LOBBY (192 Bloor West, at Avenue Road, 416-929-7169) If the velvet rope out front isn't enough to turn you off, the champagne 'n' charlie crowd inside chowing down on inept grub like foie-gras-topped macaroni will surely do the trick. Somewhere, P.T. Barnum laughs in his grave.
CAPTAIN JOHN'S (1 Queens Quay West, at Yonge, 416-363-6062) In my constant quest to go where no restaurant critic has gone before, I ventured into this quaint, nautically themed tourist trap expecting the worst. And got it -- musty frozen seafood prepared by a kitchen staff who appear to be indentured to the ship's galley, all the while watched over by servers so uninterested in customers that they read books. It's a wonder the barely live lobsters in the joint's murky tanks don't make a break for the lake.
LICHEE GARDEN (480 University, at Dundas West, 416-322-8898) For every Susur there are a thousand Lichee Gardens. Chinese cuisine at this MSG-saturated mausoleum time-locked in the 50s means sweet 'n' sour bo-bo balls with fried rice, egg roll and fortune cookie. Beautiful room, expensive, dreadful food.
ANGELINI'S (504 Jarvis, at Cawthra Square, 416-922-5811) After living downtown for over 30 years, I have never seen a single soul enter or exit this once-grandiose Victorian. Now that I've dined there, I know why. For culinary anthropologists only.
OLIVIA'S (53 Clinton, at College, 416-533-3989) I was unable to fathom my own dislike for this gloomy boïte until, while trying to find the basement loo, I stumbled into a laundry room and found behind a curtain a quintuple platinum CD of Alannah Myles's greatest hits. Think Dorian Gray and his portrait in the attic.
The 2003 Toronto restaurant scene was all about names -- a celebrity chef's triumphant return, an exciting crew of upstart cooks just beginning to make their mark, and an anonymous Harbord address that doesn't even bother with the formality. And although superficial supper clubs grabbed the mainstream media's attention, NOW ventured far from the eaten path.
1 CLAFOUTI (915 Queen West, at Strachan, 416-603-1935) The popularity of this postcard-perfect Parisian patisserie is proven every morning by the lineups waiting for owners' Boris Dosne's and brother Olivier Jensen-Reynaud's awesome still-warm-from-the-oven croissants. Add swoonsome sandwiches, chic salads and the house's namesake ethereal berry tarts and it's no riddle why this tiny storefront is always swamped.
2 LIVE (258 Dupont, at Spadina, 416-515-2002) Live's effervescent self-taught chef, Jennifer Italiano, insists on doing it raw. Everything she creates -- vegan pizzas, napoleon-like lasagna, drool-worthy desserts -- is made entirely from uncooked seeds, nuts and sprouts. Sounds flaky until the first intensified flavours explode on the tongue. Eating healthy has never tasted this good. Watch for a move downtown to a facility bigger than the current four-seat space next spring.
3 JAMIE KENNEDY WINE BAR (9 Church, at Front, 416-362-5586) Rumours of the stellar chef's retirement after the closing of JK ROM last spring were greatly exaggerated. He's back -- "But I never went away!" -- at this ultra-hot bistro that cleverly combines tapas-style bistro fare with small-pour wine sampling. Though its casual lunch-counter set-up makes the perfect setting for a quick lunch, a detailed dinner or a bite after the show, just try snagging a no-reserve table at feeding-frenzy prime time.
4 CHIPPY'S (893 Queen West, at Gore Vale, 416-866-7474) Poor Bellwoods. First, quiet Clafouti opens in the nabe and turns into a zoo, then Chippy's a few doors down -- Toronto's first upmarket fish 'n' chips shop -- follows shortly afterwards and becomes another instant mob scene. The reason? Fresh, daily-delivered fish, twice-cooked hand-cut fries and marvellous mushy peas with curried gravy. And as predicted here, Chippy's is soon to expand to Vancouver and Montreal.
5 EDWARD LEVESQUE's KITCHEN (1290 Queen East, at Hastings, 416-465-3600) They don't come any quirkier than this offbeat east-side eatery: first-rate spoon-style breakfasts and lunches all day, an often dazzling dinner card that takes comfort food to new heights and a bustling brunch that can include the Rosedale set, artsy types and all-girl hockey teams. If only they were all this good.
6 EL JACALITO (1500 Royal York, at Lawrence, 416-244-4447) Deep in Etobicoke, this subterranean Mexican cantina throws the wildest party in town every Saturday night. First, chef Luz Adriana Romero whips up an authentic way-south-of-the-border spread, then she leads a dance troupe and mariachi band through a spectacularly entertaining floor show. The only cheese here is on the enchiladas.
7 EAT (1321 Dundas West, at Dovercourt, 416-537-3000) If this lovely west-side café can be faulted, it's because it's too damned ambitious. Lesser spots should be so lucky. Industrious first-time restaurateur and chef Anila Dhanji admits she's still finding her feet, but her astounding minimally topped ultra-thin-crust pizza rivals Marcello's and Terroni's as Toronto's best pie. And at seven bucks a pop, only a fool would carp.
8 OMI (451 Church, at Maitland, 416-920-8991) I have never understood Toronto's mania for sushi, especially since we're hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water. But this comfortable-as-an-old-sweater boïte warrants the obsession. Witness excellent seafood, the expert knife-wielding of chef John Lee and a soundtrack of vintage 50s jazz and soulful pop.
9 93 HARBORD (93 Harbord, at Robert, 416-922-5914) The restaurant with no name, this charming, upscale Middle Eastern eatery teams chef Isam Kaisi's contemporary spin on a classic cuisine with partner Charlotte Dowd's smooth professionalism out front. Watch for lunch and brunch in the new year.
10 NIAGARA STREET CAFÉ (169 Niagara, at Wellington West, 416-703-4222) Niagara has the recipe for restaurant success. The savvy kitchen creates a mostly organic menu based on local produce, then serves it unpretentiously in a retro-decorated space in a far-from-fashionable neighbourhood to a wide-ranging clientele that arrives on rides ranging from BMWs to bikes. Simple, really.