As much as we weren’t hoping for it, 2021 continues to be quite the roller coaster ride for the food scene in Toronto.
As in 2020, we saw how much businesses had to adapt to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Transitioning to takeout only when indoor dining was banned, finding patio space when outdoor dining was permitted again and having a system to check proof of COVID-19 vaccinations were just some of the many adjustments they’ve had to make. And now, with restrictions on indoor dining coming back, questions about what’s to come for these restaurants remain.
We’ve seen some Toronto favourites close down this year too. For instance, I Deal Coffee in Kensington closed after 20 years. Cocina de Doña Julia closed after opening in 2006.
At the same time, we’ve also seen the community come together to support local restaurants. The DineTO program launched in September to encourage people to support food spots in the city. City council also voted this year for CaféTO to become permanent. Online businesses launched brick-and-mortar spots in Toronto with the support of their loyal customers.
The dialogue on food justice continues, with food insecurity still on the rise, and with local organizations taking the initiative in resolving the crisis. Food program leaders like Paul Taylor have also been active on encouraging the public to call their MPs for long-term food insecurity resolutions.
Here are five defining moments that changed Toronto’s food scene this year.
1. Comfort food had a moment
Thanks to TikTok and being cooped up indoors for almost half the year, people wanted more comfort food. Korean rice dogs had a moment in the early half of 2021, with Chung Chun and its offshoots opening all over the city. Mac and cheese and fried chicken sandwiches were the go-to items to order, especially at places like Patois, Ufficio and Aunty Lucy’s. Certain condiments, like Japanese kewpie mayo, became even more popular this year thanks to the Tik Tok ramen hack.
2. Indoor dining came back
It’s been up and down with indoor dining this year. With Ontario having one of the longest lockdowns in the world, it took until July for the government to allow indoor dining with up to 25 per cent capacity. By September they made it mandatory to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to use indoor dining spaces, which caused some tension among the public and food business owners. The government lifted capacity limits in October but then reinstated them as of December 19. Restaurants and other food venues are now required to limit capacity to 50 per cent and must close by 11 pm.
3. At-home food businesses became more popular
In January, Ontario relaxed its rules around home-based food businesses. Since then we’ve seen a lot these businesses make a mark in Toronto’s food scene. Becca Pereira created Spice Girl Eats and used her family’s handwritten recipes. SuLee makes and packages customizable kimchi at home and delivers it to people across the city We’ve also seen a lot of at-home food businesses turn into brick-and-mortar spots in the city. Little Sister Baking, for example, opened up a spot at Market 707 this September. Madras Kaapi started out as an online coffee store before opening up a cafe at College and Concord this month.
4. More people grew food from home
A study by Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University and Angus Reid reported that home gardening increased among Canadians during the pandemic’s early stages. Experts suggest that this most likely increased this year, with exponential sales in garden seeds for certain foods. We’ve also seen farmers in the GTA, like the Toronto Black Farmers, host workshops and information sessions on growing food at home this harvest season.
5. Food insecurity became more prevalent
We wrote about this last year, too, but it has to be mentioned again. Food insecurity is increasing in the city at unprecedented rates, with local food banks reporting almost 50 per cent more people using their services within the last year. These studies also report that it’s Black households who are more prone to being food insecure. We’ve seen local organizations like CaterToronto and Community Fridges Toronto help tackle the crisis in whatever way they can. Executive director of FoodShareTO Paul Taylor has also been vocal about doing more than short-term solutions to combat this crisis. Food insecurity is an intersectional issue that involves dismantling anti-Black racism, he says. We’ll have more in-depth reporting on this in 2022.