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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Wren - Finally!

They bought a fixer-upper along Danforth East, have been through renovation insanity and along the way have held down jobs and had two kids - and are still crazy in love. They're a couple exactly like almost everyone Pioneer knows in the 'hood. That's why it was such a pleasure for us to meet Dennis and Rhonda, the owners of the much anticipated new space called The Wren at 1382 Danforth. This isn't just a story about a new business opening in a vacant store front, this is a story all about two people who are investing in their community: They came, they saw, they loved it, they opened a restaurant.....

When Pioneer popped by for a sneak peak this weekend, the place was still a construction site so it was hard to envision what its going to look like when it opens around St. Patty's Day, but there were some glimmers of what's to come. Although there have been rumours that this was going to be a southwestern themed-resto, Dennis was clear that it won't be a theme restaurant. It's going to be a local. A really great local, with some southern- and southwestern-inspired comfort food (you're seriously not going to find a mangy caeser salad at this place). And maybe a little bit of exposed wood. He says more importantly though, he and his wife are envisioning a place where they would want to hang out - comfortable and friendly (we know some people around here like to hang out at the Linsmore, and that's ok too!).

The cozy space will hold 60 seats, with a long harvest table down the middle designed to really get neighbours chatting. Pioneer's hard hitting question to Dennis was about junior east-enders. Are they welcome? Are there highchairs? Will new parents feel comfortable coming for a pint of Ontario craft beer with their screaming monster? Dennis was lukewarm on his answer - they can come (oh, and COME they will!) but there really isn't room for even the smallest umbrella stroller. However, he admits the need for a solution on that front.

A highlight of the tour was definitely the building-height vintage painted Coca Cola advertisement they uncovered while tearing down the east wall of the interior. It was once an exterior sign on what used to be an exterior wall of the building next door. It's created an interesting focal point and a must-see feature wall in the new space.

Now, as for the real exterior, that still sports the zany Studio CPB punk yellow. We're thinking that if West Lodge on Queen West can get away with a big yellow door, Pioneer thinks they should keep the funky facade. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Interesting People: Mary Stewart

'Where everybody knows your name...' is a tune that has been on repeat since Pioneer first became an official Danforth-easter, and discovered how close knit this neighbourhood really is. This is ironic, since this post is about music and in particular about a musician who writes better lyrics than that but who does actually know everybody's name.

If you've ever stopped by relish Bar & Grill on any given Sunday you may have met Mary Stewart, who by our account, is only a temp at the local tapas joint since she is a rising star in the music world and our very own secret local celebrity. We sat down to chat with Mary, after being blown away by one of her Friday night performances, to get the dirt on this east end diva.

Q. How did you end up here along the Danforth?

A. I came to Toronto a few years ago from Halifax, and ended up in the east end sort of by fluke. I’m a musician so we were looking for a place that would have enough storage space for our musical gear and the house was just perfect. We’ve since moved from that place, but just around the corner since I really didn’t want to leave the neighbourhood.

Q. How long have you worked at relish?

A. Well, ironically, I’ve only worked there for about a year, but it was places like relish that really kept me here in the east end. My first moment at relish when I was just a customer, made me feel like I was home – it was a place I could come and have a glass of wine at the bar and not feel out of place for being alone.

Q. What makes you love living along Danforth East?

A. Running into people I know is the best. I feel at home here. I love that I go out to do some shopping for instance and run into five people I know while I’m out. It’s a real community. Very welcoming. And I love the farmer’s market!

Q. As a musician, do you think there’s an opportunity here for more live music? Does this neighbourhood support live music or are we too family oriented?

A. Since I’ve been here, I’ve watched the musical scene really flourish. There is a definitely a huge audience for live music. The community is hungry for it. Our Sunday night open mic event is all local musicians from the neighbourhood, and the lineup is always packed with performers. Joanne, the owner of relish, has really nurtured the music scene here – she pretty much has live music seven days a week.

Q. When you’re not working at relish or performing, do you have your own favourite watering hole?

A. The Rusty Nail just down the street is my favourite place to go. It’s a total dive bar, but it’s great. They have a pretty good live music line-up.

The sensational Ms. Stewart has already made some mega-watt appearances on the stage, released a CD or two and made a few music videos. She sounds a little like Lisa Loeb, a little like Feist but a lot like herself (particularly when she sings her haunting acoustic version of Salt & Pepper’s 1989 hit Shoop). She’s launching her new album Chances Are I Like You this Thursday, Feb 21 at the Rivoli (9 p.m. $10 at the door). If you want to hear more of our local rising star check her out at

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Retail Therapy

Pioneer has always been a little intimidated by the idea of "personal shopping" or having a "wardrobe consultant", and we have a sneaking suspicion that we are not alone. However, if there was ever a time to repeat the mantra "be not afraid" - this is it! Pioneer popped by one of the newest DECA Pop-Up Shops by Krystle Lee today, and asked the hard hitting question we all want to know: is it possible to have a stylist on a budget?? We were surprised to find out that the answer is yes.

