This is the first post I’ve written for out of town TCAFers and of course I had to start with food. I’ll be linking to the rest here or you can keep an eye on this blog for more tips.
If you want to eat like a local, you take your cue from small infants. That means if you’re dining out and you see something new and curious and strange, you put it in your mouth. Toronto is home to cuisines from all over the world and food is one of the most loved starting places for many of us to learn about all the different cultures that mix together in this incredible city.
You might want to take a peek at an extensive and briefly updated guide (with a handy Google map) to the local food scene I wrote for last year’s TCAF if you have the time. This year, I thought I’d post a shorter list of my current favourites:
This Atlantic is my top recommendation for those who truly love their tastebuds. Ever since URSA folded, this is the place for flavourful, inventive cuisine – but without any of the arrogance you were served in restaurants like URSA. Even better is the radical business model which has done away with menus and booze. Instead, expect to be surprized and delighted with fresh and nourishing dishes and marvellous liquid concoctions. Everything is PWYC, barter or IOU. If that scares you, the chef also offers a generous curry bowl for $3. Reservations highly recommended for weekends.
Harbord is my favourite street for eating out. You have everything from affordable fish and chips, Japanese and Thai to one of the city’s most celebrated fine dining establishments, Splendido [closed] with all manner of offerings in between. Harbord’s been overlooked in the past, but in the last few years, it’s gained more visibility. 3 out of 20 of Toronto Life’s best new restaurants for 2015 are located on Harbord. As a warning, RASA (better to go in a group) served well executed, contemporary courses when I went, but they were not generous with portioning. I’ve not had the kaiseki cuisine at Yunaghi yet, but I hear it’s more or less the same story. Yasu serves absolutely top notch sushi in the city. It’s cutting it close for resos (seating at 6 and 8 only) but you can follow their Twitter account to snag a last minute cancelation.
For mid range dining, The Harbord Room is cosy and laidback and the food and service are pitch perfect. Its sister restaurant, THR & Co [closed] also recommended, is equally delicious, but provides a more roomy, upscale space. DT Bistro serves excellent French-Vietnamese influenced meals and the pasteries are a must. Also worth noting on this strip are little cafes and bakeries; Harbord House, a gastropub with a chill mid 30s+ crowd; Bampot for late night board games, shisa and tea; Good for Her, a feminist sex store; and a couple indie bookstores: Bakka Phoenix, which specializes in sci-fi/spec-fic and Caversham, which specializes in psychology if you’re into that sort of thing. I think there’s also a parenting bookstore around there somewhere but I’ve never visited it.
Toronto’s main Chinatown is a lived Chinatown. Meaning it’s not the calcified tourist trap one might find in other cities. First generation HK Chinese still eat, work and play on Spadina. I won’t lie: the best Chinese food is up in Markham. But the Spadina Chinatown has been developing at a breakneck pace and now you can easily find a wide variety of good eats here at a range of price points. Dim sum, HK snacks, fusion cuisine – just walk around and see which place is the most busy. New establishments I’ve tried include:
- Stay Cafeteria: A Taiwanese joint with killer desserts including my favourite, a 酒酿桂花汤圆 (a rice wine broth with soft rice grains, sesame dumplings and little dried flowers) that’s almost as good as what you can find uptown.
- Kekou Gelato: Tucked away at the end of Baldwin, this gelatto shop with Asian flavours is to die for. HK nai cha, durien, whiskey green tea… At time of writing, it’s still closed but I’m hoping by May it will be open for business.
- 1 Hour Cafeteria: This is not so much a restaurant as place where you can chill with friends for hours with tea and share snacks. The food is nothing to write home about but is decent and fresh.
- [new!] Lucky Red: It used to be that your best bet for grabbing a late night snack on Spadina was tasty Chinese food somewhere with surly service and garish lighting. Lucky Red’s decor is easier on the eyes, and is open until 2am on Fridays/Saturdays. The restaurant serves up fusion dishes that bring me back to the 90s: tacos with cheese and kimchee, bao bun bungers with panko crust tofu patties and fixings. The music’s a touch too loud for serious conversation but it’s a decent place to fuel up before heading out to another club.
Honorable mention: The Red Room isn’t new but I included it here because it’s so damn cheap. A mainstay for the University of Toronto crowd. Basically if you’re skint and want to stay out late in some dive – with the option of not getting totally blotto – you have the Green Room or the Red Room. Located just south of Bloor, it’s got a cosy grimy atmosphere with giant couches, dim lighting, cheap eats/drinks and plenty of earnest, philosophical discussions.
Dishonorable mention: People’s Eatery. I’m not against all the new upstarts on Spadina charging more than the old standbys on this strip. I think if you’re putting more $$ into your overhead, you go ahead and charge for it. People’s Eatery sells itself this way and it’s genuinely a lively place to hang with friends for a drink. But to serve Peking duck with uncrispy skin at the prices they’re asking for? I can’t help but ask: are they charging some kind of hipster head tax?
Next up: Dress like a local