When Nancy Fernandes was growing up in Toronto as the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she summered abroad, visiting relatives in the north and south of Portugal.
Back home in Canada, she says, “People would be like, ‘I love your shoes. I love your bag. Where did you get them?’” The answer was Portugal.
Years later, visitors to her own home regularly asked where she bought her bowls and her rugs. Same answer.
Inspired by such interest, last May, Fernandes and her business partner, Connie Freitas, opened a boutique in Toronto’s Little Portugal, a West End neighborhood where many Portuguese immigrants — including Fernandes’s and Freitas’s families — settled between the 1950s and early 1970s.
They named the store Saudade, which loosely means “wistful longing.” Although their shop window bears a word with no direct English translation, it’s helping define and popularize Portuguese style.
Designs from the Iberian Peninsula nation are enjoying increasing popularity, and travel to the country is on the rise. Travel to Portugal reached record levels in 2014, Euromonitor International reports. Furnishings, wine and relative affordability are cited as key reasons for the trend.
Saudade is also helping retain the ethnic identity of the neighborhood where, Fernandes says, “every year, something leaves.”
Even so, conversational Portuguese can be heard on the streets of the district, where about a third of the residents are of Portuguese descent and you can still get rotisserie chicken in churrasqueiras, traditional Portuguese barbecue-grill restaurants.
“I love that there are businesses that have been here for years — bakeries, grocery stores, religious goods, jewelry stores — since the late 1960s,” she says. “And the elderly men and ladies in the afternoon will have a custard and an espresso.”
Local Portuguese-owned businesses include a radio station that plays all genres of Portuguese music, including fado, which is famously melancholic.
Saudade boutique is anything but melancholy. It’s stocked with brightly colored goods, including a rainbow of ceramic roosters (symbolizing good luck and often given as housewarming gifts), modern furniture by designers from several regions of Portugal, pillows covered in the same wool used to make shepherds’ capes, original (1925) formula Benamôr face cream and painted ceramic sardines, which are said to represent sustenance in times of need.
Ceramic tiles used as decorative accents in Saudade have geometric patterns, reflecting the country’s African and Arabic influences. “I wanted that mix in the shop,” Fernandes says.
A mix of cultures also describes the local school where she teaches high school English to as many as 30 ethnicities.
Today, Little Portugal is becoming similarly diverse, says restaurateur Albino Silva, who also grew up in the enclave. “You could get 25 different flags on Ossington [Avenue] between Queen and Dundas,” he says. In this very international city, more than 140 languages and dialects are spoken. (In 2006, Portuguese was among the top five.) Although Little Portugal is hardly touristy, visitors frequent the walkable streets for pastries, independent shops and traditional barbecue, as well as new bars and restaurants being opened by non-Portuguese entrepreneurs.
Silva arrived in Toronto from Lisbon as a teen in the 1970s and now owns three restaurants. That trio includes Chiado, a white-linen dining room serving Portuguese wines and “progressive Portuguese” food — sardines, cod, octopus and more. The fish is flown in daily from the Azores islands off Portugal.
He also owns the Salt Wine Bar, a space that once housed a Portuguese fish market. Salt reflects the changing nature of the neighborhood, serving some wines from Portugal but also Spanish-style tapas and Parisian-influenced dishes.
Silva’s father was a pastry chef and taught the trade to his son, who went on to become an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He now lives back in the old neighborhood, within easy walking distance of his restaurants. He uses corn bread from the Venezia Bakery, where his father worked, and says its custard tarts, made from his father’s recipe, are “probably the best.”
A desire for traditional custard tarts has me in a cab, careening along Toronto’s traffic-clogged streets toward Little Portugal.
My Canadian husband and I, in town for a long weekend, pay our fare and jump to the curb on Dundas Street West, outside Saudade. Among its linens and imported cork goods, we find ceramic swallows, a beloved symbol of Portugal because they represent the freedom to return home.
We make our purchases and head to the nearby Venezia Bakery for a custard tart with espresso. While chatting with the counter clerk, I mention having sampled the Portuguese pastry at Toronto’s bustling St. Lawrence Market and how heavy (in a good way) it was.
“Ours aren’t heavy,” she says briskly. Custard tarts apparently are a competitive sport in Ontario’s capital city. (Thriving rival bakeries include Nova Era and Caldense.)
From our window-side seats at Venezia, we idly watch as a man tethers his big dog to the rail outside.
“Will you keep an eye on her?” he asks us as he enters.
We do, and we also exit with him when he completes his purchase.
