Kawai’s Guide to TCAF eats

This guide is badly out of date. Some of the restaurants below still exist, but you’re better off consulting THE NEW GUIDE.

So you’re from out of town at TCAF and you need to grab a quick bite to eat? Here are my recommendations on where to feed yourself. Also, for your convenience, I’ve made a Google map of all these tasty places (embedded at end of post).

Places close to the Toronto Reference Library:

Camros Organic Eatery [closed] This little cafeteria is great for healthy, organic/vegetarian meals, serving up a rotation of Persian stews (amazing meatless ghormeh sabzi if you catch them on a day they make it), fresh salads, soups and desserts.

Crêpes à gogo This cafe serves up light, sweet and savory crepes. Probably not filling enough for large appetites but it should be enough to tide you over a hunger jag.

Okonomi House Greasy, tasty okonomiyaki. This is the cheapest, filling meal you can grab. Douse this Japanese cabbage and meat filled pancake with mayo and you’ll have enough fatty calories to power through the rest of your day.

2016 update: Ravi Soup for a filling wrap/soup combo on the run at Charles south of Bloor just west of Yonge. Call ahead for pickup.

2016 update: Caplansky’s is a College St. institution that’s rapidly expanded in recent years with a food truck and a location in Pearson Airport. Smoked meat and Jewish deli goodness Sandwich combos for $14-$16.

Ready to venture outside a five minute walk from TRL? Here are my top eats elsewhere in the city, organized by goal.

I blew all my $ on comics but could eat like a horse tonight.

Head on over to Nazareth to gorge on an Ethiopean feast (vegetarian most recommended). A couple caveats. Unless you arrive very early or very late, you will have to wait a minimum of 30-45 minutes to be seated – for a party of two. My other tip is to polish off your plate (if you can!) or get takeaway because the owner will give you the stinkeye for wasting food. If you have a larger party and you can’t wait to stuff your face, you can always go for Asian fare. There’s the aforementioned Okonomi House, Chinatown* along Spadina between Dundas and College and Koreatown along Bloor West between Bathurst and Christie (Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu is not only cheap and very filling, the service is blisteringly fast. Go for the bibimbap if tofu stew is too hot for the weather). [2016 update: more Chinatown and Kensington recommendations]

I met a total hottie at TCAF. We bonded over our love for small press publishers and now we need somewhere romantic to make googly eyes at each other all evening.

DT Bistro/Dessert Trends‘ delightful French menu with a Vietnamese touch is complimented by its chic decor and a lovely view of Harbord Street. Dishes are prettily plated or you could just split dessert. Actually, Harbord is a lovely strip for romantic dinners (93 Harbord, THR, etc.) so I’d recommend taking a stroll and seeing which menus pique your interest. If you are the type that needs a little liquid courage with your romancing, you could obnoxiously and messily feed each other neopolitan pizza slices at Pizza Libretto which is conveniently ensconced within a plethora of bar options. If you’re feeling more adventurous, URSA [closed] will serve up inventive flavour combos (not to mention a creative cocktail menu) in a trendy but low key setting and of course, there is much to do in the West Queen West area after dinner. Personally, I would recommend cutting to the chase and ordering room service at The Fairmont Royal York, but that’s because I’m presumptious like that. Who doesn’t love eating in bed, wearing fluffy bathrobes, in an opulent hotel?

My TCAF buddies and I need to grab something portable, calorie dense and fast for a long, hard night of debauchery.

Sarah’s Schwarma & Falafel is within walking distance and will deliver a quick caloric hit on the go. Or call ahead for pickup at Burrito Bandidos which is conveniently located across from Spadina station, giving you ready access to both the Yonge and Bloor subway lines. Have fun you crazy kids ❤

I’d like to enhance my TCAF high with my favourite vice.

Feeling too sluggish or need to wind down? We’ve all been there. I’m not a fan of caffeine but I polled my friends who recommend I Deal Coffee, Jet Fuel Coffee and Manic Coffee. I’d also recommend getting a guarana filled shake from Fresh which beats a jittery caffeine jolt hands down. You could also opt for guarana or mate at David’s Tea for an energy boost without any spazzy side effects.

For the smokers, smoking is banned in Toronto’s establishments but there are still some shisha (aka hookah) bars downtown where you can have a social (tobacco-free) smoke indoors. It’s far more expensive than smoking at home, but just think that for the price, you won’t have to buy coals, clean a dirty pipe, etc. [2016 update: public shisha is totally illegal now!] The latest shisha and tea place I tried out was the newly opened Bampot which also offers a wide variety of teas, scrumptious desserts and a number of board games. Featuring a sedate atmosphere and a number of cosy nooks tricked out in Praha-Bohemian decor, it is quite a charming little retreat. If THC is more your thing, you can always try any one of the city’s vapour lounges. Be forewarned: like shisha, it ups the cost of a smoke, sometimes charging cover or fees for use of ammenities and you must bring your own bud! Last but not least, there’s alcohol. I’m not much of a drinker so I’m not even going to try to break this down for you. But I will point out that Ontario’s regional boozy specialty is ice wine, with my unschooled preference being an Inniskillin Vidal. There are also a number of microbreweries in the province – presently the beer part of my brain has been entirely colonized by the American Three Floyds, but my friends tell me I must try Bellwoods. [2016 update: definitely try Bellwoods Brewery!]

I’m a food manga lover who wants to eat something totally oishi.
[2016 update: I haven’t kept up with Japanese cuisine openings in Toronto so this list is dated. Yasu is my current favourite, avoid Kasa Moto in Yorkville which is obnoxiously overpriced.]

