By Simon Yau
I will always argue that the best way to explore and get to know a city as vast as Toronto is by car. For better or worse, our city was designed to be experienced this way. The 401 remains my urban lifeline, so here’s what the exits remind me of as I travel east through the city.
When I was a kid, my parents would sometimes drag me to the airport with them to pick up family and friends immigrating from Hong Kong. My parents had been fortunate in carving out a good life for themselves in Toronto, and as such felt a responsibility to help others who’d decided to chase a better life in this frozen tundra.
The bright side was that back then, returning a luggage cart netted you a loonie; and lazy people would leave those things all over the parking lot. Being an entrepreneurial 10-year old, I easily made upwards of $45 every single trip to Pearson, just running around collecting carts and pushing them back to the machine. They have since changed the machines, but I’ll never forget my first (and last) taste of feeling truly rich.
I use to play softball tournaments at Centennial Park. Without fail, my first thought every time I went there would be “this is a strangely ugly park”. But there are also batting cages here, which are difficult to find in the city. It’s a fun place, whether I think its ugly or not.
Dixon / Martin Grove
Once in a while my friends and I used to drive out to the Double Tree on Dixon to have dim sum at Grand Chinese Cuisine. The location is strange for a pseudo-upper tier Chinese restaurant, but despite always being half-empty, the food at Grand always punched above its weight. In recent times, better and more conveniently located restaurants have opened in Richmond Hill and Markham, making my visits to Etobicoke fewer and far in between. If you’re craving authentic dim sum west of Bathurst, however, there’s no doubt in my mind where you should go.
I rarely exit at Islington and to be honest, I don’t have a great entry for this exit. When I see the giant Ministry of Health laboratory on the south side of the 401, I wonder what goes on in there. Why is the building so big?
This might date me a little, but Weston Road will always remind me of Knob Hill Farms. Before there was Walmart (in Toronto), before there was Costco (or Price Club), before there were Superstores, there was Knob Hill Farms. I have surreal memories of wandering around this giant warehouse cum grocery store as a child, bringing groceries home those in those black plastic baskets, which would inevitably become containers for my laundry, toys and Lego.
The 400 is the road to cottage country. To Blue Mountain. To Muskoka region and Algonquin Park. And Wonderland, can’t forget Wonderland. The 400 is your (slow, non-moving, 10 lane) yellow brick road to adventure and relaxation.
Downsview Park! Did you know we have giant urban park in North York, with walking paths, meadows, an apple orchard and myriad sports fields and facilities? It’s also a giant outdoor concert venue. The Pope performed there! I used to play men’s league basketball at HoopDome here. It’s probably the best amateur basketball facility in the city. I’d go more if I lived closer.
Just north of the 401 on Bathurst is Earl Bales, a giant park in a post-war suburb, but also a City of Toronto park with a ski hill! There’s a pull lift and everything. I believe Centennial also offers city-run ski and snowboard lessons, but Earl Bales is where my friends and I used to go for elementary school ski lessons. We used to think all schools did that. They apparently do not.
More often than not, I’m taking the Avenue exit if I’m seeking an alternate north-south driving route from downtown. Avenue turns into University and during the busy rush hour, this is much faster option than taking Bayview or *shudder* the DVP.
Lots of things here, but these days I’m taking the Yonge exit because I’m heading to dinner at a Korean restaurant. My personal favourite has always been Cho Wan Family Restaurant, up at Yonge and Cummer. Go for the kimchi jigae, stay for the cheap Coors Light.
My parents live here. I mean, not on the off-ramp, but in Bayview Village.
IKEA? IKEA. The long-discussed plan to surround the Swedish furniture store with a small village of condos is finally inching towards completion. It’s a bit surreal to see that kind of density in the neighbourhood, but if it means the Sheppard subway line might start to feel less like a lonely dystopian alternate universe, who am I to criticize?
