Osgoode Hall and the Distillery District were not originally on the itinerary for our second day in Toronto two weeks ago. But, as fate would have it, as we started talking and doing some research that morning, this was what we came up with: lunch at Osgoode Hall restaurant, one of Toronto’s best-kept secrets, and a walking tour of the Distillery District.
The day before, while on our walking tour of downtown Toronto, I had noticed Osgoode Hall, and found myself wondering: could it be visited? was there a gate where you could access the grounds? This day, we looked intently, and found that there was a small gate in the middle of the block, one with hardly enough space for a person to slip through. Once through, we walked across the grass and there was the magnificent law building right in front of us.
The answer to our question about whether it could be visited and so forth was a little complicated. Osgoode Hall is a series of legal buildings owned by the Law Society of Upper Canada with courtrooms and lawyers’ and judges’ offices and a library where law students (and fellows of the Law Society) can study. The full complex of buildings can be visited by guided tour only, and only in the summer when the courts are not in use.
Osgoode Hall’s main building contains the library and a well-regarded restaurant that serves lunch only, and only Monday through Friday. The restaurant serves the lawyers and judges primarily, but they do set aside 20 tables in the restaurant for the general public for noon to 2pm, available by reservation and then on a first-come, first-serve basis. We had called to make a reservation and just got a machine – after checking, the maitre d’, Minh Luu, confirmed that we were on the list. You can come before your reservation if you’d like to have a look around the main building, an after going through security, you are left on your own to wander around.
We took advantage of the looseness of the situation and explored the building’s courtyard and library before heading to the restaurant.
The library is quite remarkable. I did graduate work at Columbia University and regularly studied at Butler Library which has very comfortable sumptuous study halls, and Osgoode’s library puts Butler to shame. At one end of the library was a door that led into a hallway and the restaurant was just around the corner. We opened the door to the restaurant and felt like we had been let into some special secret wonderful place.
Our waitress was very informative, and told us all about Chef Adam Foley and the local cuisine that he weaves into marvelous bits of culinary wonder. When I told her about my allergy she didn’t bat an eyelash – she encouraged me to tell her what I wanted to order, and she was sure that the chef would be able to alter it if need be to make the dish dairy free and still execute his vision. She brought us some olive oil to dip my bread in that was fruity and a bit sweet.
I ordered a salmon burger with fries and a glass of a locally-made Riesling that was very nice. Before the burger came I was presented with handmade condiments. I’ve had handmade mayonnaise before, but handmade ketchup? It was wonderful – there was some kind of mildly tangy fruit like plumb added to the tomato. Oh, and I suppose the mustard was from a jar – but I was too impressed by the ketchup to worry about that.
The burger was also incredibly satisfying. It was fairly simple, just some ground up salmon and spices, on a roll with some watercress, spinach, corn and red onion, with handmade tartar sauce. But it was very good.
The dining room itself is, as I already mentioned, quite special. Rows of law books line the sides, there are chandeliers and stained glass windows, paintings of imposing looking men hang on the walls, and the fixtures between the windows are made to look like torches, giving the room a classy but also rustic feeling.
After having such a singularly extraordinary lunch experience, we didn’t know how anything else we did that day could hope to measure up. But we did have our first tram ride ahead of us, so that helped. We rode down King Street to Parliament Street with the general idea that the Distillery District was near Parliament and Front Streets. When we got off the tram, we went into a rental car office and asked the clerk, and he pointed us in the right direction. We walked a block south and there it was, its location announced by a huge piece of public sculpture.
We hoped to take a walking tour of the district, and found Segway of Ontario not far from the entrance. The next tour was at 3pm, so we explored the district a bit. Our guide, Aaron, was a gregarious sort. He told us all about the checkered history of the company, Gooderham & Worts, that had built the distillery and how it became the largest distiller of whiskey in the world at one time. He also told us a good deal about the district and how it has become a haven for a variety of businesses, from clothing stores to chocolatiers to restaurants to brewpubs.
We passed a number of pieces of public sculpture.
Aaron took us to Soma Chocolates, where we sampled some great dark chocolate, and to Mill Street Brewpub, where we had tastings of their four varieties on tap, leaving us feeling like we had had a very good afternoon indeed.
Before leaving the district, we made one last stop, at Izumi Sake Brewery, to pick up a bottle of sake to go with our dinner (or to take home with us).
Izumi had a number of sakes that we enjoyed tasting. In the end, Therese let me pick which one we liked the best. We left Izumi, and the Distillery District, and walked north to King Street and then west toward the St. Lawrence Market. We had seen the market building from the outside the day before, and today we hoped to experience it on the inside, and maybe even buy some things to put together for a quiet dinner in our hotel room.