Toronto Tailor-made for Shoestring Budgets

Having lived in London and spent time in many of the World’s largest cities, I can honestly say that I have found nowhere as accessible as Toronto for quality cheap or next to nothing entertainment.
This list is by no means exhaustive and I will add as I learn more.
Knock yourself Out!

Theatre & Comedy
National Theatre of the World – look out for NTOW’s Baram and Sniekus who practice their particular brand of improvised comedy all over Toronto but can often be found on Friday evenings at the John Candy Theatre (Second City training theatre) on Peter Street – Pwyc

Shakespeare in the Ruff puts on amazing Shakespeare adaptations every summer in Withrow Park

Same goes for Canadian Stage’s High Park Shakespeare Productions running June 26 through to September 1.

Jazz & Blues
The following primarily operate on a tip- jar payment system so essentially pwyc
Gate 403

The Rex Hotel

The Winchester Kitchen

The Monarch Pub at the Eaton Chelsea pub has music – jazz and blues every night. No cover
See website for details

Want to play a board game, do a jigsaw, play pinball on a vintage machine, draw something?
Unlike many of other “Board Game cafes” 3030 does not charge a cover for you to exercise your creativity – help yourself on first-come first-serve basis. Just buy a drink or two and your evening’s entertainment is sorted for the price of that drink

For $7 return take a Ferry over to Toronto Islands.
Ward and Algonquin Island for boardwalk cute cottage community and gardens, Hanlan’s Point for beaches and shady dappled trails. Centre Island for Amusement Park/Bike hire, pier, busy kid friendly beaches etc.
TIP: The best way to avoid the enormous queues in the summer and if there are a few of you likely to be visiting the Islands a couple of times a year. Buy a string of 10 tickets for $63 and march straight through the lines and onto the ferry.

Summerlicious and Winterlicious foodie events ensure that the most cash strapped amongst us can enjoy a slap-up meal in a host of Toronto’s more high-end restaurant.
lunch is best value with a fixed price
menu for generally $25 for 2/3 courses and dinner more expensive at $35/$40.

Visit the AGO for free on Wednesday evenings after 5pm

Visit the ROM at a reduced price on Friday nights after 4pm

Ripleys Aquarium
If you live in town and you love Aquariums then the most cost effective way of visiting again and again is to buy an annual membership for $100
Whilst this is hardly “shoestring ” speak; when you consider that the cost of an individual ticket is almost $40 – you do the math…..
Subscribe to their newsletter too as they frequently have deals for students…

Hart House offers free tours of their eclectic art collection – check website

Go for an Art Gallery crawl along Tecumseth Street or Queen Street West – many gallery owners are happy to show interested parties around the work they are profiling in their spaces.

Last but not least sign up for Groupon, Buytopia, Yipit and Travel zoo to get huge discounts and deals on local restaurants , museums and experiences ( and of course products)

Over and Out



Casa Loma – Decanting the Castle – The Myths Uncorked

How do you fancy an elegant plate of Raw Chocolate Organic Lava, a “Shot” of Apricot Tapioca and Toronto Citrus Goat Cheesecake Lolli (heave!!), paired with Cave Spring 2009 Late Harvest Indian Summer Reisling; Inniskillin Vidal Icewine and Magnotta Ruby Port.

Which would be the right pairing? Which is the odd man out here?

Do you even care? – if not, do not read on – it gets worse….

The answer is: there is no right answer – it’s whichever you prefer.

The primary goal of this spectacularly delightful event was simply to challenge and surprise the senses through a well thought out and skilful collation of simple and complicated flavours: a “wholesome, rustic gourmet meal” with locally sourced Ontario wines or other unexpected beverages, during a ” fun, interactive and communal dining experience” and all masterminded by Executive chef Steffan Howard and a handful of local wineries.

This was the event I alluded to a couple of months ago in the “Luscious Liscious” post and whilst I thought it would be a little different as an experience, this was no cheap night out at the cinema so it was important to feel that we got our money’s worth – no pressure!

