Sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Toronto's underground city

The weather report says it's 20 below. If that isn't bad enough, Canada's red and white Maple Leaf stands straight out from a distant mast, suggesting a wind speed of 30 miles an hour and then some. The chill fctor on this winter day must be almost out of sight. In all, a less-than-pleasant morning for walking around this principal Canadian city.

And yet we leave our hotel room, take the elevator straight down, and step out into a part of Toronto where we stroll in sports-jacket comfort; where breakfast is taken at a sidewalk cafe not far from blooming bromeliads, trailing vines, and 30-foot-tall conifers; where fountains sparkle and waterfalls splash gently. It is a part of Toronto where spring lays a gentle hand on everyone, whatever the calendar would have us believe.

In Toronto they call it the "hidden city." Secure from the elements, it certainly is; hidden, it decidedly is not. Torontonians throng the "city" every day and on into the evening. And, as tourists, we gladly join them.

Largely underground, away from all but a few direct rays of the sun, the hidden city, nonetheless, is a vibrant living area, with all the warmth and comfort you might wish for. It is close to 2 miles of attractive, spacious, pedestrian malls and walkways, lined with bookstores, boutiques, specialty stores, restaurants and coffee shops, financial offices, cinemas by the score, and a theater. Two hotels are connected to it. So is the clean and efficient (not a graffiti mark in sight) subway system (four stops here), and the Canadian Pacific Railway at Union Station.

Some call it a consumers paradise, for virtually everything is available here outside of autos and birch-bark canoes. "Spanish boots, English China, Italian knits, Canadian carvings, Hawaiian coral, Danish silver, and Chinese silks," is how a publicity brochure puts it. It's a window-shoppers' delight. If you run a business here, the rent is high but the trade is brisk because the area has such allure.

The whole concept was sparked by a Buckminster Fuller comment several decades ago. This man of so many remarkable ideas suggested that vast bubblelike domes be placed over northern cities to keep the bitter weather out. While that seemed too far out to all but a few science-fiction buffs, there were those in Toronto who felt that much the same thing could be accomplished by going below grade.

Because city ordinances limited height but not depth in Toronto, some major buildings in the city had already extended one or more floors below street level. These were not merely the bargain basements of typical department stores but collections of small retail outlets, attractively set out in a mall-like atmosphre. So it remained only to link these underground malls together for the hidden city to begin taking shape. That began in the early '70's.

These links are far more than subterranean tunnesl; they are visually attractive walkways that blend in with the whole hidden-city idea.

(Two small breaks remain in the hidden city that stretches from Union Station in the south to the Eaton Centre in the north. Pedestrians have to surface and cross a single street -- perhaps 20 yards -- above ground before re-entering at these two spots. These links are on the drawing board and groundbreaking is about to begin on a walkway that will link the station and the Royal York Hotel to the waterfront. Then, not only will passengers from autos, subways, and trains have direct access to the hidden city, but those from Lake Ontario liners as well.)

If there's a showpiece of the hidden city, it is the Eaton Centre's 860-feet Galleria, modeled after Milan's remarkable showplace. It contains some 250 shops, boutiques, and restaurants on three levels. Water dances everywhere and living trees "shade" park benches. A few sparrows, having discovered the comfort of "endless summer," have moved in on a permanent basis.

Eaton Centre also boasts the world's largest movie complex -- its CinePlex of 18 theaters. These are intimate little places ranging from 57 to 137 seats, so the choice of shows is wide. When a particularly popular movie comes to town, it might be shown at 5 or more of the theaters, with starting times conveniently staggered. There are two other movie houses in the hidden city (both in the Sheraton Centre) and one live theater, The Teller's Cage, so named because it is a part of the Commerce Bank building. This is a dinner theater, but the show can be taken separately if desired.

Crepes, gateaux, roasts, schnitzels, soups, and salads -- the variety of food is almost endless. There are several full restruarants in the hidden city and scores of fast-food outlets all set out on sidewalk-cafe lines. These are frequently grouped together and "sidewalk" seating is common to them all. So it is possible to order a salad from one, soup from another, and a sandwich from a third.

Au Naturelle is a salad bar that charges by the ounce. Fill your bowl with whatever you please and at 22 cents an ounce it's a relatively inexpensive meal -- unless you load up on the cottage cheese! The Potato Head sells baked potatoes, split and filled with everything from steak and mushrooms to peaches 'n cheese. Potatoes as a dessert! I suppose it had to come sometime, and where more fittingly than in Toronto's unusual city.

Apple Annie's, Orange Julius, and the Slimmery are outlets with interesting if obvious titles for the dishes they dispense. The Great Canadian Soup Company offers muffins, sandwiches, yogurts, cheeses. And great soups. The company opened its first outlet 3 1/2 years ago. Now it has 7 -- 3 in the hidden city alone.

There is more to Toronto, so very much more, than just the hidden city. But it is a most important part, great to visit at any time of year. And when the thermometer plunges below zero and flags stand rigidly to attention all over town, it is, perhaps, the only place to visit.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.