From cupcakes to doughnuts to gelato, a new crop of entrepreneurs are opening sugary boutiques with Canadian flavours in the city’s west Queen West district.

Twenty years ago, downtown Toronto’s west side, known by locals as west Queen West, was a rough part of town with no shortage of seedy watering holes and drug dealers. Today rents have been hiked, a new crop of entrepreneurs are opening boutiques, restaurants and galleries – and the drug of choice is good old-fashioned sugar.

Soma Chocolate
An excellent starting point for a sugary neighbourhood tour is the light and airy Soma Chocolate on King Street, where addictions are couched in an environment of sophistication and elegance. One of a precious few “bean to bar” micro-chocolate makers in North America,  Soma’s chocolate is crafted in small batches from a world atlas of fair trade and organic cacao beans sourced from countries including Indonesia, Dominican Republic and Peru. 

Due to Soma’s popularity, this is the company’s second location in town, opened in 2011, although co-owner David Castellan said there are no plans for further expansion: “to us it was never about volume but creating a small batch of something fantastic, which is the essence of why we started Soma in the first place.”

Peer into the onsite lab for a Charlie in the Chocolate Factory experience or saddle up at the slate bar while sipping an espresso-sized cup of thick, chilli-laced hot chocolate.

A single bite from any bar or truffle is both memorable and educative. Consider the difference between a hotel room packet of instant coffee versus freshly ground fair-trade java and you will begin to get a sense of what many consider the best chocolate in Toronto. Each bar is a careful experiment of roasting, conching and aging, with different beans exhibiting unique perfumes and flavour notes.

The 32% Costa Rican milk chocolate is a prize, its slow melt evoking whispers of coffee and caramel; while the 64% Dark Peruvian satisfies with a single square, setting off a burst of endorphins  with its heady, vanilla-spiked aroma alone. And do not leave without trying the Old School: cookie-like fingers of crumbly goodness. This bar has not evolved far from the bean; unrefined, gritty and raw, it is a marriage of cocoa nibs and crystals of organic cane sugar ground together. 

Dlish Cupcakes
Hopping north a few blocks and west along Queen Street, watch out for the diminutive and minimalist Dlish, known to locals as cupcake heaven, just before Trinity Bellwoods park.

Through his extensive world travels, Dlish creator Verge Manuel made two keen observations: that people without deep pockets will still shell out for flavour indulgences, and that small baked items make people happy.

Pouring his heart and soul into Dlish, the energetic Manuel leads by example, and can often be found baking or frosting the cakes as well as serving customers.  A highly regarded entrepreneur on this stretch of Queen Street, he is known for donating any leftover cupcakes to local food banks, as well as a few lucky neighbours.

The former telecommunications store owner said he knew he made the right move when he ran out of cupcakes on his very first weekend in December 2010, and the queue extended out the door the second. Now baking some 8,000 to 10,000 oil- and preservative-free cupcakes each week (a second location has recently been added uptown), quality remains uncompromised by quantity as he sticks firm to his philosophy of same-day baked desserts with the sponge made strictly with real milk, sugar, cream and butter. Natural flavourings draw from top quality ingredients such as carefully sourced Belgian chocolate and Madagascar bourbon vanilla.

On a recent visit, regular customers already familiar with the printed “flavour schedule” had dropped in for their favourite Tuesday offerings, which include cinnamon, dulce de leche, vanilla on chocolate and the award-winning red velvet cupcakes. A middle-aged brunette gushed about the outstanding chocolate coconut (“the secret is cream cheese”, she said) and grinned widely after buying four.

Forget about anti-aging products. With a perfected ratio of frosting to moist, fluffy sponge, Dlish cupcakes transport you to single-digit birthday parties and grade-school Valentine’s days.

Boreal Gelato
Continue west along Queen Street. After stopping at a few independent art galleries along the way, you will be hankering for some comfort food – and Boreal Gelato, just past Dufferin Street, takes the biscuit. 

After working for years in the hospitality industry, owner Melanie Clancy decided she wanted to create something “more community orientated; a place where people could bring kids (hence the dress up box and vintage rocking horse).

Drawing on fond memories of her first job serving ice cream and embarking on something she wanted to be “real and Canadian”, the unassuming and increasingly busy scoop shop, opened in 2011 feels just that: friendly, not too flashy, eschewing style for substance and demonstrating a strong commitment to principles, one of them being environmentalism.

Furnishings include a jumble of reclaimed materials: the serving counter is fashioned with wood from an old factory down the street, and a dining room cabinet that belonged to her grandmother has a new life as a garbage receptacle. She also ensured that the biodegradable packaging, made from potato, corn and sugar cane, would, in fact, decompose, by testing it in her own backyard. “Boreal is Latin for forest, and the name is an homage to the Canadian north,” Clancy explained.

Although trained at Carpigiani Gelato University in New York’s Little Italy neighbourhood, Clancy emphasises that she makes Canadian-style gelato and sorbetto rather than traditional Italian flavours.  Her creations are inspired by Ontario’s distinct seasons, drawing on local ingredients whenever possible. In winter, reach for maple walnut or a delightfully mellow sweet potato with candied sage. For a uniquely coniferous Canadian experience, tuck into a creamy scoop of balsam, a delicate flavour infusion derived by steeping balsam needles in milk. Spring and summer months find cones piled high with flavours featuring local berries and Ontario peaches. And at any visit, invariably some customer will be ordering a scoop of salted caramel, Boreal’s most popular flavour.

Glory Hole Doughnuts
The North American west has always signified new frontiers, and boundary-pushing is definitely the case at Glory Hole Doughnuts, further west along Queen Street. Step into the shop for a retro blast with mint-coloured walls, an orangey-red countertop and a huge blackboard menu. Souvenirs (besides a well-earned additional kilo of body weight) include T-shirts and mugs.

Clearly a creative soul, with training in art, fashion, sculpture and chef school, the “CEO of doughnuts” Ashley Jacot de Boinod explained she has loved making bread and eating doughnuts, enjoying several cinnamon-sugar ones growing up in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood. She started off filling corporate orders, finally raising the money she needed for her own shop in August 2012 with the help of Indiegogo, a crowd-sourcing website that garnered 6,000 Canadian dollars of start-up money from supportive individuals, all recognised on a big thank-you board in the shop.   

The doughnut display incites kid-in-a-candy-shop eyes and difficult decisions. Purists might opt for the classically Canadian maple or cinnamon and sugar doughnut, but creativity is king at Glory Hole and taste buds will be given a workout with the Elvis: a sweet and salty topping combination of peanut butter, cream cheese, banana chips, peanuts, bacon and marshmallow; or the more prosaic but no less inventive Toast And Butter: an airy, yeast-base doughnut with brown butter frosting finished with sweet breadcrumbs and cinnamon.

The menu changes four times a year and this may be the only doughnut shop on Earth that features a monthly bacon doughnut. Only in Canada, eh?