Fine dining is over: How comfort food is keeping Toronto restaurants afloat
Comfort food is back in a big way, but the chicken sandwich revolution is forcing restaurants to rethink more than the menu
By Kelsey Adams
Feb 18, 2021
Ufficio’s vegan take on the chicken sandwich.
If you haven’t noticed, fried chicken sandwiches are having a moment.
We’re looking for culinary escapism, but not the kind that comes from intricately composed dishes that challenge our palates. We want crispy batter, fluffy buns, savoury sauces. We want that first bite to feel like a warm hug.
It’s understandable: the uncertainty of last year hasn’t dissipated as the months under lockdown have stretched on. If anything, that hunger has been exacerbated. We’re in a state of limbo with no definitive end in sight, fuelled by a stilted vaccine roll out, concern over new coronavirus strains and increasing animosity.
It’s no wonder we’re craving comfort.
Restaurants across the city are reacting to the increased demand for simple and familiar fare as they try to remain afloat in a year that has been acutely fraught for their businesses.
It’s not just fried chicken. Comfort food of all kinds is de rigueur. Even fine dining restaurants must amend and adapt their menus.
“People have enough change going on in their lives, what they’re looking for is a return to normalcy, something that they can expect,” said Craig Wong, chef and owner of Patois and Bar Mignonette.
In times of crisis, humans want what is warm and familiar. Following the 2008 recession, there was a boom in mac and cheese. All of a sudden, menus across the city had a variation of the cozy dish. Sometimes the only semblance of solace and stability in life is a steaming mouthful of pasta coated in four types of cheese.
Familiarity and affordability seem to be the most important measures in the way Torontonians are ordering food now. Budgets are tighter and, as Wong mentioned, we’re craving what once was. We’re living through a time where so much feels completely out of our control. It only makes sense we would want to indulge on food that brings joy. A serotonin boost from the first bite of a juicy burger feels like a tiny win against the doldrums.
People are giving themselves a break, seeking the instant gratification comfort food provides and feeling no shame about it. And restaurants are continuously adapting to what consumers want. On top of being comforting, dishes must now be delivery-friendly. But unlike the 2008 recession, the lockdown has restricted movement, causing destination restaurants to shift into neighbourhood spots, and fine dining to morph into something else – in some cases, for good.
Beyond chicken sandwiches
Toronto’s food scene revolves in cycles and crazes that rise and fall in popularity. Right now, the presence of fried chicken sandwiches or burgers on menus is one of survival.
Chef Adrian Forte believes these sandwiches are always “having a moment” but their spotlight is particularly pointed now because “[Toronto’s] a very copycat food scene where if one person sees something working for another person, they’re gonna copy it. Eventually, it just picks up traction and everyone does it.”
On a wider scale, fast food chains like Popeyes have had frenzies over their sandwiches. In 2019, their fried chicken sandwich became so popular it sold out across the United States and people were buying dozens to resell on the street. Once the sandwich hit Canadian locations in 2020, there was still substantial buzz around it.
Of course, everyone is putting their own spin on things.
Mi Taco Taqueria launched a side project called Bubba’s Crispy Fried Chicken in October. The Mexican restaurant with locations on Queen and Bloor is known mostly for tacos and burritos. But their decision to introduce a line of fried chicken sandwiches shows that this trend wont let up any time soon.
Ufficio, a pescatarian and plant-based Italian restaurant on Dundas West, added a vegan variation of the popular sandwich to the menu a few weeks ago. Co-owner Stacey Patterson says it’s been a hit so far and she had customers who ordered it three times in one week.
Then there’s the Nima Sandwich at Aunty Lucy’s. Forte is the chef consultant of the burger joint inside of the Annex Hotel that opened in June. He crafted the menu and trained the staff. With its battered chicken, garlic sauce and Scotch bonnet mango hot sauce, the Nima is a variation of a sandwich he made for a challenge on the last season of Top Chef Canada. It was one of his crowning moments.
The challenge was to create a dish that was grab and go, that could sit for a while and still be enjoyable, maintain its crunch and crispiness (exactly what all food needs to do now that restaurants are so reliant on delivery and takeout). It wasn’t originally on Aunty Lucy’s menu but was added when they realized the episode would be airing in August.
“I told Chieff [Bosompra, owner] it would be a good opportunity to promote the sandwich and bring more attention to Aunty Lucy’s. I made small modifications and said we had a sandwich fit for a king. Chieff named it Nima after the port city in Ghana, ‘the city of kings.’”
The power of delivery
Wong and Patterson echo the sentiment that patrons have reached their limit for fine dining and tasting menus. They realized at various points last year that the restaurant experience, the complex plating, the experimental flavours, doesn’t translate very well to delivery.
Bar Mignonette’s cold preparations of raw fish are a hit in the restaurant, but not what people are looking to eat at home. “We were doing food that was more avant-garde and dishes that made people think, and it was more of an expression of the types of training that we’ve had,” said Wong.
Now they’ve added things like a shrimp burger and a brisket sandwich to the menu. Wong even simplified the menu at Patois, the Caribbean-Chinese fusion restaurant, which was already pretty comfort food leaning. They’re selling lots of patties and Jamaican-style cottage pies.
They also implemented a new step in recipe testing: before adding something new to the menu, they put it into a to-go box, wrap it up and let it sit for 20 minutes. Then they go back to it and taste it again to measure its staying power.
“I have to do my due diligence and find out how the food is going to taste, not just when it’s at its peak but when somebody realistically would be eating it.”
