Harbord Hot Spots

On the Spadina-to-Bathurst strip, bookstores beckon and diverse patios offer everything from fish and chips to bistro delectables

Rating: NNN

BOULEVARD CAFE (161 Harbord, at Borden, 461-961-7676) Toronto’s first Peruvian eatery, this lovely awning-covered patio has been packing them in since 1979. The laid-back vibe contrasts with fiery fare fusing latin tastes with contemporary techniques at prices higher than other, similar spots. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or bottle of domestic beer. Open daily 11:30 am to midnight. Sunday brunch 11 am to 4 pm. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN

looking for the full-throttle frenzy of Queen West? Or the continental charm — and throngs — of College? Then the Harbord strip is not for you.

But if you’re in the mood for laid-back latin cantinas, funky nouveau bistros and backyard Middle Eastern hideaways, this bookstore-lined avenue fits the bill.

Since the fall of 79, the Boulevard Cafe has been one of Toronto’s most popular terraces. As well as being the first outdoor spot on the strip — in the city, for that matter — the Boulevard was the first of several Peruvian eateries to open.

Covered by a dark-green awning that provides afternoon shade, and ringed with carriage lamps and flower beds, it’s easily one of T.O.’s prettiest al fresco spots.

A recent mid-week lunch shows why the Boulevard has been drawing crowds for over 20 years. Creole Salad ($9.75 lunch/$8.95 dinner/$10.95 brunch) illustrates the kitchen’s fusion of classic South American ingredients cooked with contemporary skill. On a bed of buttery Boston lettuce leaves, chickpeas, artichoke hearts, avocado wedges, red onion rings, nearly ripe tomato, black olives and English cucumber slices come dressed with a lovely tarragon-scented lemon cream.

This same sauce accompanies grilled Shrimp Anticucho ($16.95), six nicely spicy, white-wine-marinated skewered crustaceans sided with fluffy white rice freckled with chopped parsley and peppery mesclun — chicory, arugula, oak leaf — but no sign of the menu-promised salsa. These identical greens and dressing appear alongside today’s fish, grilled and marinated tilapia ($15.95), two tasty fillets modestly spiked with coriander, cumin and garlic joined by sweet yellow mango salsa as well as roasted new potatoes and tomatoes.

We’re disappointed with lacklustre Key lime pie ($6.50), a half-inch-high pastry topped with lime-ish custard garnished with kiwi fruit and equally outdated squooshes of both raspberry and mango puree. And the bill for these three mains, a split dessert, two ordinary coffees ($2.50 each) and a 250ml bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water ($2.75) adds up to a staggering $80, including tax and tip.

spiffy spaha

Across Spadina, Spaha (66 Harbord, 416-260-6133) caters to a younger, hipper clientele. And it now takes its sleek and chic look to the curbside patio that wraps around three sides of the restaurant. The bistro-inspired all-day menu continues to charm. OK, the Spadina streetcar hardly rivals the Champs Elysées, but well-executed and reasonably priced Gallic grub like cookbook-perfect onion gratinée topped with gooey gruyère($5) and steamed mussels ($7/$10 with frites) in white wine and cream or garlicky tomato puree will put you in a Parisian mood. Even better, Spaha’s kitchen stays open till 3 am Fridays and Saturdays.

kensington crunch

An Annex fave since the days when the area was populated by the crunchy granola set, Kensington Kitchen (124 Harbord, 416-961-3404) is the antithesis of Spaha. Funnily enough, they’re both owned by the Mukhayesh family. But it’s Kensington’s second-storey treetop patio that’s the main attraction. KK’s appeal can also be found in its health-conscious Middle Eastern menu, which seems time-locked in the 70s — things like lemony tahini-dressed greens ($8.95), or eggplant provençale served on brown rice. Far out, man.

momo’s the word

A few doors west, Momo’s (196 Robert, 416-966-6671) offers a more orthodox Middle Eastern menu — pita-stuffed falafel ($3.75), tasty lamb shish kebab with salad, hummus and tabouleh ($9.99) — in a sunny garden setting.

sports plusbr> Further west, Rowers (150 Harbord, 416-961-6277), a sports bar popular with local jocks, has just added an antebellum front porch complete with columns and portico. No word yet on mint juleps.

latin sophistication

Latitude’s (89 Harbord, 416-928-0926) backyard grotto is the most elegant of the bunch. Under a flower-garlanded trellis, new chef Sean — just Sean — whips up Cuban-inspired latin fusion dishes with hints of his Jamaican roots. New dishes like Solomillo De Cerdo, anise-rubbed pork tenderloin with sauteed wild mushrooms, Swiss chard and cassava frites, demonstrate the kitchen’s growing sophistication.

messis medley

On an awning-covered patio similar to the Boulevard Cafe’s, Messis (97 Harbord, 416-920-2186) chef Eugene Sewchuk continues to turn out complex dishes, including roasted Atlantic salmon ($16.50) with jasmine rice and sun-dried fruit “strudel” sided with baby bok choy over citrusy mango ponzu sauce.

fish fixin’s

At the other end of the scale, Harbord Fish and Chips (147 Harbord, 416-925-2225), renowned for its great takeaway, has a few whitewashed picnic tables out front for those who need a quick fish fix. For the bargain price of $12.99, you can pig out on two large and two smaller pieces of lightly egg-battered, crisply deep-fried haddock ($14 for halibut) and nearly three pounds (!) of sensational malt-vinegar-doused fresh-cut fries. Sweet mayo slaw completes this major meal deal.

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