But first, a little bit about this sugar-sweet confection on a grimy bit of boulevard! Krystle Lee has been in the fashion biz for years, and has a pedigree to show. She's worked for Smythe (drool!!!), Kenneth Cole and has Kim Newport-Mimran on speed dial. This savvy entrepreneur has been hosting personal shopping events for six years and has a dedicated and loyal client list of both hard-working everyday women and A-listers. According to her friends in high places she is a "custom curator of high-end fashion". Score for Danforth East!

Her pop-up shop at 1801 Danforth is tastefully decorated with both high-end and low-end merchandise and is a welcome retail oasis, right next to Repetitions Fitness (another pop-up shop!). She is open for the entire month of February, and for all of you maternity leave moms out there, this is the first stop for a stunning back to work wardrobe. 

Of course Pioneer had her eye on the cobalt blue Tahari sheath dress, and the houndstooth equestrian multi-purpose clutch (hint hint, Valentine's Day is coming Daddy Pioneer!), and given time could have found lots more to love. However, Pioneer was there to demystify personal wardrobe styling. Easily put, Krystle's primary function is to honestly show you what looks good on you within your budget so you don't have to do the searching and wondering. She showed us a whole range of pants, sweaters and dresses that are affordable and low maintenance (ie. they don't need to be dry cleaned). She explained that the key is getting to know a woman's style - it may not be a home run on your first visit, but over time she builds on what you've already purchased from her to create a stellar wardrobe. 

Pioneer did not hesitate to get onto Krystle Lee's list for future events, and a little bird also told us that many people we know in the nabe have already made private appointments with her, so don't be afraid to stop by. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Tunisian Dream

It was one of those frigid mid-winter evenings when Pioneer and some friends set out on our culinary adventure to steamy Northern Africa. We were visiting Tunisia, a sliver of a country with a tourist-friendly Mediterranean coastline, stuffed in between Algeria and Libya and a shadowy participant in last year's violent Arab Spring.

Tunisian cuisine, like the country itself, has rarely been in the spotlight, which might be the reason why a lot of neighbours walk right by Taste of Tunisia at 1475 Danforth without blinking. But they shouldn't! Why? Well, sometimes something really special comes along, and its hard to keep it to yourself, and this is one of those instances.

It is unbelievable that we have a gem like this so close to home. It is THE ONLY Tunisian restaurant in Toronto. It seems unbelievable that a country of 10.7 million is rep'd by only one restaurant in our "multi-cultural" city (as opposed to Montreal that has at least five or six) and on the Friday evening we were there, the restaurant was sadly empty.

Peeking into the window street-side does not reveal a glossy, highly designed interior, but never judge a book by its cover. It was definitely love at first bite. The collegial host Hatem brought us plates of delicate Mediterranean appetizers to start - soft calamari simmered in a light and tangy tomato sauce, a plate full of fresh salads, and the winner of them all, the Tunisian 'brik'. Potatoes, egg, tuna, parsley and capers pureed and stuffed into a phyllo roll. Although Hatem admits that real Tunisian brik is not made with phyllo, it doesn't matter because it's the melt-in-your mouth savoury interior that is worth coming back for ($5.95).

The requisite mint tea was poured for Pioneer and friends while we waited for our mains, so we had a chance to chat with Hatem. He took over the restaurant in November 2011, when it used to be called Djerba. He explained that unlike neighbouring Ethiopian and Moroccan restaurants, there isn't a huge Tunisian clientele in Toronto because most expats settle in Montreal due to the French language connection. This means there is no existing customer base to tap into, so he has to work extremely hard to market to the populace. By default, he often has to describe Tunisian cuisine as Moroccan which has some vague similarities.

The main courses when they arrived were worth waiting for. We ordered the Merguez, which is a lamb sausage similar to Italian veal sausage and simmered in a zuchini and eggplant tomato sauce with potatoes. It was so savoury, that Pioneer went back for thirds (sorry guys!!)  and so filling that getting around to the chicken couscous was hard. Pioneer began to have serious doubts about being able to walk home with such a full belly.

The three of us ate for under $60, and although a foodie or food writer Pioneer is not, our opinion is that this is a great local gem for an evening out if you're looking for something new and interesting. It will be up to us to keep places like this in our neighbourhood, which in turn keep our neighbourhood interesting and worth living in. So our final word is to take a chance! This place will not disappoint.

Bon appetit!

P.S. They are family friendly, have booster seats for kids AND do take out - menu on their website. So really, there is no excuse....

Taste Of Tunisia on Urbanspoon