At Ufficio, things were running as smoothly as can be expected, until the second lockdown in October. They were buoyed by the summer, the CafeTO sidewalk patio initiative and customers who supported as much as they could.
When things started to slow down, Patterson and her co-owner and life partner Jennifer Coburn figured that people didn’t want their restaurant food anymore. “They don’t want that unique experience. A lot of people started cooking at home and financially people didn’t want to spend the money.”
They adjusted the menu and added plant-based comfort food items like the vegan fried chicken sandwich and a vegan filet-o-fish sandwich. Patterson is doubling down and launching a whole line of vegan sandwiches through a ghost kitchen called Stefano’s.
She saw such a decline in requests for their normal dishes that she took many of them off the menu. A couple of weeks ago, she brought in branzino and they didn’t get any orders for it at all. But people are actively ordering simple hearty dishes like porcini agnolotti and spaghetti pomodoro.
Now Patterson is rethinking her entire business model, even post-pandemic. She plans to veer away from being a fine dining-adjacent restaurant and really hone in on reflecting the Little Portugal neighbourhood rather than being a destination restaurant.
“Our regular customers at Ufficio are typically older, affluent people and I think they definitely express the fear of going back into restaurants. I’m going to be adjusting to Dundas and Ossington and the millennials by making prices a little more affordable but maintaining the quality. But the perception of us being somewhat fine dining – I’m not going there again in this lifetime.”
Patterson doesn’t think she would have reached this place without the pressure of the pandemic. The experience has forced her to adjust her thinking about the future of hospitality.
Over near King West at Marben, Toronto’s preeminent farm-to-table restaurant, the owners notice interest in tasting menus. Mostly it was regulars who were celebrating anniversaries that they would usually celebrate at the restaurant, and they wanted a sliver of that same experience at home. However, the majority of orders are for their market grocery items and comfort food: burgers, mac and cheese and hot pies, a new menu item.
Having the dine-in menu as the takeout menu was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, says head chef Chris Locke.
“We do some dishes that just wouldn’t work for takeout, so we didn’t offer those on the delivery apps. But then it got to the point where we’re just like, ‘We’re not a dine-in restaurant anymore. Why are we trying to make a dine-in menu fit for takeout?’”
So they switched things up, added three kinds of hot pies, some hot desserts, sausage rolls and things that travel well. And it’s been working well for them so far.
Despite the challenges of relinquishing control of how dishes are presented, Locke is still optimistic about tasting menus and more refined dining making a comeback. Marben is launching a weekly tasting menu starting February 20. They plan on running it as long as there is demand.
All the chefs NOW interviewed agree that comfort food has been a boon for business, and this is just a snapshot of what a handful of chefs and restaurateurs are doing across the city.
Ghost kitchens & Instagram
Social media has made it possible for a number of ghost kitchens, pop-ups and food concepts to crop up over the past 10 months. Chefs, home cooks and food lovers who make one thing really well are selling meals through Instagram and online. Most are concentrated on the kinds of meals and menu items that give you that warm-hug feeling. Think pies, patties, pasta, soups and pizzas.
They often can’t keep up with the demand and most of the projects came to be very organically as reactions to pandemic life.
Following his stint as a semi-finalist on Top Chef Canada, Forte was overwhelmed with interest from young chefs of colour who sought mentorship and wanted to work with him. He brought them along to the private dinners he was hosting until the first lockdown began. Then he got innovative and dreamed up YAWD, a pop-up dedicated to Afro-Carribean comfort food with a French twist. In the same vein as pop-ups like Kuisinera or Sunny’s Chinese, it’s an ode to his culture and the food of his childhood – food that is comforting because of nostalgia.
“It was mostly Black chefs that wanted to work with me and when the pandemic hit I felt like I really needed to find a way to keep helping them develop their skills and grow. With the concept for YAWD, I didn’t care if I made money. I just wanted to showcase my style and give them a different perspective.” YAWD’s first pop-up at Mahjong Bar ended up selling out completely.
Adam Squires, a British chef based in Toronto who works for an Italian restaurant, was craving the proper meat pies of his youth. He wasn’t satisfied by the offering in Toronto and having learned the “tricks of the trade” from his grandmother, he started making his own during lockdown and posting them to his Instagram.
(That’s another thing: comfort food is different for everyone but it’s often the food we remember our grandmothers or a family elder preparing for us.)
Eventually people started asking if they could order them and Pies by Squires was born.
His hours were cut and he had more time off work, making it an opportune time to launch the fledgling business. He makes old school meat pies, using suet (the hard fat around the cow’s kidney) for its deep and rich flavour. He’s also big on using the whole animal and reducing waste. The showstopper is a bone marrow and short rib pie with braised beef, caramelized onions and carrots. Pies work because they travel fairly well, they reheat very easily and you don’t have to sacrifice texture or flavour. Fifteen minutes in the oven and done.
Squires is not alone, many restaurant workers are starting side projects. He and his girlfriend, who handles Instagram and marketing, plan to see how their new baby grows and adapt with it. Many similarly successful ventures like Phamily Eats, Lev Bakery and Sohmers Pizza work because they’re experimental and small-scale enough to be malleable.
“Restaurant people are extremely creative. They can’t just sit home and do nothing. It’ll be interesting to see which ones last post-pandemic. But, a lot of them are super passionate, you know, they’re making the food themselves,” said Squires.
It’s that personal touch that people love, knowing that someone shared a part of themselves, of their family history. The comfort is in the connection made through the food.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist born and raised in Toronto. Before covering food, life and culture for NOW Magazine, she wrote about music, art and film for several publications, including the Globe and Mail, The FADER, Complex CA and Canadian Art.