Has it really been nine years? As I begin my 10th as NOW's esteemed restaurant critic (cough), let's look back at the significant shifts in Toronto's dining scene since I began chronicling it.
No more pretensions
When I first grabbed the resto reins back in 97, NOW covered many of the same restaurants as the dailies. Sure, it's fun to imagine hobbing with the nobs at over-the-top gastro circuses like Centro, North 44 and Canoe, but how many readers of an alternative weekly can afford to eat in those palaces of conspicuous consumption?
Fine dining in Toronto meant stuffy hotels dishing up the likes of beef Wellington and baked Alaska to stiff-shirted swells. Now that food is a subject for serious debate the world over, even tourists avoid hotel dining rooms.
In their place, neighbourhood eateries serving indigenous and often organic produce are what discerning globetrotting foodies and locals alike demand - intimate, unpretentious spots like La Palette (256 Augusta, at College, 416-929-4900) and Edward Levesque's Kitchen (1290 Queen East, at Hastings, 416-465-3600).
Street food moves up
Until NOW began regularly scouring the most culinarily diverse city on the planet for its unknown bounty, so-called "ethnic" eateries got little attention. When we first introduced Toronto to Jumbo Empanadas (245 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-977-0056), owner-chef Irene Morales was selling her terrific Chilean turnovers from a cart on the sidewalk. Today, her Kensington Market cantina gets written up in international travel guides.
We discovered husband-and-wife team Luz Adriana and Antonio Romero dishing up authentic Mexico City-style street food from an electric frying pan and card table in a Latin American mall. Now their Saturday-night buffet and floor show at El Jacalito (1500 Royal York, at Lawrence, 416-244-4447) is one of the tastiest parties in town, an eye-opening trip south of several borders that costs little more than the price of a return-trip cab ride to Etobicoke.
At the same time that expense-account eating gave way to moderately priced bistros, previously proletarian street food moved upmarket, most notably with upscale fish 'n' chips at Chippy's (893 Queen West, at Gore Vale, 416-866-7474, and others) and Mission-style Mexicana at Burrito Boyz (120 Peter, at Richmond West, 416-593-9191, and others).
Need more proof? Watch for the imminent arrival of Frankz , a Yonge Street take-away featuring highfalutin frankfuters that will more than likely be humorously described elsewhere as haute dogs.
Another trend we applaud is the on-going reinvention of Toronto's historic greasy spoons and diners. Spearheaded by the Peter Pan (373 Queen West, at Peter, 416-593-0917) back in the 70s, this culinary crusade continues with the rebirth of the Swan (892 Queen West, at Crawford, 416-532-0452), Okay Okay (1128 Queen East, at Bertmount, 416-461-2988), Freshwood Grill (293 Roncesvalles, at Westminster, 416-537-1882) and a slew of other east- and west-side luncheonettes.
Music to our ears
This meditation reads like my usual unmitigated self-congratulatory tittle-tattle. If there's one critical accomplishment I can claim as my greatest, it's the banishment of those damned Gipsy Kings from Toronto restaurant airwaves.
So ubiquitous was their upbeat ethno-muzak in restos in the 90s, it was nigh impossible to chow down on so much as a bamboo shoot without the accompaniment of Bambaleo! Next on my hit list: all pricey imported Buddha Bar comps.
Strapping on NOW's feedbag some 30 pounds ago, I was reminded by my erudite editrix to include in my reviews a mention of the room's wheelchair accessibility. When I attempted to familiarize myself with the guidelines defining accessibility, I learned that, except for a few bylaws that only affect new construction, there are none. After discussions with advocacy groups, we came up with a new non-stigmatized system - we'd let all readers know exactly what to expect.
One woman explained, "If I want to give my business to a restaurant that I've read is wheelchair-accessible, I have to book a ride there and back with Wheel-Trans or an outfitted cab. Then I find out that this so-called accessible eatery has a very steep ramp at the door and the washrooms are unequipped to handle someone who uses a chair.
Or I find out that a spot deemed unaccessible has only a slight step out front. So don't dictate where I can or cannot go - just tell me what obstacle may be in my way, and I'll decide how to handle it."
And who, regardless of mobility, wouldn't have second thoughts about frequenting an establishment where there are 37 steps at the door and no public washrooms?
Learn the specials, puh-leeze
If I owned a restaurant - fat chance! - all the servers would have to show up 15 minutes before their shifts to familiarize themselves with the specials. If they couldn't remember the lengthy list of ingredients, they'd have to write them down on the back of their hands. I'd insist they always mention the prices; few do. And I'd make sure that whoever answers the phone has the knowledge required to do so. Case in point: "I only work Thursdays" is never the correct response to "When are you open?"
Would it be too much to ask for another down-home, Southern U.S.-style soul food restaurant like the long-gone Underground Railroad?
Shouldn't the second-largest Italian-speaking metropolis in the world have at least one authentic old-school Sicilian trat?
Where are our authentic regional Mexican eateries? Mexican food is as varied as Chinese, but our best Mexican restos El Sol (1448 Danforth, at Parkmount, 416-405-8074), Dos Amigos (1201 Bathurst, at Bridgman, 416-534-2528) have a very narrow focus. are there none because, after making it across one border illegally, no one wants to chance a second?
And why do 99 per cent of the restaurants in the GTA think a Caesar salad consists of outer knife-cut leaves of romaine doused with fake bacon bits, store-bought croutons, bottled ranch dressing and a shake of Kraft processed Parmesan, never mind the anchovies?
But if there's one thing I've acquired since taking on NOW's eat beat, it's an appreciation of parsley. Who knew that the green twig acts as a breath freshener and a digestive and isn't just some antiquated garnish left over from the 50s?