At first glance, it may be hard to wrap your head around the vibe of Kensington Market–there is a graffiti-covered car filled with plants parked permanently on the main thoroughfare, a woman decked in neon clothing using a carrot for a microphone belting out song lyrics, and a park filled with equal amounts of children playing in the playground, as hippies on their bongo drums.
But give yourself an afternoon, and you’ll quickly begin to understand why Kensington Market may very well be one of Toronto's most unique neighborhoods.
Sure it might be a bit rough around the edges, but it’s one of the only areas in town that has resisted any major big-box development over the years. Unlike any typical ‘market,’ Kensington is really just a network of streets, centered on Augusta Avenue, nestled in between Chinatown, Little Italy, and Little Portugal.
It started as an immigrant neighborhood in the late 1800s and has evolved into a culturally diverse mecca of food and drink, with some of the best specialty “one-off” shops, bars, and eateries. Just be sure to seek them out, tucked between open-air fruit stalls, cheap clothing shops, and dry goods purveyors.
GRAB A BITE
Don’t let the lack of AC keep you away from this unassuming gem. Owned by Irene Morales, a Chilean native, Jumbo Empanadas’ menu is small but mighty. The empanadas are some of the most authentic we’ve found in the city, and her house-made salsa will have you wishing you had ordered a large takeaway container.
This Jamaican and Italian restaurant is churning out both traditional and fusion dishes. You will not regret ordering their $5 jerk chicken lunch special -- cooked fresh on the barbecue right out front and served with warm rice and beans and homemade slaw.
Seven Lives Tacos Y Mariscos
There are quite a few Mexican restaurants scattered throughout the market, but this one is definitely, hands down, the best place for tacos. Loaded with toppings and sauces, don’t let the double tortilla fool you; these will get messy quickly! There will most likely be a line, just accept it and know that it will be worth it.
How can you deny any place that puts Miss Vickie’s potato chips in their batter? The fish is perfectly crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside, and the chips (made with local Ontario grown potatoes), are the ideal size, just waiting to be doused in vinegar.
SUCH GOOD BREAD. Grab a crispy on the outside, bubbly on the inside baguette to nosh on while you stroll through the market, or treat yourself to one of their many baked goods, their breakfast focaccia, or one of the many loaves of sourdough bread. If you happen to be there on a day that they’re selling their almond lemon cakes, consider yourself lucky.
Serving up traditional Mexican street-style sandwiches nestled in a custom-made bun from Blackbird Baking just across the street. All the meat, cheese, and produce used in their sandwiches are sourced from within Kensington Market, putting a whole new twist on sourcing local.
GET A DRINK
Tucked at the back of a somewhat sketchy mall, please do venture in if you can find the door to this place. With a secluded interior patio and funky indoor seating, rain or shine, you’ll be perfectly happy downing a beer or two here.
Ronnie’s Local 069
Whether you show up ready to hit the town or just for a casual post-work pint on their picnic table-filled patio, this low-key, unassuming bar will reel you in for the night. They have Delirium beer on tap, which at 8.5% will have you cozying up to the eclectic local crowd within no time.
Ontario’s craft beer scene has exploded over the last few years, and Trinity Common capitalized on that. Identifying themselves as a ‘craft beer hall,’ this is your one-stop shop to try various local beers. Grab a seat at the bar, chat beer with the bartender, and if you’re hungry, grab yourself a little snack from their extensive menu.
Though their dark and stormy is seriously good, this place offers a lot more than just-drinks. They have nightly entertainment, ranging from local DJs to live bands to storytelling events or theme nights. Be sure to shimmy your way past the bar as space opens up to an intimate dance floor and cozy booths towards the back.
Have you ever wanted to learn how to silkscreen? If so, head to Kid Icarus -- who not only sell beauty stationery and Toronto-themed knick-knacks but offer screen printing and linoleum carving workshops as well. Most of the store is stocked with Canadian-made products, so be sure to give yourself enough time for a thorough perusal.
Whether you’re searching for the perfect vintage piece to spice up your wardrobe or a costume for a century-themed event, Courage my love, as well as several other vintage shops along Kensington Ave, will have everything you’re looking for and more.
You will immediately fell in love with this charming little shop the moment you walk in. Lined with cookbooks, high-end baking ware, and the oh so trendy falcon enamelware, you won’t be able to step foot inside without convincing yourself you need a new cookbook, baking tin, or apron—God speed.
Stocked with exceptional Ontario meat and poultry, an artisanal deli counter, locally sourced preserves, sauces, and a stellar lunch counter, Sanagan’s is not to be missed! The staff are super friendly and incredibly knowledgeable and will happily help you choose your ideal cut of meat and even throw in their tips for preparing it.
With an orange-painted brick facade and often smelling of roasting coffee beans, I Deal is hard to miss. You’ll rarely find anyone here on their laptop, as most people are here just to enjoy a perfect cup of coffee.
With overly friendly baristas, unreal coffee, and an adorable, secluded backyard patio, this place makes for a great spot to grab a coffee or settle in for the afternoon with a good book.
Don’t let the narrow storefront fool you. Cafe Pamenar is pumping out delicious coffees and memorable latte art. Their front patio is perfect for keeping an eye on your bike or people-watching along Kensington Market’s main drag.
Stop by Bellevue Square (a park), read up on the neighborhood's history, or park yourself on a bench and enjoy whatever grub you picked up in the market.
Take a stroll along Spadina Ave, the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, to experience some authentic Chinese food. Though the options are abundant, we’re partial to King’s Noodle. Bring some fellow food lovers, order a giant bowl of their wonton soup, a plate of roast pork and dig in.
If Chinese food isn’t your thing, just a few blocks north of King Noodle is Pho Hung, some of the best Vietnamese cuisines in the area. If it’s chilly out, treat yourself to a very affordable bowl of Pho; in the summer months, their noodle bowls and fresh spring rolls can’t be beaten.
Dailo, La Carnita & Bar Raval
Three of the most buzz-worthy restaurants in the City sit a short ten-minute walk away from the Market. Daily features french-inspired new Chinese cuisine, La Carnita, which is all about tacos, margaritas, and paletas, and Bar Raval is an intimate Spanish tapas bar with a Gaudi-inspired wood interior and an extensive list of sherries.
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Map illustration by Charmagne Kringstein