Despite hardship, restaurants are continuing to open with creative (and tasty) offerings attuned to the takeout era
By Kelsey Adams, Kevin Ritchie and Richard Trapunski
May 13, 2021
It feels redundant to state that it’s been a tough year for restaurants in Toronto. With multiple lockdowns and indoor dining off the table for much of the past 12 months, it’s been an uphill battle for eateries to keep the doors open.
Restaurateurs are a tenacious bunch and despite the hardship, new joints continue to open. Typically, NOW’s best new restaurant lists consider things like atmosphere and table service. So much of the dining experience is really all about those peripheral elements – just not right now.
During COVID times, takeout reigns supreme. Older restaurants have updated offerings to be more travel-friendly and new spots in town tend to favour dishes that won’t fall apart before reaching your front door.
We want food that’s easy, that’s comforting and not too cerebral. For this year’s list we included a range of cuisines, price points and styles for all your potential pandemic moods. Looking to splurge on a tasting menu that won’t leave you scratching your head? Or maybe homestyle comfort food from a hard-to-find cuisine? Or a feast inside of a pizza box? The best new Toronto restaurants of 2021 have you covered.
Of the dozens of new spots braving the uncharted landscape, these are our favourites:
As soon as you walk into Azhar you’re hit by the scent of the wood-fired oven. As the smokiness dissipates, your senses are engulfed with a sweet and earthy scent: the fresh bread they bake daily. From airy Jerusalem bagels to Iranian-style flatbread, the oven churns out loaf after loaf. This new Middle Eastern spot on Ossington opened in January with a marketplace selling all the staples: baba ganoush, shakshuka sauce, hummus, tabbouleh and of course the breads (the sourdough pita and challah are exquisite). Paying attention to detail, they serve Turkish coffee out of traditional cezves. On weekends you can order meal boxes for two, a taste of what’s to come when they open for full service. Fire-roasted branzino, hummus wagyu beef with truffles, manti dumplings and kataifi-wrapped shrimp are some recent highlights.
96 Ossington, azhartoronto.com
Chef Kareema Caribbean Fusion
The novelty of Kareema Beckles’s Carribean-style spring rolls is what makes this fusion spot so fun. Pepper shrimp, ackee and saltfish and callaloo and pumpkin wrapped in egg rolls and fried to perfection might be an unexpected addition to a Caribbean restaurant’s menu but it just works so well. Beyond the spring rolls (which are worth the hype), the menu mixes staples like oxtail, escovitch snapper and curry goat with unique items like jerk chicken lasagna. Before opening the brick-and-mortar location in December, Beckles ran an online food business. In true COVID-hustle style, she delivered pre-ordered dishes to customers from Scarborough to Brampton. Downtown Toronto has few genuinely good spots to get Jamaican or Trini cuisine, so Chef Kareema is a welcome addition.
From the team behind Corktown mainstay Ardo comes another restaurant devoted to Sicilian cuisine. In the summer, the hidden patio is the place to escape the bustle of Carlton and Parliament and whisk yourself away to the Mediterranean. There’s an emphasis on simple and straightforward fare. The popular Sicilian snack arancini is a must each time you order. They make it with saffron risotto, veal and beef ragu, and caciocavallo cheese. The crunch factor from the breaded and fried coating is phenomenal. With an extensive menu, from marinated white anchovies, fried calamari, spaghetti with fresh ricotta, linguine with porcini butter and truffles to prosciutto crudo and mushroom pizza, they cover all the bases.
Crosley’s has two menus, with two very different feels. The lunch offering aims for nostalgia and familiarity with food that feels like a warm hug. Fish and chips with mushy peas, spicy Italian sausage rolls with flaky pastry, a fried veal sandwich with brioche so buttery it lingers on your fingers. That sandwich, the Vitelllo Tonnato, might be a rival to the fried chicken sandwiches that are sweeping the city right now. The dinner menu is where chef Joachim Hayward (former head chef at the now shuttered Brothers Food and Wine) gets to flex his skills. It’s still hearty and homey but with a little more culinary artistry. The menu (currently available only on weekends) changes every week and recent highlights have included shrimp with aguachile, escabeche artichokes, halibut bouillabasse and pork belly with tamarind jus. It’s a testament to the place’s laid-back and low-key vibe that to order dinner you have to shoot co-owner Myles Harrison a text.
