Sadly, the restaurant industry is now a branch of showbiz. Where once a love of cooking was a key factor, to open a successful eatery today you only need a business plan, investors with very deep pockets and a team of highly paid publicists. How else to explain Cluck, Grunt & Low? And if all else fails, there’s always Restaurant Makeover!
Forget tapas. Rather than bigger prices for smaller plates you have to share, the year’s big resto trend had to be the locavore movement, whether it meant gorging on locally sourced organic arugula or vegan brunch at the café down the block. Here’s what made us salivate this year.
1 COWBELL, 1564 Queen West, at Sorauren, 416-849-1095
Lucien and Colborne Lane may have made a bigger splash in the style sheets (molecular gastronomy: what will they think of next?), but chef Mark Cutrara and partner Karin Culliton re-defined downtown dining. A smart setting far from the glitz of King West, unusually polished service and a creative menu crafted from indigenous ingredients have us longing for more Cowbell, please.
2 FOXLEY, 207 Ossington, at Dundas, 416-534-8520
No, Tom Thai’s west-side boîte doesn’t take reservations, and, yes, if you show up at 8 on a Friday night there’ll likely be a considerable wait for a table. But foxy Foxley’s definitely worth the hassle, if only for its sautéed frog legs à la poblano.
3 KARUCHIE, 924 College, at Dovercourt, 416-850-1729
It’s because of restaurants like this extremely casual supper club that real estate prices are skyrocketing on the west side. Who wouldn’t want to live just down the street from a smartly appointed bistro specializing in superbly executed comfort food?
4 MANYATA, 55 Avenue Road, at Yorkville, 416-935-0000
Has Greg Couillard ever been in better fighting form? Industry eyes rolled when the quixotic cook’s Spice Room in Hazelton Lanes was announced (his previous venture closed before it opened), but this adjunct café he operates with partner David Ng’Ang’a in the fashionable mall’s atrium could be his best and most accessible work so far.
5 FUZION, 580 Church, at Dundonald, 416-944-9888
Sure, Church Street ain’t what she used to be (who is?), but the recent influx of new money into Toronto’s queerest nabe means dining out is no longer synonymous with a cheap basket of chicken and a side of drag queen wrestling. An elegant room, attentive servers and former Oprah Winfrey personal chef Patrick Wiese’s confident contemporary card prove there’s life in the old girl yet.
6 JEAN’S VEGETARIAN KITCHEN, 1262 Danforth, at Greenwood, 416-778-1388
After retiring three times from the resto grind, Harry and Jean Seow return with this charming east-side eatery. Now strictly herbivorous, the couple’s latest reincarnation features an innovative take on Southeast Asian street food that’s as health-conscious as it is delicious.
7 CITIZEN, 730 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-465-0100
Call it Rosebud Lite. Rodney Bowers duplicates his winning supper club aesthetic in a rowdy room that only grows more animated as the night progresses.
Can’t handle the scene? Go at weekday lunch and have the joint to yourselves.
Photo By David Laurence
Nathalie Barin’s Le Bar à Soupe gives new credibility to the soup trend.
8 LE BAR A SOUPE, 164 Ossington, at Foxley, 416-533-9825
Before my rave review appeared in these pages, I apologized to Le Soupe’s Nathalie Barin for ruining her life. Prior to the write-up, the first-time restaurateur made spectacular soups from scratch as a lark, feeding a small group of locals who kept her remarkable broths a neighbourhood secret.
Now there are Soup Nazi-style lineups out the door from noon till dusk.
Really, we’re sorry.
9 PICNIC, 2411 Yonge, at Broadway, 416-487-8609
Oh, how I hoped to hate this high-concept cantina, if only for the headline Picnic No Picnic. But owner Jennifer Cardella’s surprisingly adept picnic-themed restaurant was a piece of cake. And though lobster corndogs on a stick missed the mark widely, any kitchen with the audacity to put them on the menu deserves applause.
10 CAFE 668, 885 Dundas West, at Claremont, 416-703-0668
While the vegan lineup is virtually the same as when NOW named this extra-ordinary hole in thewall best restaurant of 2002, its move several blocks west into much swanker digs this summer marked its entry into the big leagues. So much so that notorious Globe fusspot Joanne Kates not only recently wrote it up but – stop the presses! – liked it.
And the worst
To protect my personal safety I’ll refrain from discussing my most unpleasant restaurant experience of the year (let’s just say the Help Wanted sign on the diner’s door should have included the word “Psychiatric”), my worst meal of 2007 was taken at Wok N’Roll (3 Gerrard East, at Yonge, 416-260-8885).
The specialty of the house? All-you-can-eat deep-fried smelt!