Toronto's Little India
By : Lizza Gebilagin
Photos J. Kevin Foltz
If it wasn't for an Indian entrepreneur's dream to open a theatre to screen Bollywood films in the early '70s, Toronto's Little India might never have been born.
After years of showing Indian films in church basements and school auditoriums, Gian Naz stumbled upon the abandoned Eastwood Theatre at Gerrard Street East and transformed it into the Naaz Theatre in 1972. Although the area was shabby and the locals were hostile to their new commercial neighbors, within months the theatre was packed with Indians traveling from all over Ontario to watch Bombay's latest releases. Of course, at the time, Naz had no way to predict that his theatre would be the catalyst for a business district with more than 100 South Asian stores—the biggest Indian market in North America. But the strong movie-going crowd that his theatre attracted created a huge opportunity for other business owners serving an Indian clientele. Soon, South Asian restaurants and stores popped up. By 1984, the strip on Gerrard Street East had become a government-approved Business Improvement Area, officially named the Gerrard India Bazaar.
Sadly, the Naaz Theatre was pushed to extinction by the video boom of the 1980s, but Little India, as the area is affectionately known, still thrives. From midday onwards, the few blocks between Coxwell and Greenwood avenues bustle with street vendors, locals, tourists and regular out-of-state visitors—many from upstate New York. Blonde and brunette mannequins with pale skin are dressed in colorful sarees and tikkas in the display windows. Dueling Indian soundtracks from different stores compete to be heard over each other. A poster of a half-naked John Abraham (the Brad Pitt of India's Bollywood) with a towel wrapped around his lower waist is plastered on the front door of a music store. Stall vendors on the sidewalk selling corn sprinkled with Indian spices, and other snacks like dahi puri, quickly greet people as they walk by. And once night falls, the street is lit with strings of colorful lights above the stores.
The best part about Little India is the food. For $9.99 at lunch and $10.99 at dinner, you can indulge a gluttonous appetite at Skylark Restaurant's buffet, which specializes in Mughlai and Tandoori chicken. The restaurant has been a part of Little India since 1979. It's a small, sparsely decorated room that fits about 30 people. Owner Gurnam Multani has worked at the restaurant since he was 18, when his dad started the business. He says, "Customers are like family. I treat them like family." Due to the growing customer demands on the weekend, the Skylark is expanding to fit 100 seats. The new area should be open by early July.
Another must-eat is the Bar-Be-Que Hut (Pride of India), located one block east of Gerrard Street. Owner Sudesh Bahl claims, "No one can beat our lamb chops." And with one bite of the seasoned, delicate chops that are marinated for 12 hours in Indian spices and cooked over charcoal in a tandoor, you know he's probably right. If you do end up at the restaurant's door after 10 p.m. on a Friday or Sunday night, be prepared to be turned away. On these nights between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., Shiraz Walli sings original Indian songs while accompanied by Chandar Giri or Khem Singh on the tabla and harmonium—it's the only live music you'll find on the strip. But another reason to check them out is that Walli has been a regular performer at the Bar-Be-Que Hut for the last 31 years. Book a table a few days in advance to ensure that you get to see them play.
Many of the locals head to the Lahore Tikka House for dinner. The restaurant is gorgeously decorated like an Indian marriage tent. Gold, green, and maroon fabrics hang from the walls and ceilings. Restaurant Manager Rohit Verma says that the colors were chosen because they are considered to be the colors of happiness. Little lights on strings, similar to the ones on the street, dangle from the ceilings and give the restaurant a calming vibe. On a Friday night, there's usually a long line of people outside waiting for take-out, while the inside is just as busy. It's one of the biggest restaurants on the strip with a large outdoor eating area, so waiting for a table shouldn't take too long.
After having your meal, why not try a South Asian dessert at one of the area's sweets stores? Muhammad Latif has owned Punjab Food & Sweets for the last 10 years. It's a small store with seating for around 15 people in the back. You can stop by and grab a milk cake, a concentrated sugar dose with a syrup-covered gulab jambu, or a crisp, deep-fried jalebi. And although Latif was ready to recommend some of his favorite sweets, he was also quick to mention that he makes the "number one samosa in town." So you might as well try one of those as well-it's definitely a favorite of the regular customers.
Little India is also known for its shopping. One destination for Indian fashion fused with Western culture is Nucreation, which has been owned by Govind Mahtani for the last 25 years (nucreation.com). The store has a range of casual and formal clothes created by in-house designers, as well as gorgeous fabrics and wedding outfits. There are plenty of other stores where you can buy sherwanis, punjabi suits and lehenga cholis, including Pooja Boutique and Maharani Fashions Limited.
Another store that has a contemporary take on Indian designs is Rang Home Décor (ranghomedecor.com). At 25, owner Trish Mahtani stands out as one of the youngest business owners on the block. She goes to India regularly to work with craftspeople who create her designs that combine vibrant, trendy colors with traditional Indian concepts. She also sells paintings, furniture, silk bedspreads and beaded pillowcases. A shopping visit would not be complete without visiting one of the jewelers. The area prides itself on selling 22-carat gold from Dubai, India, Pakistan, and Singapore. But if gold doesn't interest you, there is also the Indian Costume and Jewellery Fashion store (indiancostumejewellery.com). The store sells a range of earrings, bangles, bindis, payal (anklets), and tikkas for a reasonable price, which will leave you with some money left over to go and try that samosa.
Book your next trip on American Eagle. Visit aa.com or call American Reservations at 1-800-433-7300, or your travel agent for details.