After a rocky start to the evening that was nothing to do with the event itself and everything to do with the dastardly Canadian winter (in hindsight the only really bad weather we’ve had all winter so far) and the worst city winter driving conditions I have ever seen in Toronto, we literally slid into the car park of Casa Loma off un-gritted treacherous roads amidst a blizzard. It then took an inappropriately-shod idiot woman another 10 minutes to negotiate the sheet ice in the car park (the technique when wearing teetering heels is to spike the ice with your heel before putting the toe down – it’s an interesting move as you risk losing a shoe with every step). Once in the Great Hall, the Castle was unexpectedly warm, and mood lit by glittering chandeliers and candelabra. Martini in hand we collected our hand-sets and did a self guided tour of this faux European 19 century Castle perched high up on one of Toronto’s few hills. Outside and through the leaded glass windows, a snowshaker view of the candy-cane lit CN Tower and the downtown city core – a glimpse of the modern from within the past.

This was no snotty event for smug wine aficionados. It was billed as an event for anyone wanting to experiment with flavours and bold, traditional and unexpected pairings. Guided through the “tour” on the plates and in the glasses by two classy smoothly scripted comedians and the chef himself – an advocate for organic locally sourced food, the evening rolled along brilliantly becoming ever-more well-oiled with every course and accompanying wine flight.

No rules

No rights or wrongs, guests sat at tables of 8 and prior to each course, were introduced to the origin of the ingredients of each dish and the rationale behind the pairing; then following each course “vote” with a show of hands as to their preferences. NO judgement, no judging – just for the fun of it. Fortunately the two of us were seated with a party of 6 people (all friends of each other) who were both inclusive, welcoming, and with the collective “joie de vivre” of people out for a good time.

Lucky us

Keep a look out at for similar events as these are apparently run frequently under the Winter and Summerlicious banner.

Over and Out

Luscious Liscious


Neither Winter or Summer would be complete without the luscious Winter or Summerlicious gastronomic celebrations. Focussing on raising the profile of the many and varied culinary culture of the city. these are the signature events produced by the City of Toronto twice a year. Winterlicious runs during the first two weeks of February, typically one of the poorest times of the year in terms of restaurant attendance. Summerlicious occurs at the start of July, also a slow time for restaurants. During the events major restaurants from across the city offer a limited menu of prox fixe dinners at a discount from typical prices. Currently the prices are $15, $20 or $30 for lunch and $25, $35 or $45 for dinner, with drinks and gratuity extra.

The promotion originally began in 2003 with 35 restaurants participating. Based on similar events in other cities it was designed to boost the restaurant trade at a slow time of the year. It also helped Toronto recover from the tourism decline that followed the SARS epidemic in 2003. In 2011 over 150 restaurants were invited to participate in Winterlicious.

These are the rules of engagement:

  • “Existing restaurants in the City of Toronto possessing a Public Health Dine Safe Green Pass, must now apply to participate in Winterlicious and Summerlicious, regardless of review history.
  • Restaurants with multiple locations of the same name and menu may apply to participate with one location only.
  • In place of reviews, eligibility to participate will be determined by comparing the average price of a three-course meal on a restaurant’s regular menu with the minimum requirementsfor each price point category established for the Winterlicious/Summerliciou programs.
  • Restaurants will be required to complete and submit an Application form for consideration to participate in the programs.
  • All applications will be reviewed by the Winterlicious/Summerlicious Advisory board to determine if the applicant meets the eligibility criteria and the applicant’s price point category for participation.
  • Eligible restaurants will be notified to RSVP for Winterlicious and Summerlicious participation on pre-established registration dates.
  • Eligible restaurants that RSVP will be accepted into the programs on a first come, first served basis. Participation will continue to be limited, allowing for manageable growth of the programs”

As a result and while the prices are discounted, participating restaurants see three to four times as much business and correspondingly the business of non-participating restaurants suffers during the event.

Winterlicious dates this year are from January 27, to February 9 2012 – for details of participating restaurants and menus go to

There are always a number of special and unusual events running in tandem and under the Winterlicious banner. One of the events this year turned out to be very special affair. It was held at Casa Loma and called “Decanting the Castle: Myths Uncorked” – this includes a four-course menu and complementary pairing of local wine flights. plus your very own self-guided tour of the castle at night. Look out for this event next year as this is the second such event they have run under the Winterliscious banner. It was a superb evening but more about it in a future blog….
Over the last 5 years we have tried the following, and really the thing that still amazes me is that for restaurants participating in this event, you really don’t get a second chance to make a great first impression, ergo it is incredible and sod’s law that things can go so wrong during these promotions. And believe me one tiny mistake however beautifully recovered on the part of the restaurant Management is always enough to make us think twice about paying out full price to go eat there again!