This is the most frustrating highway interchange in the city. It’s a veritable parking lot, often even at absurd times, like 2am on a Thursday night. Why? WHY? I often just bypass the DVP entirely and take Don Mills south. In terms of stuff actually at or around the interchange, the Mr. Jerk at Peanut plaza has always been. I’m starting to notice a lot of these entries are just places I like to eat. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
SPEAKING OF WHICH: Johnny’s Hamburgers. There isn’t really much else that needs to be said here. They built a brand new giant Shoppers right next to it recently, so the distinct orange fast food counter seems even more of an historical Toronto tableau.
I am continually impressed the Howard Johnson right off this exit is still open. Who stays here? And why? Whatever the case, we used to exit here all the time to eat at China Buffet King. Nobody in my family even likes buffets, but Buffet King was always one of the better AYCE Chinese restaurants. Hell, my god-sister had her wedding banquet here. We just got up and filled our own plates whenever we wanted during the dinner. That was a fun night actually. I’d recommend it to any future couples planning a Scarborough wedding.
Kennedy Commons, what’s up? Remember when AMC movie theatres first opened and their whole big thing was that the armrests were moveable, so you could more easily make out with your date while watching the movie? I would like to speak to someone who found that feature to be an actual purchasing draw. Like, they heard an ad about “ARE YOU TIRED OF TRYING TO MAKE OUT OVER THE MOVIE ARMRESTS?” and they immediately threw up their hands and exultantly screamed “YES FINALLY”.
Brimley (SB only)
One-way highway exits are annoying. I would have used this exit so many more times if I didn’t have to make an illegal u-turn in order to head north from here. Brimley and Sheppard is a mini-mecca for Chinese food and shopping—a proto suburban Chinatown. This is also the exit for the sad side of Scarborough Town Centre, where there is no movie theatre.
Need a cheap pair of brand new baseball cleats? This is your stop! My favourite location of National Sports is just north of the 401 here.
The familiar token for me here has always been the giant Yellow Pages building, but the actual exit is forever associated with Markham Station, a 24-hour diner in a strip plaza at Markham and Sheppard. There simply were no other 24-hour joints when I was in high school, especially north of the 401. If we wanted a gut-busting hangover prevention plate after a long trek home from Tonic or something, Markham Station was the place. It was nothing special, but it was all we had.
I always found Malvern to be an odd neighbourhood. My buddies lived on fairly nice streets, with mature trees and wide driveways. We’d walk around a bit and they’d nod their heads down a street around the corner from their house and say “don’t walk down that street”. I’d look down said street, which largely looked like my friends’, and confusedly just walk on.
UT Scarborough. I was never a student, but I occasionally drove waaaaay out here to play pickup basketball with friends. Before HoopDome was popular, before the GTA started churning out first-round NBA draft picks, UT Scarborough was notorious for having the most competitive summer men’s basketball in the entire city. I mean, I didn’t play, because I am short and terrible, but no doubt I’ve seen some talented dudes out here.
The zoo, obviously. I’ll never forget the guttural disappointment I felt when I went to visit this past summer -- for the first time in two decades -- only to learn the monorail has been long shuttered for some silly reason, like it was a moving box of death or something. Pandas and penguins are great, but a zoo can’t really be a world-class zoo without a monorail. Or a subway. That’d be even better. I will not rest until I can board at Union and step off an underground train right into the Gorilla Rainforest. MAKE IT HAPPEN, RAYMOND CHO.
My family friends used to live down where the mouth of the Rouge River met Lake Ontario, and Port Union was the exit we’d take to go visit them. The city kind of has its own, small town-ish feel out here, particularly when we’d go down to the Rouge beach and soak in the fresh scent of rancid fish intermingled with lake water, serenaded by seemingly every sea gull in the northern hemisphere. We would hike along the paths of the ravine, meander around the quiet cul-de-sac’s, skateboarding and gossiping.
I didn’t know there were supposed to be super cool things happening downtown back then. I didn’t even think about downtown. I didn’t care.
All I knew was my Toronto, all within 15 minutes driving of the 401, and I loved the shit out of it.
I still do.