You’re in luck. Japanese food is well loved in Toronto. If you like izakaya style dinners, you could walk west or south to hit up Guu for convenience, but consider making the trek out to Kingyo where you can get a delightful Buddhist Shojin spread. I’m not a huge fan of ramen, but you could head a short walk south or west to the Kenzo franchise or go further south to the ever popular Sansotei. As for sushi or sashimi,  you get what you pay for. If you cheap out somewhere like Sushi on Bloor, you’ll get exactly what you deserve. At the high end, there’s always Sushi Kaji out in Etobicoke ($100-$120 omakase only; reservations required), but I think standards have slipped while the prices have been raised. You can also splurge at Hirosushi** where I’d recommend the omakase dinner (Hiro doesn’t list the price but the few times I’ve had it, it’s $80). Admittedly, service is not great, but the I enjoy its pretty appetizers (roasted persimmon recommended), aggressive wasabi (do not add your own) and the eclectic decor (which features a giant print of fucking bunnies. No, literally. They are fucking.). For something more affordable, I’d go for the little hole in the wall Tokyo Sushi House where they serve a great chirashi with a liberal sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. Other than that, try Rikishi for excellent execution and unusual dishes like hasamiage and pressed sushi (the decor is really sad, the food is absolutely not) and Tokyo Kitchen [closed] for Japanese curries and an affordable menu (note: their sushi/sashimi is nothing special and their restroom is in a parking lot).

MEAT ME UP, Scottie.

Since the economy dipped, meat has become Toronto’s comfort food; almost overnight, charcuterie platters started sprouting all over restaurant appetizer menus like cheaply constructed starter condos in the downtown core. But hey, who can say no to a spread of protein and fat? Cured meat’s not my specialty (I’m practically a vegetarian) so ask around if it’s your thing. When I’m feeling carnivorous, I’ll head down to Woodlot, which also offers delicious vegetarian options for your less bloodthirsty friends. For a warmer, charming and more decadant experience, try the French La Palette, which was briefly made notorious for serving horse meat. Just be careful because here you’ll be served all the richness of French cuisine in your typically large, N. American portions. [2015 update: Also consider UNION.] [2016 update: Antler]

I made a killing tabling today and money is no object.

Hey big spender, it might be tempting to stick around Yorkville and try one of those restaurants TIFF celebrities love, but you’re probably better off heading south to dine at Canoe, one of the city’s top ranked restaurants where you will be treated to impeccable service, a stunning aerial view of the downtown core and of course, delicious contemporary Canadian cuisine. You can also have a giggle at any younger persons preening because they’re eating at Canoe, or awkward first date hetero couples where some MBA grad is spending way too much money because he thinks it will help him close the deal faster. Another favourite high end restaurant to visit is Splendido [closed]. It’s a less pretentious crowd than Canoe, but the food is still top notch. If you’re able to do the Splendido brunch, go for the lobster or one of those extras and you will not need to eat at all for the rest of the day; it is beyond decadant. Oh, and don’t forget to make reservations.

I love my foodie comics but if I eat gluten/dairy/shellfish/etcetera, I could actually die.

Eating out when you have dietary restrictions is tough but there are definitely establishments in the city that are understanding of your allergen/flavour needs. Rawlicious [closed] is very expensive for the portion size you’ll get, but it’s within spitting distance from TRL. My favourite place to take gluten-free/vegan eaters is Hibiscus Cafe in Kensington market. It’s much tastier than the neighbouring joint, Urban Herbivore, but you’ll have to head out early because they close at 6pm. Urban closes at 7pm though if you miss Hibiscus. Hibiscus is also a small venue so it’s recommended that you keep it to a party of two unless you’re doing takeaway. If you’re not planning to swing by Kensington, you can also hit up the Fresh franchise. In my experience, they’ve always been very accommodating with substitutions.

I’m extroverted out and just want a quiet corner to curl up in and read my comics – alone.

For some lunchtime serenity, a la carte in the Gardiner Museum is within walking distance. The decor is bright, quiet, aesthetically pleasing and ammenable to dining solo. The food isn’t cheap but reasonably priced and you can probably eavesdrop on an interesting conversation or two. I also can’t recommend the cosy back room of Red Tea Box [closed] enough. Plush, antique furniture and vintage decor with oriental accents make for a very tranquil and visually lush sitting room. I’d recommend splurging for the tea bento which comes with tasty nibbles (vegetarian option available) and a pot of tea for a leisurely read. The only catch is, if you’re hoping to have dinner here, you’ll have to book it down to West Queen West and the place closes at 7pm on Saturdays, 5pm on Sundays. If you miss the closing time, there’s also the aforementioned Bampot (open to 1:30 am and 11pm on Sat/Sun respectively) but they don’t have a large selection when it comes to full dinners.

* If you want really good Chinese food, you’re going to have to leave the downtown core. The best stuff is out in suburbs like Markham.

** I’ve read a few reviews complaining about the small size of Hirosushi’s nigiri/sashimi portions. If all you are looking for in a sushi restaurant is giant slabs of raw fish, that’s pretty easy to find anywhere along Bloor or College – although personally, eating mushy, monster sized sashimi always reminds me of this: gollum

I’m sure I’ve missed some great places so please feel free to share your TO dining tips and recommendations!

[edit] Food critic Corey Mintz made a TCAF restaurant list too! [/edit]