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1. Queen Mother
208 Queen W, at Duncan, 16-598-4719, queenmothercafe.ca.
Andre Rosenbaum and David Stearn's beloved Queen Mum helped define the Queen West dining scene.
Today the nabe's a shopping district geared to suburban teenagers buying $200 sneakers, but back in the day - oh, 1979, say - it was the stomping ground of wannabe artists, musicians, fashion designers and chefs set on dragging Toronto the Good into the 20th century. Sort of like Kensington Market, only with spikier haircuts.
They still come for Laotian spring rolls (Nam Jeun $6.75 lunch/$7.50 dinner) bursting with shredded carrot 'n' cabbage and correctly ketchup-free pad thai, both veggie-friendly dishes introduced by original chef Vanipha Southalack. Her Khao Soy Gai - chicken simmered in spicy coconut milk over thin egg noodles tossed with baby bok choy (both $10.95/$13.95) - was a hit with the local cognoscenti 30 years before Sukothai existed. Why, School chef Brad Moore (who once cooked at the Mum's sister resto the Rivoli) loves the crispy grilled Ping Gai chicken ($13.50/$16.95 with salad and steamed rice) so much, he has it regularly cabbed over to his Liberty Village boîte.
Throw in cozy private booths built for two and get the best cheap first date in town.
Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 1 am. Brunch Sunday 11:30 am to 4:30 pm, dinner till midnight. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement.
2. Aunties And Uncles
74 Lippincott, at College, 416-324-1375, auntiesanduncles.ca.
Saving Grace on Dundas West and Bonjour Brioche on Queen East are notorious for their Sunday morning lineups. Big deal. Russell Nichol's 35-seat hole-in-the-wall has customers out the door every day of the week.
They patiently wait to sit at mismatched kitchen furniture left over from the 50s and listen to the greatest hits of the Specials while chowing down on soft breakfast tacos piled with scrambled eggs, house-made chorizo, pinto beans and cheddar ($8.75) and deliciously straightforward vegan soups like mushroom and leek ragout ($2.75/$3.75 with bread).
Get all Continental with a mini-Niçoise salad with optional tuna on warm house-baked focaccia ($8.75) or a Croque Monsieur with Black Forest ham on challah (both $8.25). Hefty Belgian waffles ($7.50) drowning in seasonal fruit and maple syrup sell out quickly, so make sure to show up early.
Like 8:45. Course you could be the only one in line, but you're guaranteed to snag a table.
Daily 9 am to 3 pm. Closed holidays and long weekends (May through October). Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement.
E.L. Ruddy owner/chef Helena Kosikova
3. E.L. Ruddy
1371 Dundas W, at Rusholme, 647-351-0423.
Helena Kosikova intended to open a bookstore in the dilapidated Dundas West space she rented almost two years ago, but changed her mind halfway through the renovation.
Instead, she turned the rundown room into a hip 20-seat vegetarian lunch 'n' brunch spot with a shockingly inexpensive card that's often vegan and gluten-free. And so we get garlicky cream of tomato soup sweetened with yams and crushed cashews ($6) and multi-culti sandwiches like Vietnamese banh mi subs ($5) layered with marinated tofu, pickled daikon and fresh coriander on flaky house-baked whole wheat buns.
On the weekend, brunch kicks off with massive spelt Belgian waffles ($12) the size of oven mitts, garnished with real whipped cream, stewed strawberries and maple syrup. Slabs of garlicky tofu get paired with oven-baked refried black beans, roasted home fries and cornbread (Huevos Yelapa $11) and benefit from a generous splash of aggressive salsa.
Not only that, but the price of everything on the menu includes tax, fruit salad and a bottomless mug of I Deal fair trade coffee.
Who needs books anyway?
Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 7 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, some holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement.
4. Delica Kitchen
1440 Yonge, at St Clair, 416-546-5408, delicakitchen.ca.
Devin Connell's stylish uptown spot may be designed up the wazoo - slogans painted on the chic white walls shout cryptic things like "Seasoned with integrity" and "When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree" - but there's nothing vague about her no-nonsense card, little surprise when you learn the Cordon Bleu-trained chef's mother is Ace bakery founder Lynda Haynes.
As you'd expect, Mom's crusty rolls form the base of the Spicy Bird sandwich ($8.50), an ingenious take on Buffalo chicken wings reinterpreted as rosemary-roasted chicken breast dressed with Frank's Red Hot sauce, raw carrot threads and blue cheese aioli. Named for the Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness chili ($4.99 small/$13.50 litre) finds a minimum of beans and a maximum of melt-in-the-mouth brisket in a bittersweet sauce that references Mexican mole.
Desserts also impress, especially Connell's low-fat "superfood" muffins ($2.75) and not-so low-fat Oreo cookies ($1.30).
Monday to Friday 10 am to 7 pm, Saturday 9 am to 5 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement, counter seating.
Frankly's Rick Chander
1118 Queen E, at Caroline, 647-350-1611, franklyeatery.com.
If your idea of the ideal resto soundtrack consists of the complete canon of Morrissey and the Smiths with a smattering of glam-era T. Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music mixed in for good measure, have we got the joint for you.
Don't come expecting the predictable eggs Benny. Rather, make the trek to Leslieville for chef Alka Graham's weekend specials like puri flatbread piled with bacon, scrambled free-range eggs and garlicky roasted salsa ($11). Served on St. John's sourdough, chunky curried chicken salad in avocado mayo shows up dressed with celery slaw and walnuts ($9). Gobi parantha ($8.50, all with organ greens in honey balsamic vinaigrette) turns out to be thick whole wheat crepes stuffed with al dente cauliflower sided with East-meets-West sour cream raita.
Coffee ($1.95) is strong and eco-friendly, tap water doctored with lemon, and servers ably keep up with the crowd. The room might be small - only 18 seats - but the rewards are substantial. Frankly, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Lunch Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, holidays. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor.