thing I do know for certain is that my future will be filled with more tapas.


I love osso buco, but after a few bites of the world's greatest, my eyes start to wander over to the grilled Spanish octopus, fried marinated chickpeas, Fresno chili, yogurt, and lemon that is setting on your plate. Why would I want to eat one dish all night long, when I can eat six of them?


Therefore I scoured The 6 for the best tapas and . . .


I like Japanese cuisine almost as much as I like tapas. The simplicity and precision of it all, washed down by an icy cold Sapporo is near perfection. So when I heard that Toronto's Little Tokyo neighborhood was filled with Japanese gastropubs that combined the two, all I could say was "Domo arigato!" And since Kinka Izakaya was but blocks from the hotel, we were off.


We got off to an awkward start as after sitting down I realized we were in the wrong Japanese gastropub. I immediately apologized, bowed, exited, and then sat down in the Japanese gastropub that was located directly next door.


The Prawn Tempura was heavenly. How do they do it? The batter so delicate, the prawn perfectly cooked. And just when you think it can't get any better, the "Monday Special Drink" is . . . a draft Sapporo! The following night we visited . . .


Bar Raval is intimate . . . and by that I mean is so small that we were forced to eat our meal upright. The interior design is Gaudían (look it up). I was down with an Amontillado and tonic due to my love of Poe and the unknown. I don't think I had ever tasted Amontillado, but now that I have it probably should not be combined with tonic - innocuous. The fried eggplant & honey was quite good, with the neo-instrumental surf music by the likes of No Werewolf making everything (including us) that much cooler.


We almost didn't make it to Bar Chica, as after Bar Raval I found "I gotta have more tapas!" but in the meantime had stopped off at Collective Art Brewing for some live jazz and a beer. A fellow beer drinker and off duty employee mentioned we should go to the Salt Wine Bar as it "has great tapas and Johnny Walker Black." There is one thing you should know about me . . . I hate scotch, so we continued on to Bar Chica.


It's like they took a cool, hip tapas bar from Barcelona and transported it to Toronto. An added bonus was that we could sit down, and we could do it at the end of the bar overlooking the pass where I could inspect each plate prior to departure, as well a leg of jamón ibérico. We had an exquisito "arroz negro con calamar" (squid with black ink rice) which was so rich it was like eating three tapas (tapi?). The place was thumpin' with such cool, trendy music, that much of it was unshazamable.


The next night was Korean Village in Yorkville. It's technically not tapas but the bulgogi, pork belly, plus kimchi, sprouts and pickled something or another did have the feel. I asked the owner, Mr. Village about the photo of Jackie Chan in the waiting area. Specifically if the seat by the door that I was sitting in was the same seat occupied by Jackie, he said "no, he sat in one of the private rooms in the back" which I subsequently noticed were conspicuously empty. He did give us free scoop of strawberry ice cream for desert (which may have more to due to Mrs. AAR mentioning that we journeyed all the way from Kansas City instead of the shared appreciation of the Mr. Chan's sense of humor and Evel Knievel-like stunt work).


The Canoe

Canoe sits atop the TD Bank Tower. It's the kind of restaurant where the entrees are so pretty (and expensive) that you are reluctant to actually eat them. You stare and wonder how they were staged (and why they cost so much). The menu possibly exudes an excessive farm to table vibe, as I was thinking about the "filet + cheek" but when the server mentioned something about a puffed tendon and connective tissue, I decided to go with the Ontario Pork: the cheek had the prefect amount of chewiness - delicious. Though you know how it goes sometimes: the mashed potatoes topped with bread crumbs was the most memorable. The 54th floor views of the CN Tower and Lake Ontario, didn't hurt either.


The Poutine

Poutine is a Canadian specialty of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy, that is definitely not endorsed by the Canadian Heart Association. Smoke's Poutine was recommended by Fodor's without making it clear that it was a chain of fast food poutine joints. Via indifferent service, I ordered the "Traditional," which was eatable, though a Molson Canadian Lager would have been useful to wash all the cholesterol down. They stack 50 lbs. bags of potatoes in the "dining area" as if to say "even though we fry entirely too many French fries for the overall health of Torontonians, they are all freshly processed at this very small location." Meh.


Our Free Tour guide Tai said that Montreal poutine may be better, and therefore a comparison was in order. Though after my visit to Smoke's, I decided that much like determining if Mussolini is the equivalent of some current politicians (feckless, filandering and . . . well you alliteratively fill in the balance), it was a question best left unasked.


The Sights

I had previously visited the basketball, baseball and football hall of fame, so I felt "why not visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and make it a Superfecta!"


