With its quaint 19th century buildings and cobblestone streets, Toronto's historic Distillery District is a must-visit for out-of-towners and locals alike. The pint-sized, pedestrian-only neighbourhood is brimming with cute, local boutiques; art galleries and installations; performance theatres; and, of course, phenomenal restaurants. Better yet, the Distillery District restaurants run the gamut, serving a range of different cuisines.
South of Corktown and east of St. Lawrence Market, the Distillery District doesn't get as much fanfare as west-end neighbourhoods like Kensington Market and the Ossington strip — and we would gladly keep it that way, and save this artsy district for ourselves.
The exception is in November and December, when the neighbourhood transforms into the Distillery Winter Village and visitors flood the neighbourhood to bask in the twinkling lights and peruse the cabin-style vendors with a cup of hot chocolate in hand. Of course, no visit is complete without stopping in for a bite at one of the Distillery District restaurants, so be sure to book your reservation, especially during the Winter Village.
Spend the day strolling the cobblestone streets, popping in and out of area's many specialty shops before setting down at one of the Distillery District restaurants. From Spanish tapas at Madrina and tacos at El Catrin to fine French fare at Cluny, the Distillery District is full of delights.
The best restaurants in the Distillery Disctrict
1. El Catrin Destileria
Modern Mexican cuisine is on full display at El Catrin, with an ambience to match. The space is decked out in an elaborate mural that was made by three Mexican artists over the span of 100 days. Detailed and intricate, the gorgeous mural really makes the space pop, which is as colourful and vibrant as the dishes themselves.
On the menu, tacos reign supreme with the Baja (crispy fried haddock) and pastor (marinated shaved pork) taking the top spots. For the gluten sensitive, they have corn tortillas along with flour tortillas. But authentic Mexican cuisine goes far beyond tacos and so does this menu. Expect sopes, empanadas, aguachile and more. Start off with the esquites, charred corn taken off the cob and served in a mixture of cilantro, chipotle aioli and cotija cheese.
As for drinks, El Catrin lays claim to the largest mezcal and tequila bar in the country, so keep the margaritas coming. Their year-round, heated patio is the perfect place to sip them to keep warm (or cool, depending on the season).
2. Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie
Forget those stuffy fine dining restaurants — Cluny serves haute French fare in an unpretentious atmosphere. It's not snobby-European, it's cool-European. And a very date-worthy spot.
Almost everything here is made from scratch. To warm up, dig into delights from the raw bar like yellowfin tuna ceviche, oysters and lobster salad. As for the main event, good luck choosing between their list of knockouts like mascarpone ravioli, herb roasted chicken, côte de boeuf and seared foie gras poutine. Wash it all down with a glass (or bottle) of wine from their expertly-curated, Wine Spectator recognized list of almost 200 bottles.
Oh, and on the weekends, they serve a beautiful French brunch, too.
3. Madrina Bar y Tapas
If you can't go to Spain, let Spain come to you. At Madrina, chef Ramon Simarro's menu marries seasonal ingredients with authentic items imported from Spain for a true taste of place. Dive into a selection of cheese and jamon, including ham that's considered some of the best in the world. Tuck into tapas like patatas bravas and Catalan chicken lettuce wraps alongside larger plates like steak tartare on a roasted marrow bone. The wine list is a lesson in Spanish wines, and they have plenty of cocktails, too.
4. Pure Spirits
One of Toronto's top spots for seafood, Pure Spirits offers piscine delights in a laidback, yet refined atmosphere. Start with a dozen oysters, of course. It's not all Malpeques here — they have a selection of briny beauties to choose from. On the menu, mains are conveniently divided into "Fish" and "Not Fish." From pan fried Arctic char to spaghettini brimming with clams, mussels and shrimp there's plenty of seafood to slurp up. Steak, jerk chicken and a few vegan options await the non-seafood-inclined. Pair your meal with one of their many signature cocktails. They've got plenty of beer on tap and wines galore, too.
5. Mill Street Brewpub
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Get Mill Street's organic brews straight from the source at the Distillery District's Mill Street Brewpub. They have a micro-brewery and a retail shop onsite. Book a tour to get a behind-the-scenes look at how they make their beer, before settling into a hightop surrounded by the brewery vats. They have plenty of beer on tap (natch) — some produced in-house and others coming from their larger breweries. For non-beer drinkers, they also craft their own small-batch gins, whisky, aperitivo and root beer (non-alcoholic), which all feature in their cocktails. As for food, expect pub staples like nachos, chicken wings and pizzas that are perfect for sharing with friends.
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From the team behind ramen spot Touhenbouku, this cute and casual restaurant serves Japanese eats that go beyond noodle soup. A few of their signature ramen bowls make it onto the menu, alongside sushi rolls, stir-fry and rice bowls. For something out of the ordinary, opt for the Japanese poutine with pulled duck and cheese curds. Don't skip on deliciously crispy apps like takoyaki and karaage. If you've ever been curious about Japanese whisky, this is the place to sample it from their wide selection. Failing that, bottles of sake are waiting.
7. District Pizza
Born out of pandemic necessity, District Pizza was created by The Distillery Restaurants Corp.'s fine dining chefs while their restaurants were shuttered. Their made-from-scratch pizzas use a dough that's fermented for two days to increase the sourness. It's also hydrated fully for a beautifully blistered, chewy crust. Toppings range from the classic margherita and pepperoni to the fully-loaded butter chicken pizza. They don't do dine-in, so order delivery or get takeout and post up on a bench for some primo people watching.