How to eat like a local in Toronto
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This article is part of a guide to Toronto from FT Globetrotter
When people ask me what to do in Toronto, the city where I grew up, my answer is always the same: “Eat!”
Toronto doesn’t shout about its attractions. US comedian Steve Martin joked that “Toronto is just like New York, but without all the stuff”. With all due respect to our American cousins, those who can’t find “stuff” to love about Canada’s largest city just aren’t looking hard enough.
This is particularly true of Toronto’s dining scene. The city has in recent decades become a world-class culinary destination, vivified by its status as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. (More than half of the people living in the greater Toronto area were born in another country.) But many of the best places to eat are local hotspots that you could easily walk past without stopping. The city’s tendency to hide its light under a bushel presents a real challenge to visitors. It may be a cliché, but the solution is fairly straightforward. Try to eat like a local.
“There will always be destination restaurants. But Torontonians like their neighbourhoods, and like their restaurants, and specifically like their neighbourhood restaurants,” says Carl Heinrich, chef/co-owner at Richmond Station, the first stop on my culinary tour.
This year, the Michelin Guide will initiate coverage of Toronto and award its first stars to Canadian eateries. It’s a sign that the city’s dining scene has arrived on the international stage. We can only speculate as to which chefs will get the coveted prizes. But many Torontonians won’t care. Here are five restaurants that meet our key criteria: friendly, local and good.
Richmond Station (Downtown)
1 Richmond Street West, Toronto, ON M5H 3W4
Good for: A superior culinary experience for business travellers staying downtown
Not so good for: Lunch service has not yet resumed post the relaxing of Covid restrictions, but check before you go
FYI: Don’t tip. Tipping 15 to 20 per cent is expected in Toronto, but Richmond Station rolls service into the sticker price as part of a more generous deal for its staff
Richmond Station is serious about food and relaxed about everything else. From the laid-back, friendly service to the minimal decor, this downtown eatery focuses all your attention on what you eat. The menus are revised every two weeks to adapt to seasonal produce, with a changing cast of culinary influences. My dinner was laced with Japanese flavours — such as bonito on a confit of duck pancake — but the cooking defies categories. “We have cooks in our kitchen from the Middle East, from south Asia, from East Asia. We have a great influence from all over the world just in the staff in our kitchen,” Heinrich says. “Canadian cuisine inspiration will always be a melting pot, but for me it always starts with the ingredients.”
To feel the heat of the kitchen, you can ask for a seat at the chef’s table, a narrow counter facing the stoves, where Heinrich occasionally strolls by to talk with diners. Make sure to book, as the restaurant was packed even on a Monday night. On my visit, the tasting menu included spectacular mouthfuls such as delicate mackerel and preserved lemon. Or select à la carte for more options, including the famous burger. Either way, Richmond Station will deliver surprising dishes that are so thoughtful you need to stop talking to consider the flavours. Tasting menu, C$120; mains, from C$27 (including service)
DaiLo (Little Italy)
503 College Street, Toronto, ON M6G 1A5
Good for: Surprises. Nothing chef Nick Liu serves is quite what you expected
Not so good for: Picky eaters. Everything comes with a twist
FYI: Arrive with an appetite. This is not a tasting menu that will leave you hungry
Chef Nick Liu’s DaiLo delivers proudly maximalist food. “We work with big flavours,” he says. His chef’s-choice tasting menu features a generous succession of bold dishes, starting with a smoked trout and pomelo amuse-bouche wrapped in a betel-leaf taco, and culminating in a vast board of 90-day-aged rib-eye drizzled in black bean bagna càuda. The succulent deep-fried watermelon and the smoky pea dumplings attest to Liu’s creativity. (Diners can also go à la carte.) But while the food is bold, the atmosphere is relaxed, with pleasant chinoiserie decorations in a blue, green and gold colour scheme, and teal leather banquettes.
Incongruously situated in Little Italy, the restaurant takes its name from the Cantonese term meaning big brother (or “badass”, I’m told), used in this case as “a nod to the ways and tastes of older cultures and generation”. Liu has described the restaurant as Chinese fare in the French tradition, inspired by the dishes he ate as the son of Hakka immigrants to Canada. Other childhood inspirations sneak on to the menu too, notably the popular “Big Mac bao”, a cheeky take on the fast-food burger reimagined in a fluffy bun with a truly uncanny reproduction of the “special sauce”. “I grew up where McDonald’s was a treat,” says Liu. Tasting menu, C$95; plates, from C$18
Grey Gardens (Kensington Market)
199 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, ON M5T 2L4
Good for: Watching the kitchen at work. Many of the seats are along the bar facing the open kitchen.