Considering that hockey is damn near a religion in Canada (a diner at Canoe was wearing a Toronto Maple Leaf jersey) I really thought this place would be off the hook. I realized that I might be a little underwhelmed when I entered the place through a mall and then an underground food court. It was a very nice food court, but really? I wondered when Wayne Gretzky was inducted in 1999 did he stop off for an order of Pad Thai?

The entrance to Hockey Valhalla (or a former Old Navy location)

Didn't really get a sense of the history of the game, the players or the future of the sport, while exploring this warren of skates, sticks and pucks. The place does end on a high note with all the Hall of Fame members inscribed glass plaques, as well as the Stanley Cup being displayed in the stunning Esso Great Hall, with the original Stanley Cup being accordingly housed in an adjacent vault¹.


The Yonge-Dundas Square was located a block directly north of my lodgings. It is said that it's Toronto's version of Times Square, but as there is no Olive Garden, I'm skeptical. If you've never been to the real Times Square it's worth a look see, if you have, then never mind.


The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) on the other hand was outstanding. The original building, a synthesis of Italianate and Neo-Romanesque architecture was built in 1912, but like any museum worth its salt it has expanded with the addition of a very modern wing, in this case in 2007, by the "Deconstructivist crystalline" addition.


This place has a little bit of everything: a touchable fragment of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, a very large display of hundreds of taxidermy stuffed animals, a few mummies, a marble bust of Co-emperor Lucius Verus, and the one time largest (and purest) gold coin in the world.


This museum had such a range and quality of exhibits that I easily surpassed my normal three hour museum time limit, though I did break it up by running across the street to share a Margarite pizza at Pi Co, before returning and closing the place at slightly after 5:00 pm.


Located in the Yorkville neighborhood, two blocks from the ROM is the Writer's Room. I had trouble getting a read on the place from the online reviews and photos, but it was outstanding. A classy cocktail bar with floor to ceiling windows highlighting a large terrace and outstanding Beer O'clock views of downtown Toronto. They serve a gratis version of poppycock as a beak dryer, which I have never previously encountered. Over a Black Flackhattan I toasted my love for my bride of twenty years.


The Banksy

Banksy is a pseudonymous England-based street artist, who in 2016 shredded a painting he just sold at auction for $1.4 million. Our Free Walking Tour covered a lot of Toronto ground, but the highlight may have been the Banksy that was graffitied on a wall in Old Toronto.

4 Church Street

The Jazz

Our last night was spent listening to some live music at The Jazz Bistro which through Mrs. AAR's prodigious efforts rewarded us with a rendition of our wedding song and two glasses of champagne. It reminded me of what I lucky man I am. So much so we came back for the second show. I know some jazz aficionados don't believe that the Great American Songbook is real jazz, but then again who cares what those Gershwin hating snobs think.


The Coffee

Tim Hortons is a ubiquitous Canadian coffee chain, as there may be an Ontario law that requires a location be located within eyeshot of every Toronto pedestrian. It is essentially a Canadian version of Dunkin', with similar staffing and economics, though without all the confusion when ordering. This place serves scalding hot coffee for real men, like the eponymous founder, Hall of Famer, four time Stanley Cup Champion and 24 year National Hockey League veteran. Needless to say you won't find any of that pinkity drinkity crap here.


Lodgings

Pantages Hotel Downtown Toronto was booked, fully cancelable until a day before arrival. Then 37 days out, Booking.com was nice enough to inform me the price had dropped, and they would reward me with $54 USD in future credits. Instead I followed Dicta 3 of the AAR Lodging Protocol and immediately booked a new fully cancelable room. And then after I ensured everything was copacetic, I canceled my old reservation and saved myself $54 in current dollars.


Then it happened again five days later - rinse and repeat with another $98 current dollars ending up in my pocket.


Great location in the Yonge–Dundas neighborhood, with a small lobby that was strangely underlit and a large bar that was over. I'd stay here again for my next 20th anniversary, though could do without the 7:00 am wake up call cum fire alarm.


The Bottomline

Toronto is a more economical version of New York City though with residents who speak better English.


Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.


¹ There are actually three Stanley Cups: The original which is housed in the vault at the Hall of Fame, the Presentation Cup created in 1963 as the original was becoming too fragile for the on ice rigors, and the Hockey Hall of Fame Cup which is a stand in at the Hall of Fame when the Presentation Cup is in use. I think the above photo includes the Presentation Cup, but now could care less as it all seems like some QAnon conspiracy bullshit.

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