Nowadays, food that travels well is your best bet – and what travels better than a sub? This new spot for Italian-style sandwiches opened across from Trinity Bellwoods in the fall. Lambo’s is generous, with subs stuffed to the brim with great quality cured meats and cold cuts like soppressata, prosciutto, salami, turkey and roast beef (roasted in-house). The menu is stacked with 10 different sandwich options plus a few unexpected toppings like pickled fennel, lemon caper aioli and horseradish crema. Hot tip: add the Calabrian chili spread to everything.
Dzo’s contemporary Vietnamese style is the kind of thing that might inspire Toronto-style lineups if it opened before the pandemic. The fun cocktails, craft beers, attractive plating, dark neon aesthetic and hip-hop soundtrack screamed “hip Toronto restaurant” during the brief time it allowed in diners. But the food stands alone. Dry pho with dipping sauce, Vietnamese tacos, crispy spring rolls, taro fries, wings and noodles all burst with colour and flavour. And if you want the stunt food, you can order the photine.
Sean Santos and Chuck Ortiz’s Detroit-style Filipino pizza pop-up became a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the former Wallflower space in Brockton Village last summer. A thick, rice-flour crust that’s crispy on the edges becomes a canvas for high-concept pies that are all about balance of sweet, salty and sour flavours typical of Filipino cooking. The Bespren Longanizza is a good introduction to the menu, combining a sweet breakfast sausage with Maggi seasoning, crispy garlic and a fried egg. They’ve added lemongrass-infused pepperoni and sisig and adobo-inspired weekly specials, and they’ve expanded the starter offerings, which include a generously portioned kale caesar topped with chicharron.
Ghanian comfort food is hard to come by in Toronto, but Mama Akua’s came to the rescue last August as a pop-up. Serving jollof rice, red red (fried plantains with spicy stewed beans) and waakye (rice and black-eyed beans cooked in purple sorghum leaf sheaths), mother-daughter team Akua Fosua and Patricia Yeboah turned the intersection of Ossington and Rolyat into a community block party. From there, the duo launched multiple iterations, including a brief stint at Stackt Market. Now they’re settled in the old Parts and Labour building on weekends and pre-orders can be made in advance for a rotating menu of soups, stews, rice dishes and desserts.
If there’s one thing the pandemic has spurred in the city, it’s the rise of the neighbourhood one-stop shop. At once a cafe, bar, grocery shop and a sit-down restaurant (when patio dining is allowed again), Manita does it all seamlessly. In the warm days of September last year, when the sun hit the wicker chairs and marble tables just right, you could pretend you were on a patio on the Iberian coast. It’s no-fuss vibe and warm energy make it somewhere you’d want to stay awhile. At the moment, the business’ bread and butter is coffee from Nile Coffee Club, fresh pastries, a rotating menu of innovative salads and sandwiches and pantry items like olive oil, house-made preserves and sauces. The dinner menu is returning soon, ranging from simple pasta dishes like tomato bucatini to shareable mezzes with falafel, Moroccan olives, hummus and tzatziki.
This new Filipino restaurant has never gotten a chance to properly open. It first started slinging food on Dundas before it could allow in diners, and then got pushed out by an upcoming development before it could get a proper non-pandy opening. Now operating out of its sister restaurant, Tinuno in St. James Town, Tala’s concept still works perfectly for the times: its kamayan feasts – piles of garlic rice, seafood, barbecue skewers, vegetables and more meant to be shared and eaten with your hands – are served tidily in a pizza box. That’s the star of the menu, but there are also Filipino staples like chicken adobo, lumpia, lechon and various silog breakfast plates. They also sell delicious mochi doughnuts from Isabella’s.