Not so good for: Huge appetites. The plates are small but thoughtful, with exquisite ingredients. You’ll need a few to feel full, though
FYI: There’s a not-so-secret secret sake menu.
Entering Grey Gardens, with its foam-green walls and soft lighting, feels like stepping into a stylish mermaid’s cave. The menu follows suit with an emphasis on fish and seafood. There are playful touches from smoked fish and chips (a bowl of creamy smoked mackerel with translucent potato crisps to dip — highly recommend as a starter) to a retro shrimp cocktail that happily sticks to the classic recipe.
The latest creation by powerhouse Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg has brought a flare of fine dining to the Kensington Market neighbourhood, better known for its casual take-out joints. Agg has also made a splash in the Canadian literary world with her memoir about life in the restaurant industry: I Hear She’s a Real Bitch. Large groups can book a private dinner in a downstairs dining room next to the wine cellar, which furnishes an impressive selection for the diners upstairs. Grey Gardens doubles as a wine bar (maybe have an oyster while you sip?), but most people on a packed week night were tucking into food. Order a handful of small plates, such as swordfish prepared in brown butter and capers, or sea bass set in a fresh green-olive paste. Plates, from C$16
Côte de Boeuf (Trinity-Bellwoods)
130 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, ON M6J 2Z5
Good for: Wine, if you like it to be French
Not so good for: Vegetarians. There are fewer options and lots of hanging chunks of meat
FYI: Groups of six to eight need to call ahead and book the whole restaurant
The front window at Côte de Boeuf, which is hung with slabs of meat on old-fashioned hooks, attests to its dual identity as part butcher shop, part restaurant. The rustic French establishment butchers local meat on site, makes its own terrines and foie gras, and sources charcuterie from the Auvergne in central France. For sale in the diamond-paned glass cabinets that line the tiny interior, these delights form the foundation of Côte de Boeuf’s menu.
The restaurant is compact — barely 20 seats line the bar and high-top tables made from vast barrels. This furniture is swept away and replaced by one butcher’s table for groups of six to eight, who can enjoy a prix-fixe menu that features the dry-aged côte de boeuf after which the restaurant is named. For casual diners, there are no bookings for lunch or dinner so you have to take your chances, but there are plenty of other eateries on the ultra-hipster Ossington Avenue in case of disappointment. Those lucky enough to get a table have the choice of French classics from steak tartare to steak frites or confit de canard. Prix-fixe menu (groups six to eight; available from October 1), C$125 per person; mains, from C$24
Mamakas Taverna (Ossington)
80 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, ON M6J 2Y7
Good for: A warm, “come as you are” atmosphere
Not so good for: A romantic tête-à-tête. The restaurant is bright and noisy
FYI: Seriously, order the spanakopita
It may be on the opposite side of Toronto from the Greektown district in the east end, but Mamakas Taverna is a strong contender for the city’s best Greek eatery. Created by restaurateur Thanos Tripi, this bustling, whitewashed venue is simply decorated with flashes of sea blue and has a boisterous open kitchen. The cooking is equally uncomplicated, focused on an uncompromising, traditional rendition of Aegean cuisine using top-quality ingredients. Diners can choose among the generous sharing plates, from the creamy kopanisti dip (roasted red pepper and cheese) to the soft, golden spanakopita. These are followed by platters of meat and seafood, featuring lamb, octopus and sea bass. There are no surprises and there don’t need to be, as every dish delivers a top-notch version of a familiar favourite.
The drinks list offers a wide selection of Greek wines. I took a chance on the retsina, and was delighted by the pine-scented white wine served in a small bulbous bottle. Plus there’s the option of ouzo, if you dare. The name derives from a Greek expression meaning roughly “mama’s boy”, and the restaurant now has siblings, including a takeaway version around the corner on Queen Street West. Mains, from $27
Do you have a favourite neighbourhood Toronto restaurant? Tell us in the comments below
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