So here is my humble fourpence-worth on some of the winter/summerlicious contenders of the last few years – only another 120 or so to try out!

  • Auberge de Pommier – original woodcutters cottage amidst a cluster of high-rise offices/apartments opposite York Mills – both classy and rustic
  • Azure – great for evening cocktails especially on a Friday night when they have a small jazz band
  • Bier Market – used to love this when we first arrived, but one bad experience with really stinky mussels means we shall never go back
  • Biff’s Bistro – the usual Oliver and Bonacini great service, but visit marred by fact that air conditioning was blowing a freezing gale and we had to be re seated outside on the patio!
  • C5 Restaurant Lounge ROM – had high tea here – Chef wouldn’t allow us to have a salad without the dressing – who’s the customer!! skimpy helpings – won’t go back
  • Canoe – This impossible to book high-end noshery restaurant has an impressive view of CN Tower , and therefore a great place for visitors. Usually able to sit at bar without reservation.
  • Celestin – raved about by many of my friends, but lunch better than dinner.
  • Ciao Wine Bar – Cosy and informal – good music
  • Drake Hotel – A quirky artsy room within a Victorian hotel – great atmosphere – wonderful cocktails served on the charming roof-top bar (summer only)
  • North 44 – can’t go wrong in the Mark McEwan owned eatery – especially when one is only paying prix fixe winterlicious/summerlicious prices.
  • Il Fornello – forget about the “licious” menu, some of the best pizzas in Toronto – the honey and fig on spelt base to die for
  • Joe Badali’s Ristorante Italiano – excellent comfort Italian food in a boisterous fun setting.
  • Jump – again the Oliver & Bonacini brand of excellent and friendly service amidst a modern designeresque tangle/jumble of metal scaffolding and glass. Nothing special
  • Lucien – excellent French food in a narrow atmospheric corner spot on Front street.
  • Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill – great if you happen to be visiting Tiff Bell lightbox or in theatre district. Manages to be a cafeteria serving classy food, packed weekend evenings
  • Pure Spirits Oyster House – you really gotta like oysters to fully appreciate this restaurant in the Distillery district. Due to its location in this historic area this restaurant has heritage decor – stone walls/polished wood floors and beamed ceilings.
  • Rosewater Supper Club – what a treat: believe this building might have been a Bank: huge cavernous restaurant area on two levels. Best lavender side-car cocktail ever
  • Spice Route – hip cool Asian orientated restaurant: the place to be seen rather than eat: emphasis on decor and chill-out music: food unimaginative and tasteless but then that’s not what this restaurant appears to be about. Amazing washroom looking straight onto an outside (enclosed – Thank God) courtyard; see above photo…..
  • The Fifth Grill – situated at the top of a warehouse building, the rooftop restaurant is accessible only by an old-fashioned furnished lift which unfortunately only accommodates about 6 people at a time. I really enjoyed this space especially in the summer with all the flowing muslin, Indian cushions and throws.
  • The Host Fine Indian Cuisine – one of my favorite Indian restaurants. All carved Indian wood and shutters.
  • The Old Mill Inn – shame this is so far east in the city – first impression, after first admiring the cluster of black and white timbered buildings, is of wood smoke; and flagstoned floors. Comprises of a beautiful restaurant, a space for afternoon tea and the Home Smith bar which hosts jazz at the weekends.
  • Wildfire Steakhouse & Wine Bar – glossy north York eatery with ubiquitous dark wood, in fact dark everything with a few candles thrown in so you can at least see the outline of the food. otherwise looks like a mini version of “The Keg” – however has great reputation amongst the good people of this neck of the woods.
  • Beer Bistro – far and away our favorite place to eat and drink down town. Classy beer pairings. Great comfort food, good, jazz on Saturdays. If you want a table you need to book at the weekends.
  • Arriba in the Renaissance Hotel – Rogers Centre – stupendous view over any game that happens to be playing – only average food but great service
  • Marcels – Entertainment District – French and really pretty average but then again this restaurant caters to all the theatre goers and tourists that swarm the area
  • La Toula in the Westin Hotel – LakeShore – Fab view
  • The Corner House on Davenport – just behind Casa Loma – what an excellent find; tucked away on a corner and obviously a converted Torontonian house; gorgeous tree shrouded patio; lovely cosy homey interior and superb food. To die for was the Bread Pudding making its debut for the Summerlicious 2012 season and according to the owner here to stay – as good a reason as any to return!

Over and Out