This Toronto cocktail specialist takes us from an Egyptian brunch to a dim sum lunch, all the way to secret speakeasies across the city, with lots of parks in between.
Raj Rijhwani thrives on his work’s key characteristics: a well-balanced (and tasty!) mixed drink and the gratifying social interaction inherent to his position as the resident cocktail specialist for Oliver & Bonacini.
Moving from Mumbai, India to study animation in Toronto, Raj took a bartending course and was hooked on the creativity of concocting a cocktail. Switching focus and earning a diploma in hotel management from George Brown College, Raj developed his mixology skills at well-known Toronto establishments including The Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Hy’s Steakhouse, Leña Restaurante (pictured above), Biff’s Bistro and Maison Selby. He is now happily tasked with developing new drinks for cocktail programs at several Oliver & Bonacini restaurants.
Like many who have chosen Toronto as their home, Raj enjoys a variety of neighbourhoods from eclectic Kensington Market to evolving Geary Avenue, and welcomes the days spent tasting, sipping and savouring the multicultural flavours of the country’s largest thriving metropolis. Here are his Toronto musts if he had to choose a day’s worth of activities.
Start the day with some feel-good coffee at Dineen Coffee Co.
A great cup of coffee is top of mind for Raj when kicking off a day uncovering the myriad of options in bustling Toronto. “I’m all about indie coffee places — Sam James Coffee Bar on Ossington Avenue or Dineen Coffee Co. at Yonge & Temperance are both great.” Weekdays are always buzzing at these java joints, while Raj also visits on weekends when it’s quieter, especially at Dineen which occasionally features live music in the late afternoon.
Make time for an incredible brunch
For breakfast, brunch or lunch, Maha’s in the east end is on Raj’s list (be patient with the line, absolutely worth it for their tasty Egyptian cuisine); the laid-back Lakeview Restaurant which has resided at Dundas & Ossington since 1932 for diner classics; or Liberty Village’s School, with indulgent options like Super cheesy bacon french toast or Buttermilk fried chicken and waffles.
Explore Toronto’s green spaces by bike
“Toronto has so many distractions and I recommend visitors to keep moving around,” suggests Raj, “Renting a city bike from BikeShare Toronto is worth it and you’ll feel the energy of the city as you explore.” And as someone who appreciates spending time in the city’s green spaces, he often takes a break at some of the smaller parks, like King Street West’s Stanley Park.
Spend the afternoon at Kensington Market and Chinatown
A few hours spent perusing Kensington Market south of College Street is always worthwhile, says Raj. “I love hanging out and people-watching in the market’s Bellevue Square Park on a sunny day.”
Market vendors tempt passersby (and especially Raj) with their displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, while he routinely drops into one of his favourite grocery stores, Perola’s Supermarket, with its extensive variety of Latin American food items, always looking to add to his ever-growing hot sauce collection. Being so close to Chinatown, dim sum at one of the district’s restaurants is a welcome choice for a late lunch.
Go off-the-beaten path and wander through Geary Avenue
For those visitors who want to stroll beyond the lures of downtown, Raj would direct them to Geary Avenue, an industrial strip at Dupont and Dufferin. “It’s a great place to wander in the sunshine, stop for falafel (Parallel is a Mediterranean cafe and produces tahini on-site) and meet friends on one of many spacious patios.”
Explore the city one cocktail and venue at a time
Raj is the first person to gather a gang for a cocktail crawl, taking suggestions along the way from industry colleagues. “It’s a great way to meet like-minded people.” A devoted proponent of happy hour, Raj would suggest one of his cocktail creations to whet the whistle: a High Tea, a mixed drink based on a French 75, with gin, bergamot, lavender and sparkling wine.
His options for a night out in The 6ix include an open mic night at the Free Times Cafe on College Street, taking in a set at one of the city’s comedy clubs (like the ground-breaking Yuk Yuk’s) or perusing the entertainment listings for a burlesque performance, which is emerging as one of Toronto’s new nightlife musts. “We’ve (Oliver & Bonacini) have also been considering having a burlesque night.”
Have a nightcap at a Toronto speakeasy
After a very full day, end the night at one of Toronto's hidden bars. You could spend the entire night hopping the city’s “secret” bars. “Now there are many speakeasies in Toronto — there used to be only two.” A few of Raj’s recos include walking through a barbershop to get to The Gift Shop bar on Ossington, The Cloak Bar hidden away on Wellington and the Amsterdam-inspired XXX on Portland street.