Brunch guide: Where to eat breakfast and lunch in Toronto's east end

Photo: Lady Marmalade

Photo: Lady Marmalade

The east side has long been known as the brunch capital of Toronto with its abundance of bakeries, cafes and restaurants all looking for a stake in the city's ever-growing brunch game. On a typical weekend morning you’ll find young families with strollers in tow, hungover twenty or thirty-somethings hiding behind sunglasses, Tinder matches meeting for first dates and neighbourhood regulars spilling out along Queen Street. Depending on the hour and the place, diners will endure half-hour queues (shockingly, you can usually avoid the line around the 8 or 9 o’clock timeslots) if the spot is coveted.

It's here in the east end where brunch goes beyond the standard sunny-side-up with toast. It's here that sometimes brunch just isn’t brunch without slow-smoked beef brisket and a hand-crafted caesar speared with lobster tail. Due to the sheer number of decent brunch spots in the east end, a definitive list is virtually impossible and will undoubtedly invoke a bit of verbal sparring between tastes and opinions. All of this contributes to the ritualistic east end brunch experience. Without further ado, here are our five picks for must-hit brunch in Leslieville and Riverside.

LADY MARMALADE
 
There's a reason why Lady Marmalade has found a permanent home on all of Toronto's 'best of' lists and often yields the biggest line of hungry brunchers: It's just that good. The second outpost of the B.C. original has been a welcomed Queen East staple since its inception in 2009, and as far as menus go, Lady Marmalade has a generous selection of offerings, with just about every dish able to accommodate the herbivores, the carnivores and the gluten-free (vores). Cash only.
 
898 Queen St. E
ladymarmalade.ca

 
AFT KITCHEN & BAR
 
Aft’s intimate, family-style seating and premium patio space has made it a neighbourhood favourite, and its weekend brunch menu serves up traditional BBQ dishes like the Kentucky Hot Brown ($14) and the Hoppin John ($13). The generous portions and addictive assortment of homemade BBQ sauces will ensure you need not think about food for the rest of the day and though meat is their game, there are equally delicious vegetarian options to satisfy everyone in the group. Disclaimer: May induce meat sweats.   
 
686 Queen St. E
aftbar.com

 
BONJOUR BRIOCHE
 
If the unworldly aroma that permanently lingers outside of Bonjour Brioche isn’t enough to persuade you, then you may not deserve the vast array of ambrosial French pastries just inside the door. The patisserie offers exactly what you would expect – crispy baguettes, flakey croissants, fluffy omelettes, rich brioche, savory quiche du jour… the list goes on. The heated patio provides a comfortable refuge for those committed to people watching in the spring or fall and with its ideal location on Queen East, you can be certain there will be many interesting characters to entertain you. Cash only.
 
812 Queen St. E
bonjourbrioche.com

OK OK DINER

You need strong coffee, quick service and an all-day breakfast card — good thing OK OK Diner specializes in hangover cure-alls. Sit in a plush booth or hang out on a stool and make small talk with the folks behind the bar at this restored diner that absolutely nails the '50s aesthetic. Hunker down on stacks of buttermilk pancakes, a club sandwich that rivals the best in the city and huevos rancheros, an OK OK signature, made with three scrambled eggs topped with mozza and monterey jack cheese and spicy black beans, then wrapped in a tortilla, grilled and topped with guacamole, sour cream and salsa — phew! If you like to keep things easy like Sunday morning, it's hard to go wrong with the taste and value of two eggs, hash browns, toast and choice of breakfast meat for $5.99.

1128 Queen St. E
okokdiner.com

BROOKLYN TAVERN

With walls adorned in vintage family photos and personal mementos of the owners, Brooklyn Tavern feels warm and inviting despite the cool blues and greys of its long dining room. The service is a throwback (read: very friendly) and its comfort food veers from the usual brunch standards. Start with the Brooklyn Caesar, which uses Dillon's vodka or gin and replaces Clamato with an all-natural mix. From there, the pork carnitas and sunchoke-hash with fried egg and arugula salad ($12), and French toast brullee with vanilla cream and berries ($10) are a couple of the menu highlights.

