visiting toronto

The heart of Montreal in Toronto

Richard Burnett

I knew I was in for a leisurely long weekend when I was picked up at Toronto’s glorious Union Station in a sleek, long chauffeured black limo. I was back in Canada’s Queen City with my mother Liliane, whom I last brought to Toronto some years ago for her birthday, to see another Brit Empire glamour girl, Joan Collins, star with Linda Evans in an ill-advised remount of the God-awful play Legends!

That was the same weekend my good friend, theatre living legend Louis Negin, hosted a star-studded Toronto party in Collins’ honour.

“Joan’s an old, old friend and she was in Toronto with her husband – he’s very nice and very young, he’s like 12 years old,” Louis told me afterwards. “But I didn’t tell anyone at the party that she was coming because if she doesn’t come, then everybody’s disappointed. But there were lots of people there she knew and, of course, the doors open, every head turns and she’s Joan Collins.”

Of course Collins herself only travels by jet – she has maintained the title of British Airways’ “Most Frequent Flyer of First Class” for over four decades. My mom Liliane and I, on the other hand, travelled green to the Queen City by train – VIA 1 tickets, of course, the only civilized way to travel by rail, complete with three-course meal and open bar. I felt as glamourous as Joan Collins in Dynasty while my mother – well, she used to model in the 1960s and still looks every inch the diva.

On this trip, our chauffeur drove us from Union Station to our boutique hotel, the minimalist but lavish Soho Metropolitan smack in the heart of Toronto’s theatre and entertainment district. It turns out the Soho’s fab general manager David Kelley is also the brother of my colleague and handsome CBC broadcaster Mark Kelley.

Anyway, David showed me the Soho’s amazing three-storey presidential suite that has already hosted several gay weddings, and is home base for such divas as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews whenever they’re in town. And at $5,000 a night, it’s a steal. If you’re Madonna.

On this day the most fabulous divas in the house were Mom and I (our suite’s walk-in closet was twice the size of my apartment washroom back home!). But the real reason we’d travelled to Toronto was to attend the January 21 opening performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s masterpiece Tosca at Toronto’s gorgeous Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Four Seasons Centre is the (relatively) new home for both the COC and the National Ballet of Canada; its horseshoe-shaped R. Fraser Elliot Hall was built with superior acoustics as its first priority. Each of the theatre’s 2,071 seats were computer-tested for optimal sightlines to ensure an unobstructed view for every member of the audience.

To be honest, I thought the hall was much smaller than it is. In fact, I thought it was half the size of Montreal’s 2,990-seat Salle Wilfred-Pelletier which – lets face it – doesn’t have the best acoustics. I also found the Toronto audience to be sharper dressers. Going to the opera in Toronto is still thankfully an occasion to dress up.

The COC (love that acronym!) still has another whopping three productions this season: The Tales of Hoffmann (April 10 to May 14), A Florentine Tragedy / Gianni Schicchi (April 26 to May 25) and Semele (May 9 – 26). If you’re planning to go to Toronto this autumn, the COC launch their 2012-2013 with a 10-performance run of Guiseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore (September 29 to October 31). I imagine the Halloween night performance will be quite special (surf to

The thing with Toronto is the city doesn’t suck like it used to. Naturally, I’d like to think that’s because of the civilizing influence of the hundreds of thousands of Montrealers who have moved here since the Parti Quebecois first came to power in 1976.

But it really has a lot to do with the huge of amounts of money flowing through this city. While it appears Montreal can now only sustain one true upscale department store, for instance (rumours of an Ogilvy’s and Holt Renfrew merger refuse to die since Selfridges Group Ltd., owners of Holt Renfrew, acquired Ogilvy’s in the summer of 2011), there is plenty of high-end shopping in Toronto, not to mention tons of one-of-a-kind fashion boutiques along Queen Street West.

Like I said, when I went to see Tosca at the COC I actually found the Toronto audience to be sharper dressers than opera-goers in Montreal. Clearly the times-they-are-a-changing.

Toronto is also now second-to-none in Canada when it comes to artist traffic. Never mind the big musicals warming up for Broadway – when I was there the city boasted concerts by living legend Mavis Staples, as well as “An Evening with Pam Grier,” neither of whom came to Montreal. Pulitzer-prize winning gay playwright Tony Kushner was in town promoting his new musical Caroline, or Change that was opening that week while Broadway and Hollywood legend Theodore Bikel was starring in the gay-themed comedy Visiting Mr. Green at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

Then there is the terrific Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic exhibit showcasing the art of the late queer hero, Vazaleen impresario and art fag who literally changed the face of Toronto’s gay community. Do not miss this exhibit which runs at the The Art Gallery of York University until March 11 (surf to

Toronto is also still home to Glad Day, a precious gay bookstore (it is now the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in North America after the 2009 closing of New York’s historic Oscar Wilde bookstore).

Toronto’s restaurant scene has also vastly improved over the years. The city now boasts over 9,000 restaurants. Our first night we dined at Sassafraz, popular with the TIFF jet set, with a piano bar on one side, and a sleek high-end seafood steakhouse on the other. Good food and an excellent wine list.

Our second night we dined at the Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, one of the best seafood joints I’ve ever been to. The place is small, tight and the décor nothing to write home about. But the place is packed with locals enjoying bottles of wine with their oysters at the bar – always a good sign. Mom had a dozen shucker’s choice oysters (just $30) and our two-pound Nova Scotia lobsters were perfect.

But I’ve saved the best for last.

One afternoon I had three hours to kill, so I went to The Hockey Hall of Fame.

Now, I’d never been to the Hall of Fame before, though I have wanted to go ever since I wrote a 2009 news story about the 12 Stanley Cup banners belonging to the now-defunct Montreal Victorias (1895 through 1898), Montreal Shamrocks (1899 and 1900), Montreal Wanderers (1906-8) and the Montreal Maroons (1926 and 1935) that hang in the Westmount Arena directly above a rink where thousands of children have played hockey since 1957.

“They’re the originals,” one arena worker told me.

Westmount Sports and Recreation director Mike Deegan later told me, “The banners are, in fact, exact replicas [that I] receivedfrom the McCord Museum after their [1996] Montreal, That’s Hockey! exhibit, donated to us free of charge to promote the 125th anniversary of the City of Westmount.”

I could not locate any of the originals or reproductions at the McCord Museum, where museum decorative arts curator Conrad Graham told me the McCord doesn’t “have a record of where the repros came from.”

But over in Toronto the Hockey Hall of Fame’s corporate and media relations manager Kelly Masse told me, “We’d love to know if they still exist and would be honoured to have them on display here.”

With all this missing history I didn’t expect Montreal’s hockey legacy to loom so large when I visited the Hall of Fame.

But the hall’s centrepiece is an exact replica of the Habs old Montreal Forum dressing room, complete with genuine jerseys, skates, pads and other equipment worn by the team’s legendary superstars. I found myself quite emotional then, and was happy to discover that even in Toronto, Montreal is home. 6 Richard Burnett

HOW TO GET THERE VIA Rail added additional Montreal-Ottawa and Ottawa-Toronto train routes in January, and is also a partner of nine Gay Pride festivals across Canada. Customize your train schedule by surfing to

WHERE TO STAY The Soho Metropolitan (318 Wellington Street West) is one of Toronto’s top luxury boutique hotels located in the heart of the theatre and entertainment district.

WHERE TO EAT Sassafraz Restaurant (seafood and meat), 100 Cumberland Street, 416-964-2222 / Starfish Oyster Bed & grill (seafood), 100 Adelaide Street East, 416-366-7827

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at