We’re sidewalk travelers, meaning we go where the concrete takes us. Wandering feels appropriate in this enclave, populated as it is by immigrants from a country that produced explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama, among many others.
And so, after our brief dog-watching stint, we end up walking along Ossington Avenue with the dog and her master.
“She’s normally friendlier than this,” the man says of his companion. “[But] she knows this is where we come for carrot cake, and she’s distracted.”
It’s a comfortable stroll, and we learn the chatty local is a photographer who lived for years in Berlin, which he loved. He strikes us as a guy who embraces life where he finds it, so we ask him to recommend a neighborhood bar.
Little Portugal is diversifying, and the dining options are many. You can find Italian places, Greek spots, burgers, sushi and much more.
“Go in anywhere,” the dog walker says. We part ways and obey his breezy, come-what-may directive, entering the door that’s nearest to where he left us. We would have, anyway, given the appealing look of the distressed floral wallpaper visible just inside the front window.
We settle in at a curved, marble-topped bar at the front of Union Restaurant and glance around at the laid-back, French-bistro-style decor. Someone gripes about election politics, and we quickly learn our happy-hour compatriots include a Boston expat and a University of Michigan medical student.
As afternoon darkens toward evening on the street, we while away our time in small talk with patrons and our 20-something singer-songwriter bartender.
A Detroit-brand Carhartt clock on the wall tells us it’s time to return to the sidewalk and its rich ethnic mix.
“Come back tomorrow for brunch,” our server urges. And indeed, the polenta with eggs and greens sounds so good. But we have a delicate ceramic swallow in our paper shopping bag, and it needs to be carried safely home to the United States, where it will inspire a bit of lingering saudade.
Powers is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.
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If you go
For recommendations on where to dine and what to do in Little Portugal and Toronto, visit washingtonpost.com/travel.
The Dundas Street West neighborhood lies west of the downtown Toronto core, with the Business Improvement Area generally between Rusholme and Shaw. It’s about 15 minutes from Toronto Union Station.
Portuguese immigrants populated the area between the 1950s and early 1970s, and although the neighborhood is gentrifying and becoming more ethnically diverse, Portuguese language is still heard on the street. Traditional markets and shops do business in the storefronts along the streets of mostly low-rise and mid-rise buildings, where non-Portuguese entrepreneurs are also opening restaurants and bars.
864 College St.
This white-linen dining room serves Portuguese wines and “progressive Portuguese” food, including sardines, cod and octopus. The fish is flown in daily from the Azores islands off Portugal. Entrees average about $35. A tapas menu also is available with a range of hot and cold items averaging about $10. Open Monday-Friday, noon-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.
Salt Wine Bar
22 Ossington Ave.
This narrow space that once housed a Portuguese fish market showcases wine bottles bookshelf-style along its walls. Wines include some selections from Portugal and Spain to accompany a seasonally varying menu of artisanal cheeses, Iberian charcuterie, Spanish-style tapas and Parisian-influenced dishes. Price range: about $4 for olives and bread to about $20 for shellfish paella. Open daily.
114 Ossington Ave.
This corner spot offers a few cafe tables with ample window views. The menu offers espresso, breads, cakes, savory items and classic custard tarts. Tarts are about $1. Open Monday-Saturday 5:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
72 Ossington Ave.
This French-bistro style bar/restaurant has a comfortable, neighborhood feel. Dinner main course offerings, which vary, average about $20. Open Monday-Wednesday noon-10 p.m., Thursday-Friday noon-11 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Lunch/brunch served until 3 p.m.
Churrasqueira do Sardinha
1213 Dundas St. West
Small, minimal seating, takeout style. Warm-weather visitors may enjoy taking a carryout to nearby Trinity Bellwoods Park for a picnic and people-watching. (790 Queen St. West, the Dundas and Crawford entrance is convenient). One rotisserie chicken with small potatoes (serves 3-4) is about $15. Open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Bairrada Churrasqueira Grill
1000 College St.
“The back patio transports you to Portugal,” local shopkeeper Nancy Fernandes says. A chicken dinner with small potatoes is about $6 for a small portion and about $9 for a large one. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Monday.
1191 Dundas St. W.
Although this new and attractive boutique is small, it sells a wide range of products (in a wide range of prices), including ceramics, leather goods, furniture, soaps and linens — all made in Portugal. The owners both grew up in Toronto’s Little Portugal enclave. Open Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. Closed Monday.
Dundas West Fest
Along Dundas Street West between Lansdowne and Ossington
The June 11 street fair stretches over 14 city blocks and features food, music, arts and a variety of vendors. Organizers say the event draws a diverse crowd including hipsters, children and the elderly. No entry fee.