1097 Queen St. E
brooklyntavern.ca

Photo: Maple Leaf Tavern

Photo: Maple Leaf Tavern

MAPLE LEAF TAVERN

Once one of Toronto's grittiest bars now has one of the city's most elevated brunch programs with the friendliest servers, attention to detail and plates that will last you til dinner. Start with spicy pickles or pickled pepperoni before moving into a handful of gorgeous mains. Highlights include salmon crudo and horseradish terrine with a soft egg and toasted bagel or grilled beef shoulder with bone marrow baked beans. Maple Leaf Tavern also does a brunch for two or four, which includes grilled bacon, sausages, corned beef has, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, eggs, biscuits and toast for $22 per person.

955 Gerrard St. E
mapleleaftavern.ca

HASTINGS SNACK BAR

If you're looking for a hearty and comforting meal scratch-made by an authentic Polish babcia, look no further than Hastings Snack Bar.Grab a stool at the counter and behold a menu of real-deal Polish staples like cabbage rolls and kielbasa that keep things focused on the old world. Traditional pierogis come stuffed with cottage cheese and potato and slathered in fried onions. Perhaps the real gem here, though, is the Polish breakfast of two eggs, parowka (Polish wieners), potato pancake and and fresh rye bread with butter — all for $8. Breakfast runs Thursday to Sunday with a solid coffee program the remainder of the week.

5 Hastings Ave.

COUNTY GENERAL
 
The newest spot on the list, the County General serves up Cuban Especiales best paired with a Havana Rum cocktail. The menu is succinct and well thought out, but it’s the hand-crafted cocktails that stand out. The Daiquiri Generalissimo ($10) or Sunday Picnic ($14) are both smooth and aromatic, but it’s the County Drive Inn ($14) that provides a sense of nostalgia — cream soda made before your eyes with a splash of bourbon. Just what every kid dreams of.  
 
798 Queen St. E
thecountygeneral.ca

Photo: Maha's

Photo: Maha's

MAHA'S

In a former kitchen and bath store up on an unassuming stretch of Greenwood, Maha's has become a local brunch hot spot that has gained a city-wide following. The tiny Egyptian kitchen offers an experience more beautiful and exotic (and far less predictable) than the usual brunch fare. The Cairo Classic — a  must-try dish for first-timers — starts with foole, which is a fava bean staple of the Egyptian breakfast, and also also includes sliced boiled egg, tangy feta mashed with tomatoes, puffy whole wheat pita and a falafel patty. The pharoah’s po boy piles fried battered shrimp and tahini into a softly charred pita. Be sure to order the killer honey-cardamom latte to round things out.

226 Greenwood Ave.
mahasbrunch.com

LIL BACI

Avoid the weekend lineups and instead duck into the dining room of this local Italian eatery, perhaps better known for its casual pizzas and wine menu by night. Take a seat by the front window, bask in the sunlight and watch the neighbourhood stroll by. The truffled eggs are a standout — scrambled with asiago cheese and white truffle oil, and served with salad and duck-fat potatoes. If you had a few drinks the night before, look no further than the festa pizza. Topped with sausage, pancetta, potatoes and mozzarella, two eggs get cracked over it midway through cooking for a rich result that might just be the ultimate hangover cure.

892 Queen St. E.
lilbaci.com

ASHDALE BRUNCH & ESPRESSO

The deep Queen East bruncherie features an all-day, everyday menu of sandwiches, salads, baked goods and breakfast mains mostly in the economical price range of $10 or less. On Saturdays and Sundays, you can expect the kitchen to kick things up with dishes like braised pork belly and eggs, avocado eggs benedict and stuffed French toast. The espresso part of the cafe's name isn't just a marketing ploy, either. Expertly pulled shots create beautiful lattes, Americanos and other perky creations. 

1560 Queen St. E
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YAYA

A couple of sidewalk tables welcomes would-be diners into this bright brunch spot that serves up daily breakfasts, brunches and lunches from scratch. Dishes range from two-egg plates to stuffed French toast, spicy Mexican eggs and a delicious Monte Cristo — brioche stuffed with bacon, cheese, caramelized onion and dijon. If you've got a taste for lunch, you can order chicken souvlaki, an all-American burger and avocado BLT among a list of fresh-made sandwiches. They've got a $6 and under kids menu and even various purees for the neighbourhood babies — talk about family friendly. 

1186 Queen St. E
yayafarmfresh.ca